Red Plan Chronicles

Part 7, Shut up and Sit Down

During last year’s school board campaign one of our former high school principal’s leaned over and told me through gritted teeth: “Johnson Controls worked on three projects while I was with the District and every one was a disaster. Now It’s four!”

School Board minutes make clear that JCI was sitting in the driver’s seat even before the School Board sent out bids to develop a long range plan. Remarkably, the Superintendent originally intended to give the project to JCI without bothering with bids until board member Laura Condon insisted that the District go through a bidding process. When Laura recently recalled this at a school board meeting Dr. Dixon did not contradict her.

If JCI didn’t actually design the RFP (Request for Proposals) it seems likely that they knew its contents before it was mailed to its competitors. Regardless, JCI’s bid was so clever that no one else could match it. JCI would do the long range planning absolutely free - on one condition. The condition required that JCI be put in charge of managing the project once it got underway. The bigger the project the more JCI would be able to charge. They had no incentive to think small and project management compensation would dwarf the quarter-million dollars they would have been paid for a rejected plan. (More on this in two weeks.)

Johnson Controls has not traditionally made its money as a construction manager. It’s a heating and ventilation company albeit a very big one. At one time or another JCI has probably worked with the majority of Minnesota School Districts. In fact, it advertises itself as an expert in helping School Districts pass building referendums. That makes sense. If a bond doesn’t pass there can be no building so it’s not surprising that JCI lawyers know our election laws well.

They knew more than I did after my eight-year stint on the School Board. I was certain that only Minneapolis ’s and St. Paul ’s school boards could force a major school building project through without an election. I found out that I was wrong when I called up the Minnesota Department of Education and was told that the JCI lawyers were very good. Apparently the news came as a surprise to the MDE too. I suspect that JCI told Dr. Dixon he could bypass the voters long before the bids were sent out. Of course, it would take a little cautious maneuvering to prepare the voters for this; kind of like when you turn up the heat on a frog in a cooking pot. For a man like Dixon who says he loves to build schools this must have sounded heavenly. There would be community input but no community vote or veto. It was just a matter of smart marketing.

A committee of 30 or so local residents aided by dozens of engineers, architects and other professionals from mostly out-of-town companies crawled all over our schools to see what needed to be improved. A school district ad brags of “10,000 hours of work and 250 news stories.” Yet somehow after all this hubbub a lot of folks had no clue that the Red Plan would condemn 41 properties, or cost a quarter billion dollars, or result in a 56% increase in school taxes. Now that’s marketing!

And how did JCI and the District take in public input at the beginning? This is how Deb Anderson, a retired teacher and recent school board candidate, describes the process:

“The select group of citizens who were appointed to develop the plan held meetings that were not advertised to the general public and we weren’t welcome at…. We were told to give all our ideas and concerns to Keith Dixon and he would bring them into the meetings….

We were told that we would have time to give feedback once the committee developed some plan options….

…. The citizens appointed to be on the committee were led along a certain path. It is my understanding that several of them felt steered and quit attending. This, of course, was not bad for the planners. It left only true believers until the end.”

And what community input was there after the Red Plan had been adopted?  Brenda Anderson, now a leader of Let Duluth Vote, tells this anecdote. At a follow-up meeting Brenda began nervously, “shaking like a leaf” is how she puts it, criticizing the Red Plan after a microphone was thrust into her face. Before she could finish Bob Brooks, the Red Plan’s chief shepherd interrupted and argued with her. When Brenda protested that she had not finished speaking Board Chairman Tom Hustad angrily hissed at her to “shut up and sit down.”  Such was the School Board’s interest in community input.

And what of everybody else’s input? After Brenda recovered from being shut up she asked the District’s PR person, Katie Kaufman, where the feedback from hundreds of citizens was being kept so she could take a look at it. Katie told her it was all on the District’s website. When Brenda reported back to Katie that there was no feedback on the website Katie just said it was supposed to be there. It’s still not there. Perhaps it’s just as well that the School Board is not paying JCI for helping to develop the Red Plan.

A petition for a more reasonable alternative to the Red Plan is now available. Call Brenda at:  390-7768 to have a petition mailed to you. Or check out: www.letduluthvote.com.