By Harry Welty
Published August 22, 2003
Caving in to the Voters
I got home after the ten o'clock news so I had no idea how our School Board
meeting was covered. My buddy called this morning and told me that WDIO
reported that the School Board had "caved in," to the Save Our School
Committee and was about to offer an excess levy. No one should be surprised.
The simple fact is that politicians cave in to voters in the same way that
television caves in to its viewer's demands for low class programming.
It remains to be seen whether the Denfeld led SOS group reflects the
sentiment of Duluth voters. Two years ago western Duluth crushed an excess
levy referendum. Of course, that was before anybody suggested closing
Denfeld High School.
As the Denfelders gathered to save their high school they confronted the
same question that has confounded the School Board. Which, if any, high
school should close? The tender hearted Denfelders couldn't bring themselves
to terminate any other high school, especially after they invited Central
and East High supporters into their ranks.
I'm skeptical about the prospects for an excess levy but I'm willing to let
our schools step off the executioner's scaffolding for a few months. I'll
trust the decision to the voters even if that means caving in. If a levy
doesn't pass I'll put the black hood back on.
Here are the pertinent facts about excess levies in Duluth.
1st. The Duluth School Board has no power to raise taxes any higher. Only
the voters can approve an "excess levy." This kind of referendum
be confused with a bond referendum to build new buildings. No bond
referendum will be offered. The one high school proposal is dead.
2nd. Duluth is in a small minority of Minnesota school district's that don't
currently have excess levies. The voters in 85 percent of Minnesota school
districts have authorized levies for their schools.
3rd. Duluth's crisis, if that's what it is, has nothing to do with our
educational success. Our student test scores are in the top 12 percent of
Minnesota school districts and Minnesota's students are among the best in
4th. Bob Mars says we have room for 17,500 kids in our remaining schools but
we only have 11,050 students in them. If we have a crisis this is it. Of
course, closing schools, which makes excellent economic sense, would
jeopardize some neighborhoods and property values. What to do? Well, we
could sell the CAB and fill up the empty schools with our administration.
The historic preservation of Old Central costs several hundred thousand
dollars every year. As much needed housing the CAB would add to our tax
rolls rather than deplete them.
5th. The Duluth Schools are not in debt. We have a ten percent reserve of
about ten million dollars. We have had deficits (less revenue than
expenses). We've taken care of every deficit by cutting expenses.
Here is a brief history of excess levies in Duluth.
In 1989 I lobbied the School Board to offer an excess levy to keep
Washington Junior High open. The District's finance Director explained to me
that if a levy passed there were no guarantees about how the money would be
spent. Levies would go into the general fund and might not be spent on
Washington. That would depend on the School Board and, since School Board's
change with every election, the new Board might not feel obligated to honor
the promises of an old school board. In any case that Board didn't want to
waste a levy on an old junior high.
In 1993 the District was spiraling into a 5 million dollar debt (not
deficit). A levy was offered to raise 15 million dollars over five years.
The entire School Board and most candidates promised to use the levy to pay
off the debt and build up a $10 million reserve. The state sweetened the pot
by matching each locally raised dollar with three dollars from the state. It
passed. Today, ten years and five school board elections later, we still
have that ten million dollar reserve fund. It generates half-a-million
dollars in annual interest which goes into the classroom and helps us avoid
In 1997, having paid off the debt with the first levy, the School Board
offered a second excess levy. This time the Board promised to use it to hire
elementary specialists, purchase computers, set money aside for Public
School Stadium and buy books for our long neglected libraries. The state
offered two dollars for every dollar raised locally. It passed with flying
colors and, as with the first levy, the money was spent as promised.
In 2001 the District began wrestling with building closings. Two thousand
angry people told us that year that they did not want us to close five
elementary schools. Unfortunately, the District didn't present a coherent
plan for a levy and the World Trade Towers were bombed. The levy bombed too
despite the state's willingness to match more state money.
Now its 2003 and it's not clear whether Duluth's voters want buildings
closed or not. It would take approximately 5 million to keep our schools and
their programs open. If Duluth voters approved levying 2.7 million dollars
the state would match it with 2.2 million dollars.
Will the voters go for a smaller match? Will the Board's ten year's worth of
kept promises cut any mustard with the voters? Has the Board caved in to the
voters? Stay tuned.
Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: