Red Plan Chronicles

Part 3 Honeymoon’s End - 2001

Superintendent Dixon is just about where his predecessor, Julio Almanza, was in 2001 – three years into a honeymoon that was about to go sour. Julio managed to hang on for another three years after that date. Keith Dixon has recently been given a three year contract extension.

It would be tempting to blame the problems of 2001 on the state legislature but that would be too easy. Every school board in the state always blames St. Paul . It was true that as the year 2000 came to an end the School District anticipated major shortfalls because of declining enrollments. Fewer students meant fewer state dollars.

Pressured by the School Board Julio prepared a stingy budget in advance of 2001. It involved closing schools just in case the legislature didn’t bail us out. It was also very hush hush much to the annoyance of the Duluth News Tribune’s editors and reporters.

When the plan was finally made public the Trib splashed the news in banner headlines across the front page. Five elementary schools (none of them named) might be closed. Every elementary parent in Duluth feared for their children’s schools. All hell broke out and Julio was pissed.

I, on the other hand, was probably the happiest person in town. For years there had been talk about closing a high school in Duluth . The School Board even voted to close Central High in the early 90’s until it changed its mind half-a-minute later. After that debacle the School Board bent over backwards to keep its three remaining high schools open. The School Board closed Washington Junior High and sent its students to Central High making it a 7-12 school. It sent all its 9th graders to senior highs and sent most fifth and sixth graders to junior highs. This emptied out the elementary schools and made them ripe for closure. I was pleased because I thought a powerful new constituency to close a high school had been aroused.

Julio responded to the Trib by bottling up information from the District. He refused to name the vulnerable elementary schools. The Trib’s reporters began sitting in his office sullenly for hours on end waiting for him to release information. The Newspaper responded by printing more front page headlines. Julio claimed he endured a dozen days in a row of inflammatory, banner headlines. The first of three community meetings to discuss the closings began with a bang when a thousand angry parents showed up despite a heavy snowfall to raise Hell at Ordean Junior High. For two solid hours they lined up behind microphones and let the School Board have it.

The Administration shrewdly kept microphones away from the School board so we couldn’t argue with parents who told us were cheapskates who didn’t care about their children. I eventually borrowed a pencil and some paper from Laura Condon and hung a sign over our table for the folks at the microphones. “Where do we get $4 million?” it asked. Within weeks I was winning over disciples to my plan to close a high school. Ironically, a great many of my disciples would eventually vote against me in 2007 because I backed away from closing a high school. (I did because I thought closing a high school should save money not cost us $293 million!)

One of my most welcome and unexpected supporters was Mike Randolph, East High School ’s Hockey Coach. He called me regularly and gave me pep talks telling me to hang in there. He told me that he could barely field a decent team with our small student populations divided into three schools. I warned Mike that we might close East instead of Central but Mike didn’t care where he coached. I was delighted to have such an ardent and influential ally.

2001 became the year of the Long Range Plan. We weren’t planning to build new schools. We’d done a reasonably good job maintaining them after all. Instead, the Long Range Plan was all about consolidation. We held meeting after meeting but as we headed into the fall we were stalemated. There was no majority on the Board willing to close either elementary schools or a high school. We began catching grief because we wouldn’t make a decision. The public annoyance was beginning to threaten the renewal of the 1997 excess levy for classroom spending. I was gearing up to campaign for the levy big time.

And then one September morning as I cheerfully walked into the Superintendent’s office our Internal Auditor, Connie, called out that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Towers . I shrugged it off. It was probably a Cessna. No big deal. Why, I’d seen pictures of a B-52 hanging out of the Empire State Building . I got home in time to watch the World Trade Towers collapse live on television. Suddenly our pathetic little excess levy didn’t seem so important. The voters would make it clear that they felt the same way.

Anyone wishing to insure a public vote on a new building plan can visit letduluthvote.com or call: 390-7768  More Red Plan Chronicles in two weeks.