Red Plan Chronicles

Part 1 The Faded Miracle

In 1971 I got an A- on a paper I wrote for a college government class about the “Minnesota Miracle.” I still have it. The Miracle was a state law which gave poor school districts almost as much money to educate children as rich school districts spent. It was prompted by the fear that the courts would declare Minnesota ’s school funding to be in violation of the “equal protection” clause of the US Constitution. A bipartisan legislature passed the change and it helped put Governor Wendell Anderson on the front cover of Time. How unequal were Minnesota ’s districts? One extreme example mentioned in my report gave the example of Sioux Valley, and Deer Creek. In the 1969-70 school year the former spent $4,814 per child while the latter only spent $419 per child. And it wasn’t as though Deer Creek didn’t care about its kids. Deer Creek’s school taxes were almost three times as high as Sioux Valley ’s. Deer Creek was poor. Sioux Valley was rich.

For a brief moment in the late Seventies and early 80’s Minnesota was among the leaders among the fifty states in spending for public education. My recollection is that we were ranked 5th in per pupil spending for several years in a row. Today we are ranked 23rd.

Although it was a bipartisan legislature that passed the Miracle, Nixon’s Watergate assured that it would be a DFL legislature that would have to live with the Miracle’s consequences by turning out dozens of Republican office holders. What the generous DFL legislators discovered was that public schools were a bottomless money pit. With 80 percent of the burden for public education on the state’s shoulders School Boards were happy to spend state tax money which they couldn’t be blamed for raising.

Even DFL legislators reacted predictably. They began turning off the spigot. For School Districts like Duluth , which were also suffering from declining enrollments, it was a double whammy.

For Duluth it was an era of mass layoffs of 100, 150 or 200 teachers. Somehow the School Board could never quite believe that the Miracle was over or that a DFL legislature would abandon them.

At the end of the 1980’s Duluth parents began agitating for new schools. The School Board proposed a $55 million building bond. It campaigned by showing the public photos of crumbling buildings. Duluth ’s skeptical senior citizens asked: “Well, why didn’t you take care of them?” and the bond went down in flames as did a $35 million bond a year later. Finally, a much smaller $26 million building plan was put into effect in large part because nearly half the money to pay for it came from the state.

This was a tough time to be a school superintendent. Over five years the District averaged a new superintendent each year. That finally ended with a local boy, Mark Myles. Myles made significant budget cuts which made him no friends among our teachers. He also began a school maintenance plan which put $2 million into the schools each year.

Then the district caught a break. By 1993 the state was once again at the mercy of the courts and the demands of poorer school districts. The legislature responded by offering state matching money to any school district whose voters approved raising property taxes for school operations. In the case of Duluth the state’s match was three state dollars for every local dollar raised. Bob Mars, who initially opposed the “excess levy”, was persuaded by others, me among them, that this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Bob circulated a pledge to school board candidates which obligated them to support the levy on the condition that they offset any local taxes raised by cutting other local taxes for the schools. In effect, Duluth would get three million state dollars without raising local taxes at all. The pledge also obligated the Board to pay off a $5 million operating debt that the district had accumulated and use the rest to build a reserve fund of 10 million dollars. The levy passed and, when it was renewed in 1997, was put to use in the classroom although the state match had been reduced to two dollars for every local dollar raised.

The levy renewal failed in 2001 leading to teacher layoffs, larger classes and the end of a seven-period day in the high schools. Judy Seliga-Punyko was typical of the people who voted against the levy even though her own children would suffer from the subsequent cuts. Like me, Judy wanted a high school closed. Unlike me, she thought it fitting to teach the school board a lesson 

The levy was renewed in 2003 thanks to a new bargain crafted by Nancy Nilson. Although I was a firm believer that Duluth was a two high school city I was coerced into supporting three. Western Duluth demanded that three 9-12 high schools be kept open until the student population dropped below 2,800 or it would vote against the levy. Coercion worked and the levy passed.

With each excess levy the state has reduced the incentive so that now the local/state match ratio is only 55% local dollars to 45% for state dollars.

While Minnesota has fallen to 23rd in per pupil expenditures one vestige of the Minnesota Miracle remains. Minnesota ranks third in the amount of money it pours into poor school districts.

The question for Duluth is how far it is willing to dip into its own pocket for quality schools. If Duluth wants to compete with the top school districts in the state it has no choice but to pass excess levies even though the state’s match has been diminishing

How the imposition of the Red Plan will dispose local voters towards an excess levy remains to be seen. Its bricks and mortar vs. teachers and programs. We know that in Faribault , Dr. Dixon’s old district, and Two Harbors to our north, excess levies failed twice after voters approved major building plans. Of course, Duluth ’s situation is a little different. Our voters have no say in the Red Plan.

More Red Plan Chronicles in two weeks. Meanwhile, anyone wishing to insure a public vote on a new building plan can visit: letduluthvote.com.