Not Eudora
By Harry Welty
April 11, 2008

The Final Say on the Red Plan

By Harry Welty

Mike Jaros shook his head in disbelief as he recalled the justification for killing a referendum on the Red Plan, expressed by Board member Nancy Nilson at the infamous June, 2007 School Board meeting. As Mike recalls it Nancy said the School Board couldn’t offer the plan for a vote because that was against the law. Against the law? With that level of understanding no wonder this pickle is turning so many elected officials green.

Normally a School Board’s turf is off limits to a City Council and vice versa. But when the Duluth School Board majority turned a deaf ear to its critics, its critics began to redress their grievances to the City. They reasoned that the City could refuse to cooperate with contractors during the Red Plan’s construction by not closing streets or issuing permits.

This aggravation pushed the city councilors to meet with the School Board causing some friction between the council and our new Mayor Ness, who although worried about the Red Plans abandonment of central Duluth and its rampant use of eminent domain, acted a tad too blandly for some councilors and City Hall watchers. Then Nilson, now School Board Chair, balked at meeting with the Council because she didn’t want to discuss one particular topic that was none of their business.

Now lobbying against the Red Plan has now reached St. Paul where the legislature, which has until the end of April, could force the District to put the Red Plan on the ballot.

The law which Board member Nilson did not fully understand last year was introduced by Representative Mike Jaros fifteen or more years ago. It imitated two laws which were passed for Minneapolis and St. Paul granting their school boards the power to offer building bonds without referenda. Minneapolis was given the right to raise $8 million in building projects, which has since been increased to $15 million a year. Of course, Minneapolis has four times as many students as Duluth . If Duluth had Minneapolis ’s student per capita taxing power the Red Plan would only cost $3.75 million a year. But Duluth is using Mike’s law to raise an average of $20 million annually which is considerably higher than Minneapolis . By contrast, if Minneapolis exercised Duluth ’s new found spending authority with its student population, Minneapolis could levy one-and-a-half billion dollars without an election. That should make somebody in St. Paul sit up and take notice.

Mike, who has many impoverished constituents, never meant to give this kind of authority to our school board. His original law permits referendum free building for three purposes: health, safety and integration. Yet the Red Plan violates the spirit and possibly the letter of Mike’s law by scrapping Duluth ’s integration plan while dividing the District at 14th Ave East along the most racially divisive boundary possible.

Mary Murphy has joined Mike in co-authoring an amendment to his old law. That means that two of Duluth ’s three representatives support the measure. The third, Tom Huntley, likes the Red Plan. Rep. Murphy’s fear is more global than Mike's. She worries that the Red Plan sets a bad precedent for the entire state not just cities-of-the-first-class.

Senator Yvonne Prettner Solon, a former City Councilor, has the opposite concern. She doesn’t want the State interfering with local government. This is a legitimate worry but it begs the question of why the state interfered in cities-of-the-first-class to begin with. They did it by taking away the right to vote on bank breaking and/or bone headed school building plans that every other Minnesotan has. This interference seems particularly unjustified considering that as many as 70% of Duluth ’s voters are furious with the Duluth School Board.

Duluth ’s voters have had one indirect vote on the Red Plan. Last November they elected a vehement opponent of the Red Plan, Gary Glass, who won with a lopsided 65% victory. They will get a second indirect referendum this November when they vote on an operational levy for classroom expenses. Even in the best of years only about half of these levies pass in Minnesota  and that's in Districts without major controversies.

Who’s listening to Duluth ’s voters? The School Board isn’t. The City Council and Mayor are squeamish about interfering. Governor Pawlenty who lectured the City on the importance of referendums when it came to the dinky DECC sales tax allowed his Department of Education to OK the Red Plan.  Just this week Commissioner Seagren visited Mike and told him they “were amazed with the large amount our district was proposing.” But they reluctantly approved the plan. Now only Mike Jaros stands in the School Board’s way and the School Board is fighting back. Nancy Nilson sent him 63 emails the day she heard he was trying to require a vote. If you want to help Mike you better ask his colleagues to help him.

Senator Thomas M. Bakk
Capitol Building, Room 226
75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
St. Paul, MN 55155-1606
(651) 296-8881

Rep. Thomas Huntley
585 State Office Building
100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Saint Paul, Minnesota 55155
(651) 296-2228 

Senator Yvonne Prettner Solon
Room G-9
75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.,
St. Paul, MN 55155-1606
(651) 296-4188  

Rep. Mary Murphy
343 State Office Building
100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Saint Paul, Minnesota 55155
(651) 296-2676

But don’t give up on the School Board. Attend next Tuesday’s board meeting at 6:30 PM on the second floor of Old Central. Let them know that you still want to vote.

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