The debate about selling the Central high school campus to Edison touched a nerve in Duluth. I’ve fielded a number of questions about the school board’s decision not to suspend Board policy banning a sale of district property to an educational competitor. How did the Board once again end up looking like the old Soviet politburo, issuing a decree that reflected the party much more than the public?
The majority members who cast the “no” vote are good citizens. They would undoubtedly object to my characterization of their decision. From their elevated position in the boardroom, they appeared convinced of the superiority of their judgment. They clearly believed they’d given the matter careful consideration, weighed all the evidence from every angle and determined selling Central to Edison was not in the school district’s best long-term interest. And why should anyone doubt them? The same power group has been dead-on accurate in its assessment of risk/benefit for many years, as the track record proves.
During the 3/31/16 Board meeting, all four majority Board members repeated the same basic argument in regard to their decision not to suspend policy. I’ll quote David Kirby: “I would vote against the resolution that is before us. These policies were originally put in place in response to community concerns over issues similar to those being debated now: the long term impact on ISD 709 of selling facilities to non-public schools…Edison is not going away. I realize that. It’s going to be built; a high school is going to be built. And while some parents find the Edison schools, parochial schools and private schools preferable to ISD 709 and send their children to them, this is their choice, it’s their right. And I wish them well!”
But…only so well.
Member Kirby continued. “But we, as a school board, do not have any obligation to assist them. Our obligation is to provide ISD 709’s students with the best educational programming, staff and facilities that we can and to the best of our ability ensure that it can continue. Placing a charter school at the site of Central will most likely draw students away from the central and western parts of Duluth, disproportionately affecting Denfeld. Duluth has had extensive discussions on the pros and cons of having three high schools, and due the financial costs, and the need of enough students to provide adequate programming at its high schools, the decision was made to have two high schools. This didn’t come without problems, but having a third, non-public high school would just exacerbate those problems. The short-term financial windfall of this offer to the district does not, in my opinion, justify the longer-term financial and other problems that would be incurred.” 

Point, counterpoint.

First, it is important to point out that Mr. Kirby’s claim (twice made) that Edison Charter is a “non-public” school simply is not accurate. During the debate, I told some of Edison’s representatives there is a silver lining to any community dustup: if citizens are so inclined, they can sift through all the hyperbolic “facts” being tossed about, separate chaff from substance, and actually learn something. They can put urban myths to bed.
Officially named “Duluth Public Schools Academy,” Edison is a public school. Like many other Duluthians, I’d been carrying around the misconception that the organization was a for-profit venture. The school currently contracts with a profit-seeking company called Edison Learning for business services like payroll, but intends to discontinue that relationship by the end of the fiscal year. I was surprised to learn, as I nosed about in this arena, that the company that leases property to Edison--Tischer Creek Building Company--is also nonprofit. I’d always assumed the leasing company had to be a for-profit, private venture.
It isn’t true that Edison would be a “third, non-public high school.” The organization is structured a bit differently than traditional public schools and is not unionized, but it is a free, public school.
I also initially thought the loss of students to Edison would “disproportionately” affect Denfeld. The number of graduates from Edison’s last eighth grade class currently attending ISD 709 schools is actually tilted a bit east--45 at East High and 35 at Denfeld--so the draw of Edison’s students out of ISD 709 shouldn’t be weighted towards the western school. There are, however, also going to be some students drawn into Edison’s high school that are not from their own K-8 system. Based on last year’s figures, about eighty additional students a year (for four years) could be drawn into the charter organization’s new high school from all area educational venues.
Because the Red Plan’s promise of “equitable education across the city” has failed, Denfeld has been left struggling with a more challenging educational environment than East. More non-Edison students may yet be drawn out of Denfeld than East High, only time will tell.
The bottom line is that the draw is going to remain the same if Edison (as it now appears) builds at the Snowflake location, just off of Rice Lake Road. Edison’s capacity goals (at least for the foreseeable future) are going to remain exactly the same regardless of location. The charter school is refreshingly conservative when it comes to planning, especially when compared to the clumsy, drunken-bear movements of its much bigger neighbor. Edison’s decision-makers are leery of growth harming what they are offering in their classrooms. The proof of their commitment to this point is that they plan to build a high school and take four years to fill it.
Compare and contrast this plan to the destructive, mass student herding exercises of the Red Plan.
I think the fear expressed by member Kirby and his three majority Board DFL allies was very revealing. I think, deep down, there was a real fear (shared with district Administration) that Edison would thrive on the Central campus and clearly prove what a foolish path the citizens of Duluth have been led down. After pouring $109 million (upfront cost, not counting bond interest) into East and Denfeld high schools, it was evident that ISD 709’s power brokers were very worried a well-run organization on the Central campus would take off like a red-hot tech company.
Edison is run well. For the past several years, the school has received the Minnesota Dept. of Education Finance Award--for timely submission of financial data, accurate financial reporting and fiscal good health.
It’s not hard to see why the big ISD 709 bear was trembling like a frightened little puppy. I understand the logic the majority Board members applied to the long-term risk of this deal, but the risk they’re now running is much greater. The district has been unable to stop the bleeding of students. How is that trend going to be reversed, when the organization is broke, and cutting operations? District officials are doing their best to keep the cuts from hurting what they offer, but some cuts--like paring down the zero hour that begins the high school day--are going to be very unpopular.
Majority Board members downplayed the benefit of pouring $14.2 million into district schools as a “short-term financial windfall,” yet seemed to assign no risk to letting the school system slip further into a noncompetitive status. Further, their contention that selling Central to Edison would greatly increase the long-term risk is debatable. Administration has been unequivocal with its warnings that more fiscal issues are lurking for ISD 709, either way.
“We know that there are more deficits in the future.” Superintendent Gronseth declared during the March Board meeting, a declaration member Johnston did not take well.
“I really have to question, Mr. Superintendent: more deficits? As if that’s a fact of life?!”
The district is on track to lose another 115 students or so this year. Add to that the additional loss now coming from Edison’s new school (minimally a total of 100 students a year--possibly as high as 140 or more--for four years running) and the district’s enrollment could drop to near 7000 or so within five years.
ISD 709’s official enrollment number on 6/30/05, the day before Keith Dixon took over, was 10,893.
The Red Plan was supposed to stabilize enrollment between 8998 and 9329, but the current number (8227) is off by more than a 1000 from that estimate’s ceiling, and still dropping. If this downward spiral is not somehow soon slowed, stopped and reversed, ISD 709 is in danger of slipping into statutory operating debt, which officially means a negative net unreserved general fund balance which exceeds 2.5% of unreserved operating expenditures. Unofficially, it means: not good.
The Board majority members keep pointing at things like the new Spanish immersion program about to be added to the curriculum as the way to turn the boat around. I share their enthusiasm for language immersion. It is a terrific educational concept, but the Spanish program starts next year with three sections of twenty-five. It won’t be fully implemented until 2022, with an estimated 400 students.
How do you say “that dog won’t hunt” in Spanish?
And we had a bird in hand.

One of the Board’s dissenters (or, conversely, one of three Board advocates for the sale to Edison), Harry Welty, said it is going to be very difficult to face the public if the Board finds itself unable to sell Central soon, or sells it for less than $14.2 million. By rights the taxpayers were owed this one. In a fair world, this generous offer would have been accepted and put towards Red Plan debt payment, as was promised. The taxpayers were told they would get $26 million of tax relief from the sale of these properties.
Examine what was promised and delivered on just two properties: Lincoln Park and Morgan Park. The MDE Red Plan Review & Comment document states: “the disposition proceeds from selling the Morgan Park and Lincoln Park properties are estimated to be $500,000 and $610,000 respectively. These proceeds, along with the disposition proceeds from the sale of all Red Plan surplus properties, will be used in the funding mechanism of the plan.” 500,000 + 610,000 = $1,110,000. The two properties were actually sold for only 9% of what the taxpayers were promised: $100,001.
We haven’t come close to the asking price on any other property and we had an offer exceeding the asking price on Central in our hand. Even if we do miraculously get a similar offer somewhere down the road, we’re likely now looking at taking on more expenses, possibly demolishing perfectly good buildings. The developer that had a purchase agreement in hand for $4 million less than Edison’s offer last year turned it down because of the “extraordinary” development costs. The estimate to tear down and haul a perfectly good high school off to a landfill is $1.2 million, and there are two more brand new buildings on the campus.
Once you’ve made a long series of mistakes, you’re generally not left with a lot of good options. We should have taken the money we had in our hand and (sorry, fellow taxpayers!) put it into the district’s classrooms to get competitive and stop the bleeding enrollment.
Longtime Red Plan Board enforcer, Judy Seliga-Punkyo, came out of retirement to lobby against selling to Edison. She described it as “really fun” to be back. She painted the district as a victim of circumstance, and said falling enrollment numbers are solely attributable to changed demographics, or “more people having less kids.”
Anyone who believes ISD 709’s plummeting enrollment numbers are unrelated to the disruption and fiscal damage done by the casino-gamble-gone-bad called the Red Plan are probably also strong adherents to Judy S.-P.’s full theory of General Improbability: the enrollment numbers in the public schools are plummeting due to more Duluth citizens having less kids, and this drop in the city’s reproductive rate has been traced to a factual discovery that citizens have become so gratified from watching school board meetings, they’ve stopped having sex.
It really was fun to have Judy back!
The undervalued value of dissent.

I don’t share the same jaded attitude towards politicians that the majority of my fellow citizens seem to harbor these days. I think most people get into politics because they sincerely think they can do good, but I do worry whenever I see people of a common stripe take over, unfettered.
School Board Chair Annie Harala has been using the words “open” and “public” a lot in the boardroom lately, claiming that the school board has entered a “new season of transparency.” Not quite. A few baby steps have been taken towards spring, but it’s still far from full summer in the boardroom. The agenda setting sessions are still held behind closed doors. The Clerk and Chair, the only Board members allowed to attend, still have hidden, exclusive conversations with Administration.
Behind-the-scenes collusion occurred between some majority Board members and the teachers’ union during the Edison episode. Board Clerk Loeffler-Kemp actively enlisted the union to come in and lobby the Board. A number of citizens expressed themselves for three minutes during the allotted time, but in reality the whole exercise was pro-forma. On 3/31/16, everything was decided before Board members even walked into the room.
The people currently controlling the boardroom are nice; in fact, they have the nicest dispositions I’ve seen in a decade. They don’t cover their faces when you speak; they don’t roll their eyes. They’re so nice they don’t even chop citizens off mid-sentence when their three minutes are up! They also deserve credit for figuring something out that their predecessors (Miernicki, Seliga-Punkyo, et al.) never figured out: it doesn’t hurt to let people talk ‘till doomsday, as long as you’ve got the votes when doomsday comes. If you’re a citizen planning a trip to the boardroom though, don’t get out your shorts. The Chair’s season of transparency I would describe as late winter, not quite spring, with a pretty chilly lake wind yet.
Life is much more pleasant for the rulers if nobody argues, but dissent has real value in governance. Dissent forces the controlling majority to fully vet its ideas and opinions, before forming and implementing policy. Accountability is often more effectively applied by the naysayers than the cheerleaders.
Let’s have a big, rousing Red Plan cheer: You rah, rah, robbed!
The reason the school board found itself estranged from the public again is because the DFL majority traces its lineage back to another power clique of citizens who also asserted superior judgment. A decade ago this elitist group elbowed everyone else out and took over the castle called Old Central. They plotted back room deals with one of the world’s biggest corporate plunderers, then marched off on a long and risky journey without garnering any outside support. They made one bad turn after another, refusing to listen to any other directions, until their descendents eventually ended up wandering around out in badlands, surrounded only by a few straggling allies and friends, and not a single good path left.
I think there may be a cautionary tale in there somewhere.