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Reader Weekly Column, July 2011

The last several years have been a dismaying time for most Duluth citizens because of the Duluth School’s implementation of the $300 million school rebuilding plan, aka, the Red Plan. Meaningful discussion was crushed, and despite 75% of Duluth being opposed to the Red Plan, the school board moved forward. The school board got what they wanted, taxes are raised, money is being spent. Surely, the worst must be over.

Maybe things weren’t so bad: a year ago the Duluth News Tribune, was fawning over how great it was that the Red Plan was $30 million under budget. Every month on the school board Superintendent assured us that the project was coming in on budget and that the Red Plan “remains within the overall budget district-wide.” And the school board appeared to be trying to improve their ways. The handcuffing of the public last year appeared to be the nadir of the board, and we had no where to go but up.

We hired a new Superintendent starting last week; and that hiring process and the positive way the board got along and involved the community was welcome. Lots of talk was aired about the school board and the school administration becoming transparent and how they were mending their ways and trying to mend the tears in our city. But the citizens have been duped again.

As the 4th District school board member, I got a meeting notice from the school administration on Saturday, June 25 which stated that a special board meeting was going to be held in two days on Monday at 4:30pm to discuss the Red Plan update. No resolutions or any information was attached; and it was assumed that this would be nothing more than the last goodbyes for outgoing Superintendent Dixon. But things got suspicious when the media told me they had heard that big money was going to be spent. And those suspensions were confirmed when I got there and the room was filled with suits from Johnson Controls and the Chamber of Commerce.

In reply to my questions about what this meeting was about, Chairperson Judy Seliga Punyko said she knew nothing about any resolutions. But after an hour of Superintendent Dixon patting himself and Johnson Controls on the back and saying how great every thing was, a preprinted resolution materialized out of nowhere and was handed out and the board was told to vote on approving a $15.2 million increase in the Red Plan. A motion by Member Glass and myself to postpone the resolution until the new Superintendent started next week was rejected by the Board. An amendment to put this $15 million increase up to a vote by the citizens was defeated by a 5–2 vote with the majority stating, “it would be too confusing to the public.” They didn’t state that if there had ever been a referendum on the Red Plan in the first place, they would not have been able to raise the cost by $15 million with the stroke of a pen.

But what was this $15 million for? Shouldn’t the public or at least the board be told what it was for before they voted on it? Apparently the 5-2 majority of the board doesn't want to know, nor anyone else to know. They passed these $15 million Red Plan increases without even ONE of them asking ONE question what any of the money was for. But the two person minority did a data request, and in the partial reply from the administration two days after the resolution passed, raised more questions than were answered. Here are some of the bigger items that we know so far:

  • Congdon elementary (not yet started) was increased in scope by $4.9 million or by 53% over the original $9.2 budget. There are no details about what this is other than another hockey facility the board added at the last minute.
  • Grant elementary (not yet started) was increased in scope by $4.6 million or by 31% over the original $14.6 budget. No details about what any of this is for.
  • When the above two preliminary plans were approved earlier this year, the board was assured that there were no increases in the original budget.
  • Other significant increases were a $3.1 million increase in “site supervision” on what’s been constructed so far. This is 60% over the original budget. East HS alone was $0.7 million over or 180% over the original construction manager budget.
  • No explanations have been forthcoming yet on why the board and the public weren’t informed about this ahead of time, what these increases really are for, nor who is responsible for the increases. It makes on wonder how many more increases there will be before the Red Plan is completed in two years.

In a sad comparison, only 6 days before passing this $15.4 million increase, the school board terminated 34 teachers due to a $6 million budget shortfall.

Unfortunately, the Duluth school board is still a rogue board that thumbs its nose at its citizens and doesn’t even pretend to follow the rules that governs its actions, like advance notice for meeting and information given out prior to decision making, and spending tax money. Make no mistake about it: the 5-person board majority is about schools [buildings], all right; but it is not about students, nor is it about teachers, nor is it about education.

Art Johnston

4th District School Board member

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