Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published September 5, 2003

Plan B


"Plan A" honors the status quo and avoids change. It’s supported by the Denfeld led SOS (Save Our Schools) Committee. It would keep Duluth ’s three high schools open by passing an excess levy. It would also keep Duluth ’s “middle schools” at a 6-8 grade configuration. It’s not clear to me that it would preserve all existing elementary schools but that’s not my chief worry about Plan A. The problem is that Plan A requires passage of a $4.9 million levy. What Duluth voters must ask themselves is this: if an excess levy referendum fails what’s Plan B going to be? And; how will today’s school board candidates vote if it should fail?


Two years ago, before the last excess levy failed, there was universal agreement among Duluth School Board members that some schools had to close because of declining enrollment. Back then Bob Mars suggested that offering an excess levy simply evaded our responsibility. He felt so strongly about this that he publicly opposed the levy. It has been suggested that that levy’s 45% to 55% defeat was a crushing defeat. I have never thought so.


Had only six in every hundred voters switched their vote from a “no” to a “yes” the 2001 levy would have passed.  Unfortunately, it was opposed by Mr. Mars and also the FIGHT organization which paid for misleading full page ads that condemned the levy. To pass the levy had to spell out how it would be spent but another school board member did everything in her power to keep the Board’s promises as vague as possible. The campaign to pass the levy was incredibly brief because the school administration had planned fall community meetings which had to be completed before a levy proposal could be outlined. This left very little time to explain a plan to voters once it was drawn up. Finally, in addition to these obstacles, the levy was offered up in the shadow of 9/11. 


Thinking about what might have been is of little use today because there is a whole new set of circumstances. One thing however has not changed. The school board still has not closed any schools. We have let two more years slip by. Bob Mars, it seems, was right.


I’m a sucker for money for schools but I’m torn about whether to support this excess levy. I’d rather offer a levy to provide additional school programming rather than offer one to keep partially empty buildings open. Maybe, however, offering a levy and risking its failure is the only way to get the School Board to close excess buildings.


Today even the most skittish school board members are talking about moving our administration out of Old Central and making kids walk farther to school. Will this discussion continue if we pass an excess levy? I don’t know. I can only predict one thing with complete certainty. This Board will never vote to close another school. Instead it will wait until the November election to see whether a levy passes. If it does then the schools are home free. If it fails the current Board will sit back and say to itself, “Well, we should leave this decision up to the new Board taking office in January.” Of course, there is no guarantee that the new Board will find it any easier to close a school. There will be two fewer Board members come 2004 but that doesn’t guarantee that we won’t simply go from a Board that flip-flops with 5-4/4-5 votes to one that flip-flops with 4-3/3-4 votes.


Once again the Board will be divided by the twenty-year old issue of “middle schools.” Currently Duluth has one such school, Morgan Park. Three years ago the Board gave it three extra teachers to implement its child friendly pilot. There was never enough money to implement middle schools in our three other junior highs.


We currently call our two eastern junior highs “middle schools” but they are middle schools in name only. They are really junior highs with sixth graders. They will remain so even if an excess levy passes. We would have to hire 15 extra teachers to make all our junior highs middle schools. Fifteen extra teachers would cost the district about a million dollars. But the $4.9 million that an excess levy would raise would still leave the district short $1.3 million. That’s because our projected deficit next year is 6.2 million dollars. Ordean and Woodland are fated to remain junior highs with sixth graders.


I’d like to offer an excess levy but I’m afraid that if this one is defeated it will doom future excess levy referendums even after we close schools. We may just train voters to discount anything the School Board offers them. This just kills me because if we had closed schools by now I think a referendum could pass this year which would soften next year’s six million dollar shortfall.


So, if the levy fails what will plan B be? I’ve been listening to incumbent board members and candidates for some clue. Four people will automatically be on January’s board. Laura Condon and Dorothy Neumann are both ardent middle school proponents. Both have also indicated a willingness to close East High School if the levy fails although their preference would be to close elementary schools. Mary Cameron has been clear that she would close a high school. Her preference is to preserve Central. Tim Grover, who has no opposition, has said he does not plan to vote to close either Denfeld or Central.


I have proposed turning Central into a junior high and I’m guessing that whoever wins in my Second district seat will likely support my plan as well.  Bob Nygaard also favors my plan and I think his opponent, Ann Wasson, would too although she wants to preserve all three high schools.


That leaves the three at-large candidates only one of which will be elected. Bob Mars is so frustrated that I think he would vote to close anything. Judy Seliga would opt for my plan to turn Central into a middle school. Mike Akervik has been the Board’s most dependable swing voter and typically votes with Laura Condon.


What’s going to happen? East could close. Central could become a junior high. Elementary schools could close. Faux middle schools could continue on. Everything depends on the passage of an iffy excess levy referendum and who takes office next January. Voters who care about the future of the Duluth Schools must pin candidates down by asking them what they will vote for if the excess levy fails.


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