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


The drama queen of local politics, our public school district, has been in the news quite a lot lately. Time to take a look at what’s really been going on.

School Board organizational meeting, 1/2/18

Duluth’s school board met in the boardroom on the second day of the new year, to elect its slate of officers to lead a troubled district out of a fiscal tailspin. Shades of the past again resonated in the room as the one non-DFL-endorsed Board member left, Alanna Oswald, was passed over for every position.

David Kirby won a repeat performance as Chair of the Board. Nominating herself for the position, Alanna Oswald said: “It’s not that I believe Chair Kirby is not competent in any sense. I believe he has been a fine Chair, and if he wins the vote, he will be again.” However, member Oswald reasoned: “As a senior member on the Board now, with two years of experience under my belt, I believe I should have some sort of leadership role. I think I’ve earned it. I think I have a lot of respect and have gained a lot of trust with our community. If I don’t win Chair, maybe I’ll win one of the other positions. I believe I’m competent enough to fill any role that I’m asked.”

Too bad she wasn’t asked. Member Oswald nominated herself for every position and lost every vote. She lost 6-1 for Chair against David Kirby. She lost 6-1 for Vice-Chair, against Rosie Loeffler-Kemp. She lost 6-1 for Clerk against Nora Sandstad. She lost 4-3 for Board Treasurer, against newly elected and self-proclaimed “Servant Leader,” Josh Gorham.

Déjà vu, all over again. A supposedly non-partisan local elected office has for years been tainted to the core with political cronyism.

As further evidence: Member O. was also passed over as Chair of every Standing Committee. David Kirby (who was on the DFL candidate nominating committee during the last election,) handed out these political prizes to the three Board newbies: Gorham is HR Chair; Lofald is Education Chair and the person who was nearly invisible in the boardroom prior to the election — Sally Trnka — is the new Business Committee Chair.

My confidence with the situation in the boardroom of ISD 709 at the moment is about on par with being deep underground in a mine that feels increasingly unsafe. Rather than hiring some experienced engineers to look the situation over, the company’s owner instead keeps sending down a bunch of his/her buddies who’ve never stepped foot in a mine shaft before.

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, who nominated Josh Gorham for Board Treasurer, explained her “reasoning” this way: “I would like to have a new Board member serve in the leadership team, and I think, particularly as Treasurer, we should have--kind of new eyes on the books--sort of speak.”

Board member Oswald, extolling her qualifications for being the Board’s Treasurer, said: “I know I am already budget-minded and budget-conscious. I want to make sure we’re spending every dollar appropriately, so we can build trust with our public that we’re spending their tax money wisely…”
Board member Gorham said: “I think coming in as a new Board member certainly there are a number of things I need to learn and school finance is complicated, and I acknowledge that I do have a lot to learn…”
New eyes on the books? L-K’s “reasoning” would only be sound if those eyes had some clue what they were looking at.

Throughout the last election, the DFL-endorsed candidates claimed repeatedly that they could “promote” their way out of the mess. The Board was forced to cut $1.5 million from operations last December, to keep the budget from slipping into statutory operating debt status. By June, the Board will have to get out the cutting axe again, to adjust to a $4 million deficit now projected for fiscal ‘19. Last December, Board member Harala accused Board member Welty of being flippant when he described the cuts the Board was making at the time as relatively “easy,” compared to the cuts the new Board was going to have to make.

Harala might flip out, now. A school district, barely able to hold its own in the educational marketplace, will be forced to cut about $5.5 million out of its operational budget within a six-month span. How many support posts can be removed before we experience structural failure?
It’s getting kind of spooky, down in this mine! Slabs of rock keep breaking off in dusty, pebbly avalanches, all around us. Walls are trembling; load-bearing rafters keep creaking…

The biggest danger: the deficit

Someone recently theorized to me that the district was purposely touting its $4 million deficit. She speculated that district leaders were engaging in a long-standing, tried-and-true tactic of painting themselves and the suffering children as victims, in an effort to guilt passage of another levy referendum from the public.

I responded that the strategy ran the risk of cutting two ways. The school district has hit Duluth’s taxpayers with a $20 million levy increase in a dozen years (most of it non-voter approved.) The public may look at the deficit and the blown $30 million reserve fund and the general mess the district is still in, and conclude: “You’ve screwed us over enough!”

Even if the taxpayers cough up more money through a levy referendum this fall, I think we will still hear a deep rumble in the earth at some point. Our public school district is a very rickety labyrinth and the risk of collapse will remain very high. Completely eliminating the danger would require the good-hearted citizens of Duluth to pony up so much money a significant number of them would have to forfeit their overtaxed our homes and start living under Hwy 35’s can of worms.

Besides a large deficit and a depleted reserve and millions of dollars of Red Plan debt still scheduled to be drawn annually from the general fund, a few other weak links are built into the organization’s fragile supporting structure. Four years worth of teachers’ contracts are already signed, jumping expenses for the teachers’ bargaining unit, alone, by $1.5 million a year in the out years. The district’s maintenance fund, already woefully under-funded, was recently raided by the Board to remodel a school building initially listed as “excess” under the Red Plan and to replace rubber mulch on playgrounds. $18 million in repairs are needed for Old Central high school. Those repairs are largely now being deferred and growing more expensive.

Looking at the whole situation with a critical eye actually makes me wonder if plunging straight into statutory debt might not be so bad. There are some upsides. First of all, denial would finally vanish and the entire leadership of the city would have to deal more directly with reality. Secondly, the MDE presiding at Board meetings would allow citizens to ask some public questions. No one has been held responsible for this mess, but I believe the State bears a lot of responsibility.

About a year and a half back, I had a long phone conversation with Bill Kiesow, a high-ranking official in the MDE’s school finance department. (Board members Oswald and Johnston met with this official a few weeks later and were told many of the same things.) While we were speaking, Mr. K. brought up the claimed “energy savings” of the Red Plan, without any prompting from me. He said claims like that were virtually unverifiable. He said Johnson Controls, the company that hustled Duluth, had “started out East, in places like Ohio, with these energy-saving projects, and have been working their way West, across the country.”

I replied that it should have been obvious to anyone that these claims were at the minimum exaggerated, and asked how in the world the project could have gotten a favorable review from his department. “Normally everyone — 99% — gets a favorable review,” he said, adding, “because it’s educationally advisable to build new school buildings.”

He didn’t explain how it was educationally advisable to pull money out education under the ruse of unverifiable “savings,” or how it was economically advisable to accept $122 million of projected, alleged “savings” without contractual guarantees, or how it could be sound fiscal reasoning for a school district to base a financing scheme on millions of dollars of hard-to-move properties.

Mr. Kiesow blamed the State legislature for what happened: “In this case (under the desegregation clause — subdivision 6 — of MS 126C.40) we (the MDE) didn’t have much choice about it. All your legislation comes from your legislators. They opened the door; it was a wide-open door.” He claimed the legislation had since been tightened up; that the statute exploited by Johnson Controls had “been changed now, so the Commissioner can have more control.”

The helpful Mr. Kiesow further suggested I contact the Dept. of Commerce and ask his fellow bureaucrats to do an energy audit. “Then you could check to see if they’ve lived up to what was supposed to be delivered under the performance clause in the contract,” he added encouragingly.

“That’d be great,” I replied, “if the foolish Board of Education in Duluth had done its job and insisted on some performance clauses in contract. But it didn’t! There’s nothing in contract! Not only that, but the Board let this slick corporation keep its fingerprints off all the calculations, so there’s absolutely nothing to hold them liable at all! Not only are Duluth taxpayers getting taken by this scam; but ISD 709 is pulling millions out of education, and will be for another 16 years! Can you tell me this is good government?!”

Mr. Kiesow did not try to argue that it was.
After branding those of us trying to deal with reality in the last election as “doomsday trumpeters,” the News Tribune recently wrote: “school properties remain unsold…the lack of cash from their sales only exacerbating the district’s bottom line…there’s little reason for optimism that public schools enrollment in Duluth will be turned around anytime soon. Some things just won’t change.”

If you do the same thing, you’re going to get the same thing you got. During the election, the paper enthusiastically endorsed all the happy-talk candidates who were jabbering on about social determinants and bowls of soup--the same power clique that’s been running the show for several years.
During my candidate interview, I tried to convince the paper’s editorial staff to join with an effort to make the State step up and take responsibility for its failures. The Red Plan was a COLLOSAL collapse of every check and balance in the system and someone, besides local taxpayers, should be forced to pick up some of the pieces.

 The PR blitz will be big-time

The district has contracted with “Morris Leatherman”--a marketing firm that will, as one Board member put it, “help us tailor our levy questions.” Morris Leatherman is the new name of “Decision Resources,” the company responsible for the infamous Red Plan survey which, in effect, supplanted our vote.

That survey was embedded with several statements purposefully intended to sway opinion, including this doozey: “The cost of each proposal would range between $257 million dollars and $271 million dollars, but due to savings and sales of unused property, half of that total is already paid for.”

In the Review & Comment document submitted to the State, Mr. Dixon and his corporate cronies declared: “Residents support the Duluth Public Schools issuing bonds for the facilities plan, if the District uses the plan’s cost savings and property sales revenue to reduce the total cost to the taxpayer.”

In other words, Duluth residents supported funding for the Red Plan if half of the project’s total price really was “already paid for.”
The claim that the Red Plan was going to be half free to Duluth’s citizens was (mix and match, to your liking):

(1) a harebrained fantasy,

(2) a nonsensical bunch of baloney,

(3) a misrepresentation of fact,

(4) a corporate scam,

(5) a blatant lie.

Taxpayers are currently on the hook for $20,000 to Morris Leatherman, so the company can use its marketing savvy to convince them to pay more.

Some other recent district news of note

A school district that doesn’t need bad press recently received severe criticism--even on a national level — for cutting some books out of its curriculum. Right off the top, I want to say that if I were African-American, I would hate any writing with the n-word in it. I think the NAACP was correct with its argument that many teachers are not trained to handle the cultural issues around any use of that word. But I also hate censorship. All of my conflicts with our Board of Education have revolved around expressive conduct and free speech protected by the First Amendment. After the Red Plan Swimming Pool Stampede ran over our sacred right to vote, free speech became my RED Line.

Samuel Clemens (aka, Mark Twain) was a brilliant humorist and a great humanitarian. The lessons his literature impart are always delivered with subtle artistry. The possibility that Huckleberry Finn, considered by many to be the Great American Novel, might not even make it into print today I find very disturbing.

The Board did manage to garner kudos from much of the city recently for moving the majority of comp-ed money (80%) back to the western schools that are eligible for it. Like most other citizens, I cheered the move. Member Sandstad, who introduced the resolution, deserves credit. Member Oswald, who has fought long and hard for equity, deserves more credit. The discrepancy between comp-ed eligibility and the actual money being allocated to western schools was revealed through Member O’s fight to gain access to the budgets of individual schools. During discussion of the resolution, she promised to “encourage and pursue and push the Board” to direct 100% of comp-ed money to the schools eligible for it.

Boxing Alanna Oswald out of a Board leadership role was a travesty

The comp-ed issue further revealed the nature of boardroom politics. Administration and the Board’s majority members stonewalled any actual follow-through on moving the money until one of their inside players won the seat in the western district.

Comp-ed will not be the panacea some people are making it out to be. Three schools will see a jump of $300,000 - $400,000, but two others will garner an increase of only $150,000 or so. Denfeld High will gain about $100,000. That figure would require another zero to truly address the need that exists.

Adjusting to the fallout, as money drains from eastern schools, will also be a big challenge for a district coping with a multi-million dollar deficit.
The final news item I want to note was contained in an email sent to my computer from a Board member: “Mike Cary, Curriculum Director, is officially leaving July 1 to be Superintendent in Cloquet. Amy Starzecki, Assistant Superintendent, is leaving July 1 also, to be Superior’s new Superintendent.” Smart people know when to exit! The Board member described these two administrators as ISD 709’s “shining stars,” which they are. These two people leaving will be another hard loss for a school district that has made so many poor decisions for so long the whole edifice is at risk of collapsing into statutory operating debt status.

You know the situation is dire when even the Pollyanna Press (aka, the News Tribune) starts publicly lamenting that any change for the better has begun to feel like a lost hope.