Red Plan Chronicles
Part 5 Wai Lee's Story
Last fall I called
school board members to get the measure
of Keith Dixon. Two of them warned me that I should “watch my back” when
dealing with him. It was suggested that I talk to Dr. Dixon’s first school
board critic, since retired, Wai Lee.
Dr. Keith Dixon was hired by the Faribault School Board in
1995 to pass a school building referendum. Like every other school district in
the state (other than
had to get voter approval for a building project and the charismatic
was just the man for the job.
promised that the new schools would be “state of the art” and voters OK’d
the $38 million plan. There were problems.
An audit of the building project discovered that $900,000
had gone missing. The story was downplayed by
’s good friend, the editor of the local newspaper. A state building inspector,
Richard Olson, followed up rumors that the walls of one of the new buildings had
been constructed without steel rebar. An x-ray examination proved the rumor true
The project never set aside money for furnishing the
buildings and after their completion money had to be found elsewhere in the
District’s budget. The
fell into Statutory Operating Debt. The project’s fallout put the voters in a
sour mood and they defeated two excess levies in a row to bail out the district.
They were defeated despite Dr. Dixon’s warning that there would be massive
program cuts without the levies. Unlike
, all this was happening in a District which was getting increasing state aid
because its student population was growing. As programming withered so too did
student test scores.
Through it all Dr. Dixon’s School Board remained
had done what they wanted and they were all in the same boat. Most things that
Dr. Dixon asked for were granted unanimously. In addition to their support and
the newspaper’s support Dr. Dixon had very loyal subordinates. Many of them
were given hefty salary increases. For instance, the Curriculum Director’s
salary jumped from $54,000 to $98,000. But even such insulation can not last
The Superintendent’s first critic on the Board, Wai Lee
was elected in 1999. She won her office with the biggest vote count in
history. Lee knew a thing or two about finance having gotten an advanced degree
in her native
. Although she did not campaign against
she told me that she was running because many of her friends were
teachers who were unhappy that
was being jerked from crisis to crisis. Lee intended to start asking tough
questions. About all Lee could manage, however, was to become a pain in the
neck. The other six board members
always sided with
and information was rarely forthcoming.
In the 1980’s, before joining the Board, Lee had
been asked to mentor a dozen Cambodian girls who were refugees from the
Vietnam War. She volunteered without compensation for years until a county
extension agent suggested she request a $3,000 stipend for her self-funded work.
The request would have to be signed by her school supervisor who also happened
to be Dr. Dixon’s new wife, Sarah Dixon.
Lee was about to get the shock of her life when Dr. Dixon
told her “I have something to show you.” He handed her the forms for the
stipend and told Lee that Sarah Dixon’s signature had been forged. Lee
considered this to be an act of intimidation and an attempt to frighten her into
silence. Rather than backing down Lee insisted that the state conduct an
investigation to clear her name which, she told me, led to her complete
Lee was suffering from high blood pressure when her term
ended in 2004. She would not run for reelection but that was the year when the
Superintendent would become the top issue. All sorts of stories were circulating
about him, like the story that had him conning the City Council into financing a
youth center. When the councilors asked what had been done with the city’s
grandly told them that a school cafeteria was the new youth center. The
councilors were so mortified they decided not to make a stink about it for fear
of looking foolish.
Leaders of the business community were concerned about the
and conducted a survey. The Superintendent earned an approval rating of only 34
percent. All three of the candidates who campaigned to retire
were elected including the building inspector who had reported the unreinforced
walls. A majority of the Board now wanted
made it clear he wouldn’t go unless his contract was bought out. Three
years times a hundredtwenty thousand salary proved too rich for the Board.
Their hands were tied.
But then the frustrated School Board got some promising
news. A school district up north was looking for a new superintendent. Their
last Super had foolishly removed a hockey coach from his duties.
More Red Plan
Chronicles in two week. Meanwhile, anyone wishing to insure a public vote on a
new building plan can visit: letduluthvote.com or call: 390-7768