Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published October 17, 2002

Boiling a Frog

A school board member's rant 10-15-2002

First they closed Birchwood but I did not speak out because my children did not attend Birchwood. Then they closed Grant but I did not speak out because my children did not attend Grant. Then they closed Chester Park but again I did not speak out because my children did not attend Chester Park . Then they closed my childrenís elementary school and there was no one left to speak up for us.

Twenty months ago 2,000 angry people flooded three successive School Board meetings to tell the school board unequivocally not to close five elementary schools.

We told the crowd, apparently in error, that this was only a worst case scenario. Now, after 20 months of avoiding the only practical alternative to closing elementary schools, eliminating a high school, we have apparently waited so long that we no longer have any option other than to close five elementary schools. 

Iíve been told that you canít boil a frog by putting it into hot water because it will jump out. The way to boil a frog is to put it in cool water and slowly turn up the heat. That way the frog wonít notice that itís cooking until its too late. Well, I am a frog and I have been boiled.

While a majority of the school board seems prepared to close a high school we still have no idea which high school is the best candidate for closure. I have been too trusting. When I raised the subject 20 months ago I was ignored. After last yearís elections the Board Chairwoman told me that weíd have to wait until the New Year to examine the subject. This spring, when I raised the subject again, I was told that the Administration was too busy to study the issue. I naively accepted all these delays.

Finally, last week, after delaying 20 months, the administration offered us an analysis. Shockingly, we werenít given the pros and cons of closing Central or East or Denfeld for that matter. Instead we were given the pros and cons of four grade high schools compared to three grade high schools. It was not a great surprise to find that the four grade 9-12 high schools were a great improvement over their three grade counterparts. But this was not the report we asked for. This was not the report I expected. This report simply adds to the delay in deciding which high school to close.

Keeping ninth graders in our high schools requires us to close five elementary schools. As far as Iím concerned no theoretical advantage of a 9-12 high school justifies closing five elementary schools. We closed five elementary schools nine years ago to save our three high schools. If we close five more elementary schools it will mean that ten elementary schools have been sacrificed to preserve three high school sports traditions. This is too great a sacrifice.

I didnít get a good nightís sleep after our fruitless, 5 hour, Committee of the Whole meeting. I woke up grouchy. My humor was not improved to find Pat Royís scathing Op Ed column in the Duluth News Tribune which lambasted the School Board for financial stupidity. Now, I know Pat Roy has a faux organization like Brad Bennettís FIGHT, and that she is a camp follower of a previous school administration. Still, I have to give her credit. I read her column several times and the only major disagreement I had with it was her claim that we violated the stateís new ďStructural BalanceĒ law. This is the new law that requires school districts to show that they can afford a new teacherís contract. The Structural Balance law is so weak that until we spend down our 10% reserve we can claim to be structurally balanced. Of course, spending down the reserve would be sheer folly. It would put an end to seven years of financial stability. We have to close schools!

I canít help but wonder why it is so hard to discuss closing a high school. The strongest supporter for closing elementary schools was handily defeated in last yearís election. One of her allies recently fled town. Nonetheless, the drumbeat to close elementary schools continues. One of our school board members is determined to close Duluth ís eastern elementary schools just as western elementary schools were closed in the past. Even if revenge was a good reason for closing schools there are better reasons not to close any more elementary schools. First, eastern Duluth has already lost plenty of elementary schools. The second reason is geographic. The western end of Duluth is like a necklace and its neighborhoods are strung out like small beads whereas the center of Duluth is a five mile square diamond. Third, closing all the schools between Nettleton and Homecroft would make east-central Duluth unattractive for new families and depress the entire area. Fourth, if the legislature stops funding magnet schools our children will have no schools to return to in their own neighborhoods. And fifth, every time we threaten to close elementary schools we chase families out of the Duluth School District .

If we have to close another elementary school I am prepared to vote for it. I am not prepared to cast this vote, however, until we have determined which two high schools to build our school district around. We keep talking about long term planning when what we have really been doing is long term avoidance.  Donít expect much growth in the Duluth Schools as long as this situation continues. Frog legs anyone?

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at www.snowbizz.com