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Clever corporation runs School Board's big decisions

BY Harry Welty   
October 21, 2007

For 20 years, we've lost students, closed schools and struggled with budgets in Duluth. Until Supt. Keith Dixon's arrival, talk of a "long range plan" meant adapting our schools to our decreasing population. It was not about tearing half our schools down and rebuilding them. The Sept. 19 article "Activists make case for voting," about the Sept. 18 School Board meeting, rested ominously above the grim story ("Lake Superior District seeks bump in levy") about the tax revolt in Two Harbors that has cost 25 teaching jobs. It was a preview of Duluth's future with one critical difference: Voters in Two Harbors voted for an extravagant building bond before voting against the excess levy that crippled their district. Duluth taxpayers will be revolting even more. In addition to their sticker shock, they'll be furious that the building decision was taken out of their hands.

The Duluth School Board's newfound power to skip bond referenda, newfound by Johnson Controls, has already caused 2,700 Duluth voters to sign a petition demanding their voting rights. The board showed no more sympathy for these petitioners than Sheriff Jim Clark showed marchers for African American voting rights when he violently confronted them in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

Three of the four school board members who voted to skip the bond referendum have not served on the board long enough to pass an excess levy for classroom expenses. Excess levies aren't an easy sell. Duluth has passed three, but the fourth, in 2001, was defeated, leaving a two-year hole in the budget.

Furthermore, this board has guaranteed something that can't be guaranteed: that most of the savings these new buildings are supposed to yield will be used to keep taxes down. But the failure of next year's excess levy will cost our classrooms $5 million a year. Will future school boards feel any obligation to honor this promise when they can simply take the $3.5 million in property tax savings and put it back into the schools? I wouldn't count on it, and if they do this, it would double the taxes.

That's not the only sham. Johnson Controls has back-loaded the taxes so that voters can only see how big they are next year. What's being concealed are the red plan's unusually high 5.5 percent annual tax increases. In its last year, red plan taxes will cost us three times more than in its first year. We're being treated like that frog in a cooking pot that is slowly heated until it boils.

Johnson Controls has massaged the red plan from the beginning. They found the loopholes that stripped us of our vote. They offered us a choice of a quarter-billion-dollar plan versus a quarter-billion-dollar plan versus a quarter-billion-(plus twenty million)-dollar plan. They will manage the project and, I predict, squeeze profits out of any sub-contractor who takes part " not to save money for the School District, but to line their own pockets.

Years ago, board member George Balach groused that Barton Mallow, our last corporate project manager, was costing us millions to oversee a district-wide building program. He insisted that we could have hired our own temporary project management staff at a fraction of the cost, whose allegiance would have been to the district rather than corporate bean counters. Certainly, no employee of the district would have made up a survey as JCI did, to make it look like Duluth's voters didn't want to have a say about a $293 million tax hike.

It's no wonder that JCI doesn't want an election debate. People might ask why Dixon's years in Faribault ended in disaster. They might wonder why the red plan is designed to make Duluth more segregated. They might ask why senior high students should trade buildings with junior high students. They might ask why the new high school will be stuck between increasingly congested traffic corridors with barely enough parking spaces for the staff, let alone a student body swollen with half of Central High's enrollment.

You might wonder a whole lot of things, but you won't see this debate because your right to vote is being purloined by a clever corporation and our naively pliant School Board.

Why is the vote being denied you? According to Chamber of Commerce President David Ross in the Sept. 19 article, it's so "the disciplined process that was set into place" won't be derailed by an election.

Ah, discipline and expediency. They both remind me of the autocrat who made the Italian trains run on time. What is democracy compared to clockwork? Harry Welty is a candidate for the Duluth School Board. He previously served on the board from 1995 to 1999 and again from 2000 to 2004.

All content 2007- Duluth News Tribune (MN) and may not be republished without permission.