Red Plan Chronicles

Pt 8, “Duluth-i-size it” with “A Very Generous Contract”

  Art Johnston’s dry analysis of the Red Plan, published in last week’s Reader, is a revelation. Using JCI’s (Johnson Control Inc.) own figures, Art shows that rather than fixing $12.7 million worth of “flaws” at Central High School, JCI’s Red Plan will spend $56 million to enlarge three other schools so that they can accommodate Central’s students. Even more remarkable is his discovery that only $500,000 of the $12.7 million in flaws are for serious design issues. The other $12.2 million is for simple building maintenance. And this particular public building, now slated for demolition, is Duluth ’s most valuable school. It’s estimated worth to the District is $30 million dollars. It’s likely to be sold for ten million.

  But the Red Plan will spend much more than $56 million on Central’s replacements - Denfeld, Ordean and the Secondary Technical Center . Together they will account for $89 million of the Red Plan’s budget.

The District has explained that the Red Plan is necessary because the School District has a wasteful 25% overcapacity. However, Art has discovered that the $293 Red Plan only eliminates half this wastefulness. When it’s completed the District will still have 12% overcapacity. That may explain JCI account executive, Jeff Schiltz’s, comment to the News Tribune on June 19, 2007 . “If we came up with a half-a-billion plan, the community wouldn’t support it because of the tax impact.” Apparently JCI would need to double the Red Plan’s budget to eliminate this extra space. As it is, with interest, the Red Plan is now projected to cost $407 million.

Art was a little dismayed to find little documentary evidence of the “10,000 hours” that JCI claims its experts spent analyzing the District’s buildings. He was surprised to find that $3 million of a much ballyhooed $5 million annual savings was nothing more than staff cuts rather than savings from greater efficiency. Instead of $100 million in savings over twenty years taxpayers can expect a disappointing savings of $30 million. That’s one dollar saved for every thirteen dollars spent. Johnston was also appalled that some of the Red Plan’s engineers and architects were not licensed in Minnesota , and therefore unqualified to analyze our schools.

While Johnston ’s “critique” is mostly confined to Central High another professional with deep Duluth roots made a thorough and alarming study of Central High’s principal replacement - the new Ordean High School .

Landscape architect Ken Worley, a former Ordean resident, was the brains behind the biggest public works project in Duluth ’s history – the eastern extension of I-35. When Kent saw that the Federal Government was going to excavate and pave over downtown Duluth as brutally as it plowed through western Duluth he spearheaded CIHE--Citizens for Integrating Highway and Environment. CIHE slowed the Interstate down until Kent himself was invited to head up a design team which created the Lakewalk and prevented Leif Erickson Park from being severed from the rest of the City.

Based on the undersized Ordean site, Kent saw that all the patches in the world would never solve its safety, traffic and expansion needs. At 26 acres it was half the size recommended for a high school by the State of Minnesota . Ordean High would burst at the seams with 1,500 driver’s licensed high school kids. This enrollment would triple that of Ordean’s 600 junior high students. To accommodate such numbers an Ordean High would require roughly 950 parking spots. The parking lot in Brent Jones’s (JCI’s “program manager”) blueprints were meant to handle 500 cars but Worley calculated that the space could only hold 250 cars – one fourth of what was needed. Jones response was terse, “We’ll just Duluth-i-size it.”

Ordean is still Duluth-i-sized. Its current parking will only fit 440 cars. To do this JCI paves over the only forested patch of Superior Street for a mile-long stretch. The District’s property and risk manager, Kerry Leider lobbied for a site along Glenwood Avenue which would have required little or no eminent domain but JCI overruled him. Perhaps JCI thought it would be cheaper to add onto the fifty year-old Ordean rather than build a new school. Ironically, even though the Red Plan is the biggest school building project in Minnesota history cheapness is one of its hallmarks. Superintendent Dixon recently explained that all of the Red Plan’s schools will be “Chevies” and not “Cadillacs.”

Kent Worley anticipates years of problems from JCI’s inflexible plans and poor siting. A basic tenet of planning warns that public buildings draw cars like a magnet. They require a set back from collector streets, something that Ordean lacks.  Ordean needs enough roadway to allow hundreds of vehicles to enter, exit, and park simultaneously. JCI’s plan has a single entrance/exit and a truncated, U-turn, bus lane which will pit vehicles against each other as drivers jockey for parking, pick-ups and drop-offs. It will be a safety nightmare.

Kent drew up a site plan which acquired vacant street right-of-way from an unbuilt street above the railroad tracks and other unpopulated land which could provide a second entry/exit, overflow parking, safety for pedestrians, tennis courts and other athletic space.  It would require no home acquisition by the District. He suspects that his alternative would be less expensive. Although Kent sent many letters to the District he’s gotten little response.

JCI’s resistance to outside advice has resulted in a great many unpleasant surprises. The state turned down two of the building proposals in the Red Plan. The State extended its deadline to approve the plan by two weeks rather than expedite it as the District requested. JCI failed to anticipate the state’s order to expand the Ordean site. It failed to alert homeowners that eminent domain would engulf 41 properties. It failed to anticipate that it would have to acquire federally protected eagle habitat. It failed to address Ordean’s parking, traffic and safety needs. There is no provision to protect the much smaller Ordean neighborhood from suffering from the same chronic student parking woes that afflict the Denfeld neighborhood.

Just how JCI has operated in Duluth has been a great mystery. Art Johnston found no evidence of community input. Gary Glass was stymied over and over again last year as he tried to gather information pertaining to JCI’s planning. A former School Board member hired an attorney to demand information about JCI’s work using Minnesota ’s version of the Freedom of Information Act. Gary Glass took advantage of this to get a copy of the District’s JCI contract which few of the school board members had ever read. Contrary to District policy, and possibly state law, the School Board approved the contract sight unseen. Although it was a public document it wasn’t in the School Board’s minutes. It contains a provision giving JCI proprietary rights to all the information it collects about the District and allows JCI to withhold this information from the public.

It also spells out the specific rates of compensation JCI will receive for repairs and construction (2%); “basic services” (3%); and a myriad of rates for professional services (2.5% to 9.5%). It’s not easy to tell from the contract how much JCI will earn as project manager. Gary Glass offered Kerry Leider confidentiality if he would tell Gary how much JCI would earn. I’ve always considered Kerry a straight shooter and can’t imagine that he needed such an assurance but he didn’t turn it down. Gary says Leider told him that it was “a very generous contract” and estimated that JCI would earn about 13% of the then $257 million price tag. That’s a whopping $34 million. When Gary reported this figure publicly last June the District told the News Tribune that JCI would only earn $4.5 million. The Trib’s story made Glass look foolish.

When Kent Worley looked at the contract he surmised that JCI could easily squeeze 10 to 12 % out of it, maybe more, depending on how much pressure it put on architects and engineers to eke out a profit by skimping on their work. Maybe that explains the shoddy planning for Ordean High.

Two weeks from now I’ll return to my idiosyncratic bi-weekly column Not Eudora. The Chronicles are not complete but will only make sporadic appearances as the saga continues to unfold. Readers looking for the complete series to date will find them at: letduluthvote.com.

  A petition for a more reasonable alternative to the Red Plan will be mailed to people who call Brenda at:  390-7768.