Budgeteer column Sat. May 10, 2008Chamber President David Ross wrote a column for the May 4 issue of the Duluth Budgeteer explaining that the Red Plan is inevitable and telling its critics to shut up.
Here is my reply to eight of his most dubious statements.1. “The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and its board of directors support Independent School District 709’s Long Range Facilities Plan.”
It would be interesting to survey the entire Chamber of Commerce membership, but supporters of the Red Plan don’t seem very eager to know what the larger community really thinks about it.
2. “Duluth public schools have 28 percent too much space and are facing declining enrollment.”
Why should the district borrow $293 million dollars to eliminate 28 percent too much space?
3. “Residents will see a $125 million tax impact.”
These are the facts.
The district told the State Dept of Education that it will cost $437 million (since revised to $407 million) to pay for the Red Plan. The county auditor is currently levying 46 percent of this cost against taxpayers in the Duluth School District. Fifty-four percent of the Red Plan’s costs have yet to be levied.
Duluth Schools Superintendent Keith Dixon is promising that they won’t be levied now or ever over the 20 years it will take to pay off the Red Plan. Dixon claims that the money to pay for the new schools will come out of school operations — the classroom — over the next 20 years.
On that subject:
• There will be nine school board elections between now and the final payment on the Red Plan. Dixon cannot make promises for future school boards. This school board may follow him blindly, but future boards are unlikely to honor such a foolish promise.
• The cuts already being discussed by this school board for next year are so draconian that they can give no thinking person confidence in the Dixon board.
• Removing $5.3 million dollars (Dixon’s figures) or $11 million (my calculations for the other 54 percent of the plan) from school operations each year for 20 years to pay for the Red Plan will leave our new schools with impoverished programs and over-crowded classrooms.
• Behind the appeal to pass a fall levy is an implied threat: “If you don’t pass the operational levy this fall, we will make terrible classroom cuts and it will be the voters’ fault.”
4. “There is no time better than today to begin the work at hand. Interest rates are low ...”
Because of an insatiable world demand for building materials we will be buying them at a greatly inflated cost. Besides, buying something unnecessary because interest rates are low is as stupid as buying something you don’t need because it’s on sale.
5. “Investing in our schools is a long-overdue initiative.”
This is a myth. In 1989 a public outcry about the dilapidated state of Duluth’s schools prompted the school board to begin a “Ten Year Plan” that poured $2 million annually into school maintenance. Duluth has invested $30 million dollars in our schools over the last 15 years.
6. “The average age of our school buildings is 54 years.”
Most Duluthians live in homes that are older than this. They are not tearing them down and rebuilding them because interest rates are low.
7. “If the cost to bring an old school up to standards is more than 60 percent of the cost of a new school, state standards require school districts to build a new school in order to receive funds for construction.”
This is the legal justification for letting the school board build new schools even though they are not needed. Legal, yes. Sensible, no.
8. “I hope we, as a community, can come to fully understand and respect how the decision to move forward with the plan is no longer open to debate.”
To paraphrase Ross: “I hope the people of Duluth will stop pointing out what a bone-headed plan the Chamber has been promoting.”
Harry Welty is a former Duluth School Board member and a leader in Let Duluth Vote