Reality Rides into the Sunset

by Loren Martell

Central Hillside. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Central Hillside. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

Tonight, the Long Ranger made his last stand. Then he climbed back onto his magnificent white steed, reared up, and rode off into history. 
School Board meeting, 12/19/17

This meeting started with the district’s ironically-titled, annual “Truth-In-Taxation” presentation, and I’ll just cut to the bottom line. Administration recommended, and the Board approved, the maximum levy increase again this year. Without this tax hike, we would have all seen a significant tax decrease. The actual decrease on the average Duluth home now, however, will be barely noticeable (.4%). 

After the presentation, board member Harala expressed concern that taxpayers got any break at all. She queried the district’s CFO, Doug Hasler: “A lot of our minds right now are on our current budget (mess) and our ability to levy. And I’m seeing a decrease (on the average home,) which surprises me. So: are we levying to the max of our capability? I just want to make sure — in past years we’ve been conservative and gone less — and I just want to make sure that we are levying (and hitting the taxpayers) with the full breadth of our authority.” 

I can’t remember the Board ever being conservative in all the years I’ve been going into the boardroom, many more than Annie Harala. Every September the Board has approved the maximum levy the State has allowed it to tax. Every time there has been a public assurance that, just because the levying authority has been approved at max, the Board would not necessarily certify the full levy amount in December. For as long as I’ve been watching, I can’t recall the Board ever failing to levy to the max every December. Any deviation from that pattern had to be very tiny, otherwise it would have stuck in my memory. The people of this town paid a tax bill of $11,940,373 to the district in fiscal year 2005, the year before Keith Dixon’s arrival; the district’s tax levy is now $31,697,856--a $20 million increase in a dozen years. 

Given the district’s fiscal mess, more Board members are going to be looking to use the full breadth of their authority in the near future. The tax escalator ride is not over, Duluth. More is definitely going to be added onto that $20 million. 
Thanked, by some people

Three school board members reached the end of their tenure this evening: the Lone Ranger, aka: Art Johnston, Harry Welty and Annie Harala. Mr. Johnston and Mr. Welty loss their bids for reelection; Annie Harala, part of the DFL Club that currently dominates Duluth, simply turned down another stint on her throne. 

Three members of the public stepped up to the podium to thank these three board members for their time and work. The fact that there was no cross-over in these “thank yous” was very indicative of the deep division in our city. 
Americans, in general, have notoriously short attention spans. Many in Duluth have probably already forgotten former Board member, Ann Wasson. Ms. Wasson signed the original Red Plan contract and was one of Keith Dixon’s most loyal disciples. On the night Mr. D. announced his retirement, she admiringly described him as “an unselfish leader.” Pushing the limits of Orwellian logic, she further said: “The district flourished under your guidance. You have resolved unsettled issues in our district that have worn us out for years.” 

As with all her comrades--the enterprising Red Planners--Wasson has never, and likely never will, admit any mistakes. 
From the podium, one of our past rulers, someone who greatly contributed to ISD 709’s current mess, said: “I’d like to thank the incoming Board members for taking on the role of a public school advocate. We appreciate you all, already (and are confident you will keep up the great tradition of our wise and prudent decision-making.) I hope you will advocate for all the children in our district and let our leaders lead (in other words, that you will follow like puppies on the heels of the Superintendent and do whatever he says, just like we did with Dixon.) A special ‘thank you’ to member Harala for her time, effort and commitment. You have been a strong, reasonable voice (especially when you wasted an entire year trying to toss that rascal, Johnston, off this Board,) and a prepared and caring Board member. Many of us (parked righteously on one side of the deep divide we created in this community) hope we will see you again on this Board one day.” 

Two citizens — Marcia Stromgren and Barb Welcome — stepped up to the podium to thank the caring Board members from the other side of that divide. 
Ms. Stromgren said: “As I drove down the hill to come to this meeting tonight, I went past Nettleton (Elementary school,) which is closed and all boarded up, and I thought about some of the failed promises the Red Plan brought to our district…In one year I got a terrible increase in my business taxes — 333% — for the Red Plan, and so I started coming in here about 9½ years ago. But I didn’t come here to rehash all of that. I came to thank two special people: Harry Welty and Art Johnston, for all their hard work as they tried and tried to help people understand what was really going on, here…Now they’re going to leave, and so their voices will no longer be heard. Too bad for the school district; sorry to see you go. I appreciate your hard work. I appreciate that Art Johnston had to go through a lawsuit. I thought that was terribly uncivilized. And now he gets to pay off all the indebtedness it cost him. I wish him and Harry well…” 

Barb Walcome said: “I’m here tonight to give a huge ‘thank you,’ too, to Harry Welty and Art Johnston for all they’ve done for this district, for supporting us taxpaying citizens, and trying to get the truth out. I thank you for your support for equity for all students across the district. Some of the new members that will be seated have promised that they want equity. I certainly hope that they really meant that, and it’s going to happen. The News Tribune recently published two articles about the financial straits the district is in…One fact that was never mentioned was the $3.3 million payment on Red Plan debt that was transferred from the General Fund--which funds all the staff, the teachers and programs. It (that money) is taken out every year; that’s the way the Red Plan was set up…Since 2010, $37.6 million has been transferred from the General Fund to pay off Red Plan debt, and these transfers will continue until 2033...” Mrs. Walcome looked up at the Board and asked them to explore other options to pay off the huge RED boondoggle, then again thanked Board members Welty and Johnston “for their excellent work. I know it’s been tough, and I appreciate you very much.” 

A number of other citizens also spoke from the podium. Members of the teachers’ union stood before the Board, wearing cardboard placards demanding “Truth, Integrity, Honesty” and “LAYOFFS and Classroom Cuts Are On YOUR Backs NOT ours.” They were expressing hostility towards administration’s request that every district employee take two days leave of absence without pay over the next semester to try to alleviate the deficit that has threatened to tip our public school system into statutory operating debt status. 

The paraprofessional union also showed up in force (a big group of them all stepping up to the podium together, carrying signs demanding Dignity, Respect, Justice.) They were protesting the fact that they still haven’t been able to settle a contract with a school district struggling to stay out of statutory operating debt status.

ISD 709 is a perpetual drama palace. I may pick up a sign and protest the place myself, yet. 

Skipping on, to Business 

Education Committee Chair Loeffler-Kemp laced her report with as much happy talk and as many “thank yous” as ever, but her report and the HR Committee consisted of mostly just informational items and general housework. The real meat of the meeting, as is so often the case, came when we finally reached the Business Committee Report. I am going to give the Lone Ranger some room to have his say, which I think is only fair after the eight years he’s endured. 

District administration came to this meeting with a list of items it had put on the chopping block, in an attempt to save a passel of money and stave off statutory operating debt status by year’s end. 

Subtracting two accounting “adjustments” left a list of 20 items, totaling $1,590,500 worth of cuts from operations. The remaining red ink is $409,500, which the district intends to carry into fiscal year 2019. “We’re unsure what the deficit will be for ‘19,” the Superintendent told the room, “but this number will be added to it.” 

Long-standing friction between the DFL-endorsed majority and the Board’s minority members flared from time to time during the discussion of the district’s fiscal mire, especially between the members whose tenure goes back four years or more. 
At one point, Board member Welty made a short speech, imparting a few words of caution to the new members who will be seated next month. The point of his speech was that the list of cuts being considered this evening was “easy” in one sense, because it managed to skirt the hardest of all cuts to make: layoffs. 

“Something I want to give a heads-up to, to the new Board members. I think that you should all start researching statutory operating debt. I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but I do know I was (first) elected in 1996, right after the school board fell into statutory operating debt…” Welty went on to describe a “crisis,” and that they had a “tough-minded new Superintendent, who made lots of cuts.” In regard to the current crisis, he observed that “one of the things that strikes me about this $1.6 million worth of cuts, is that these are pretty easy cuts--so far, we’re not talking about axing teachers. These are easy cuts and we (the current Board) is getting to make these cuts. I’m not sure that the new school board in the coming year is going to have a chance to make quite so many easy cuts as we’re making this evening.”

Member Harala clearly took umbrage at the suggestion that what this Board was looking at are “pretty easy cuts. They appear to be cuts that would be easy,” she continued, “but I wouldn’t say that, when we’ve heard from our maintenance they have a lot on their schedules…” (Two of the suggested “cuts” included putting the hiring of a plumber and electrician on hold.) Harala, becoming more visibly upset, continued her dress-down of the genial Mr. Welty: “We’re asking people to do less with less.” (Assumingly she meant ‘more,’ or ‘the same’ with less, but you never know, when Harala gets going.) Huffing with rising indignity, she went on: “And when we hear library budgets are going to be less, it means less books, less other pieces. When we talk — ” Voice getting louder, more emphatic, “about each of these line items, nothing is EASY about changing these things!” Sternly, like a school marm giving a good scolding to a class cutup, Harala made sure member Welty got the message: “SO I wouldn’t be FLIPPANT about making these decisions!!” 

She added that she was handing all this mess off “to a future Board that I care about (six of which are members of the DFL-endorsed Insider Club, just like me) and that our community loudly spoke (with a 28% voter turnout) to support, moving forward, to lead our community. To say — ” Harala continued, fumbling about in a long, convoluted sentence, “I thank you for your service and want to see that these — that these decisions — can be made, I know they’re not going to take these easily! So — ” Glaring now, she rustled the paper the operational cuts were listed on, her voice sharp — four years of strife clearly risen to the surface, “nothing is FLIPPANT about that, member Welty!!!”

I thought Mr. Welty made a very legitimate point, but I’m probably just being flippant. 
During the discussion, the Lone Ranger listed several issues he believed contributed to the current fiscal crisis. While Mr. Johnston spoke, Board member Harala acted quite flippantly — (some might argue rudely,) herself. Sporting a dismissive smirk, she kept making distracting comments off the record to others around her, clearly annoyed all the while Mr. Johnston spoke. On the record, she snidely referred to his “monthly speech.” 

Ignoring her, member Johnston asked: “When (district) enrollment is up for the first time in many, many years, why do we have a crisis, now?” He said Edison Charter school and special ed are “being wrongly blamed.” He pointed instead to the “poor advice given by administration in the way we pay our long-term debts.” He again reminded his colleagues and the audience that “this year we paid $3,330,000 on long-term debt with General Fund money.” He referred to a citizen who had spoken earlier, from the podium. “As Barb Walcome said, since 2010 we have taken nearly $38 million from the General Fund. This is wrong, unconscionable. This is gross negligence by administration.”

While Harala smirked, the inimitable Lone Ranger pounded out the truth she’s denied for four years: “We could have sold the Central property for $14.2 million, but administration said, ‘No.’ We haven’t been able to sell the most valuable property in this city. We are short over $20 million in promised property sales…We have also not reduced our energy consumption, which administration promised us would reduce our expenses by nearly $1 million a year.”

Indefatigable, on his last night, the Lone Ranger even took on the DFL’s “big elephant in the room”: the budget-busting union contracts. He made it clear he wasn’t anti-union, but pointed out that “the average teacher salary in Duluth in 2016-17 was $62,892, the highest in greater Minnesota. The cost (for the teacher contracts) for this year will increase $600,000, then next year it will be $900,000, then there will be two years of increases of $1.4 million. Teacher benefits in Duluth are about $25,000 per employee, with about $15,000 of that for health.”

He informed the room that he’d been told by a spokesperson from the Minnesota School Boards Association that “Duluth has maybe the highest health benefits in the State,” adding that “when we passed the teachers’ contract for the next four years, it would have been nice to have been told what the General Fund balance would be. We should have known and prepared for this during contract negotiations.” 

Member Loeffler-Kemp, an intense union activist, hunched down close to her microphone as she always does when she speaks, and her loud voice filled the room with her objections: “I do take note about the comments that were made about what we provide our staff. I am PROUD that we are a district that backs healthcare benefits for our staff. I am PROUD that we are a district that supports paying our teachers well…” 

I wish I had enough space to go into all the concerns member Johnston raised concerning the district’s just-completed 2017 audit. He challenged administration’s assertion that one of the primary reasons for the sudden depletion of the reserve fund was due to enrollment falling lower than projected: “Wrong. Last year our enrollment was larger than anticipated and budgeted for. Look at the WADM projections.” He declared the whole mess added up to “gross negligence and dereliction of duty by administration.” 

Meanwhile, administration fidgeted — getting up, walking around, leaning together against a counter that spans a wall where they normally sit. They reacted civilly, only making a few whispered, mildly-jocular comments. But I could feel them stressing and counting the minutes, just getting through this one last meeting — one more late-night pounding with reality from that deep, grating bass voice. 

I could feel them all hanging on until next month, when the meetings will finally become much shorter and the boardroom will fill to overflowing with Rosie Loeffler-Kemp’s union-made brand of happy talk.