Red Plan Chronicles

Part 2 Saving Money

The story in Tuesdayís News Tribune was as routine as it was heart wrenching. The Duluth School Board has ended bussing for its 298 Headstart students. Dr. Dixon says the District can no longer afford the $200,000 annual expense. This is but a preview of similar decisions which the School Board will face should angry voters go to the polls next November and vote against the $5 million annual school operational property taxes which they voted for in 2003.

And angry voters are likely to be in the majority. While my latest truth in taxation statement showed that my taxes are only increasing by a mere 11 percent I was lucky. Yesterday I got word of two Duluthians, one on a fixed income, the other a secretary, whose property taxes went up 25 percent. Such folks will be strongly tempted to give themselves some tax relief next year.

The Minnesota Miracle that I wrote about two weeks ago was designed to relieve poor school districts and thus poor taxpayers from regressive taxation. Property taxes are among the most regressive taxes, meaning that they hit poor people especially hard. The Miracle provided school districts with less regressive sales and income taxes collected by the state. While sales taxes are considered regressive, Minnesota excluded lifeís necessities like food and clothing from the tax. Also, Minnesota has a very progressive income tax. This means that rich people pay higher tax rates. As for the coming disparity in our property taxes Iíll confess I canít begin to explain why my property taxes only jumped 11 percent while others have gone up more than double that

Duluth ís Headstart program is unique. Only one other Minnesota school district offers Headstart let alone bussing for it. It isnít cheap. Our Headstart teachers are in the teacherís union contract and very well remunerated compared to Headstart teachers across the nation.

Historically Duluth seems to have been able to offer many services above and beyond those of other Districts. The lapsed seven hour day in the secondary program is one example as is the very generous bussing we once offered or the simple fact that we have kept three high schools open. One by one these advantages have been disappearing and this explains the push to close schools and save money. 

And closing schools, although painful, has been an easy decision. At the height of the baby boom there were 25,000 students in the District while today there are barely 11,000. The Red Plan, however, doesnít so much close extra schools as it replaces them. This brings to mind a common accusation leveled against politicians: they much prefer to spend money on new construction than maintenance. You get better photo ops with ribbon cuttings than you do by shoring up old bridges.

For years various Duluth School Boards were much more focused on what went on inside the schools than they were with the school buildings. This led to several notorious mini disasters like Central High School ís leaky roof. The condition of the buildings seemed so dire that by 1989 parents organized themselves and pushed for an ambitious new building plan. It would have built half a dozen new elementary schools and a new junior high. In 2006 dollars it would have cost Duluth a little over 90 million today (one third of the Red Planís costs). It was crushed at the polls.

In 1989 voters wanted to know why the School Board hadnít maintained the buildings. That prompted a ten year maintenance program. No more would School Boards raid the maintenance budget for such costs as buying textbooks while leaving the books vulnerable to leaky roofs. In fact, the maintenance plan, which cost two million a year, took a million dollars out of operations to keep the buildings up to snuff.

During the debate over the Red Plan itís been suggested that the School Board has neglected its schools To the contrary, over the past fifteen years nearly 30 million dollars has been spent on fixing up our remaining buildings. It should also be noted that in closing over thirty schools over the past quarter century the District has been able to keep its best buildings in operation. As a result the average age of the schools being replaced by the Red Plan is only 56 years. Superintendent Dixon recently wrote in the Budgeteer that the new buildings envisioned by the Red Plan would have a life expectancy of between 30 and 40 years. This leaves me to ponder just how long any public building ought to be expected to serve the publicís interest.

For years the fiscal hawks on the School Board argued that shutting down unnecessary schools could save money. But somehow the idea of closing down unnecessary buildings to save money has morphed into the Red Plan which closes schools but at a cost $293 million. 

This is the Christmas Season and the Red Plan puts me in mind of advertisements which offer huge savings if only we spend our money. Perhaps, those who have the least amount of money left are the ones who saved the most. If so, Duluth has the richest taxpayers in the state. We replace our schools every fifty years.

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