Let the lunatics in; get the rats out!

by Loren Martell

I prefer to watch Board Committee meetings in person, but they start earlier in the day than regular meetings, and can be difficult to make. On Monday, 6/11/18, I arrived late for the Business Committee meeting, and found the normal side entryway of Old Central locked. I’d neglected to bring my phone, so I circled the grand old building and started banging on doors. This somewhat deviant activity eventually led me into the Second Street entrance, at the base of the clock tower, which I discovered has become a pigeon roost. 

The entranceway has long been blocked off and unused. As I banged on the loose glass of the doors, the pigeons fluttered about the ceiling and some flew out. I couldn’t help but wonder what our ancestors from a century ago would feel; how they might react to the condition of a magnificent structure that once embodied their community dreams. I assumed they might recoil from the pile of pigeon poop on the beautiful ornate floor. 

Someone finally let me into the building. I went up to the second floor and found that door locked as well. I banged and banged until a few people came out of the boardroom, looking spooked, ready to call the cops and report the lunatic who was trying so desperately to get INTO a school board meeting. 

I was late for the next night’s Education Committee meeting also, but I watched both of them in all of their captivating reality on YouTube. 
  
First, Business

The reason I wanted to attend the Business Committee meeting in person is because I wanted to see the budget the Board was going to approve for next year. I wanted all the handouts the Board was going to receive. District CFO Doug Hasler unlocked the second floor door for me, and as we walked into the boardroom together, I asked him if I could get a copy of whatever he’d given the Board. 

He responded that there were no handouts. He said there was nothing in digital form either, nothing available at all about the budget. 
“You haven’t been going over the fiscal ‘19 budget?” I asked, still a bit baffled. 
“No.” Mr. Hasler responded with a friendly, but firm tone. 
I was really quite astonished. We were 19 days from the end of the fiscal year and there were multiple money manipulations--shifts and cuts--in the preliminary budget the Board had been handed months earlier. Normally the Board approves the budget during the June regular meeting, which was just 8 days away. 

I was frankly more than a little let-down, after driving to Old Central and banging my way into building. The Board looked let-down, too. A few of them actually looked outright perturbed about the situation, on YouTube. 
Responding to a budget question from 4th district representative Lofald, CFO Hasler explained: “Our objective was that we would have the FY 19 budget ready to present to you, and that we could have a balanced budget--”
“Has it (the budget) changed at all?” Lofald inquired about a document detailing more than a $100 million dollars of expenditures the Board is supposed to approve, but hadn’t actually seen, for months. “Wasn’t there a time in our projections that we were projecting a $1.3 million cut? Do we still--is that still how much we’re cutting?”

“There’re a number of reductions that were necessary along the way, for us to be in a position to be balanced next year,” Mr. Hasler vaguely replied, “so I think it’s important that you consider all those decisions to still be in place.”
Member Sandstad turned her light on and jumped into the discussion with a crisp tone: “I would suggest that we not talk budget at all. Since we have no information, it’s just a waste of time tonight. I’m really disappointed that we don’t have it, but I also don’t want for us to sit here and theorize--make suppositions as to where we might be next year.”

“I think that makes sense.” Business Committee Chair Trnka agreed. “So then, the last remaining question around that is: when can we expect a budget and how are we going to plan for that--because we have just a handful of business days and have an Education Committee meeting and a Special meeting (already scheduled before the regular June meeting,) and I don’t--?”

Chair Trnka let the question hang mid-sentence and stared at Mr. Hasler, who was clearly on the hot seat. 
“We are still processing budget information for FY 19.” Mr. H. responded, conceding in a round-about way he’d dropped the ball. “I share your individual disappointment about not having budget information tonight. I assure you that the last place Peggy (Blalock, the Finance Manager) and I wanted to be was having a meeting with you today without that information. The budget’s a lot of work--that’s something you already knew--that’s not saying anything. This year we did have some unique challenges--” 

Member Sandstad switched her light on and jumped in again. Her voice even more crisp than before, laced with sharp edges, she cut off this wandering, hat-in-hand confessional. 
“The question was: when will we have the budget? It’s a simple, straight-forward question. Let’s just move on--”
Covering any resentment from being cut off with such a sharp tone, Mr. H. delved back into bureaucrat-speak: “I don’t have any date to give you. I think it’s going to be necessary for us to schedule a Committee of the Whole meeting, so we will be able to present a formal budget to you, and have some gap of time between that meeting, and a Special Board meeting for you to vote. I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to put information in front of you (that) wouldn’t give you time before voting on it during the regularly scheduled monthly Board meeting…”

“Right!” Trnka jumped in, her voice also turned crisper now, louder, more sharp. “So, we are--we’ll have to just pull this from the meeting next week. But we’re required to pass a budget by the end of June, correct?” She asked, looking at Super G., who mutely nodded, “Yes.” 
A huge sigh--I suspect from the harassed Mr. Hasler--is picked up on the YouTube recording. Then Committee Chair Trnka concluded the whole frustrating exercise with an exasperated “All right,” and we finally left a hundred million dollars hanging in limbo and trudged on. 

Taxes and…rats?

If you want to gain a visceral sense of eternity, spend your time watching school board meetings. I don’t know how much time, exactly, the Board spent going over some policy changes, or over the salary scales of the some employee positions in the Community Collaborative programs at Myers-Wilkins, Denfeld and Lincoln Park, or over a 190 page plan to meet Health Dept and EPA regulations, or over a contract to possibly refund two Red Plan bonds next fall--a move which might save taxpayers about $630,000 and earn the bond broker (a firm called PMA, the same outfit that made a small fortune setting up the funding for the Red Plan,) another $83,718.

Time becomes interminable in the boardroom--warped and bent out of its normal dimensions, like falling into a black hole. Perhaps another hour or so crept past during this meeting, before we hit upon another very noteworthy moment. 
“Now we’re moving on to the resolution to convert voter-referendum authority.” Committee Chair Trnka announced, and I sat up straighter. I listened very carefully as CFO Hasler began laying out his recommendation for the Board to take away the voters’ right to decide whether or not they wish to continue supporting the operating levy currently being collected by the district. 

“Under Minnesota Statutes, school districts have the ability to, by Board action, authorize an operating levy up to $300 per pupil unit. We’ve not done so in the past. Doing so at this time would not have the effect of increasing any of our levies. What it will have the effect of is converting that part of our levy that is now considered to be voter-approved. Way back, in November of 2013, referendum questions approved by the community totaled $795.78. Since that point in time, there have been changes in Minnesota Statutes that created something called the “Local Optional Allowance” which removed $424 dollars from that, so the balance of our voter-approved referendum authority is $371.78.”

Listening to this explanation was truly mind-blowing. I was in the room when the Board approved the “Local Optional Allowance” in 2013. I, in fact, have the entire Board discussion from that meeting transcribed. I called former Board member Johnston and he confirmed that the Board did vote to use this taxing authority. In 2013, the district employed a campaign of clever semantics to deceive the public into thinking the Board hadn’t really chosen to grab $424 per pupil from taxpayers without asking. In all its literature the district claimed the Local Optional Allowance had been “put in place by the State.” The authority was made available by the State, but the Board chose to use it in 2013. The public’s representatives dispossessed the public of its right to decide whether or not to pay the district $424 per district student, which translates to about $3.8 million per year. 

The Board is set to use the Local Optional Allowance again. It is also poised to rob the public of its right to have a say on $300 per student (or about $2.5 million) more.
The argument district administration and the public’s so-called representatives are going spin in the community is that letting the Board assume authority over the levy, rather than letting voters approve it themselves, isn’t a problem because it won’t raise your taxes. That’s like your landlord saying: “You’re paying me 800 bucks a month, so I’m giving myself the right to start withdrawing that amount out of your bank account without your approval for the next five years. I don’t see why you’d do any squawking about that.  You’re not paying me any more money!”

During this meeting Super G. previewed more of the spin he intends to use on the public, telling his DFL cheerleading squad that, “As we go out for a referendum (and try to get voters to pony up even more money, beyond the $724 per pupil we will take from them without their approval,) this (our dispossessing them of both levying authorities) will allow us to speak to this a little more easily too, because there aren’t all these different pieces, so it would be helpful to slide this ($300 per pupil more) over to Board-approved.” 

Just “slide” it over with the $3.8 million that’s been already grabbed. As we all know, since Keith Dixon came to town, district 709 favors consolidating its con jobs. 
More of the coming spin was previewed by member Sandstad: “I am very much in support of this…Our local levy in 2015/16 was at 15% and there are other districts at 32%.” The strategy will be to turn your eyes away from the district’s capital levy and get you to look with guilt only at the operating levy. Other districts around the State didn’t see their total levies shoot up by $20 million in ten years because of a huge building scam. Only about 13.5% of that $20 million tax spike in Duluth was voter-approved. 

Finally, of course, the key selling point will be “the kids.” All of the machinations since Dixon came to town have been hidden behind the poor little kids. 
“We want what’s best for all of our kids.” Member Lofald declared in the earnest tones I’ve heard for so long. “And this is where we can get it: with this resolution, and by it (the levy) being Board-approved.”
A few more items came up during the meeting: Mr. Hasler waffled on the APU number, but apparently a significant part of the much-touted enrollment gain has evaporated, and there was mention of the rat problem at Congdon Park Elementary, which Chair Trnka referred to as “our little buddies who have moved in.”

RATS? What bad karma did Dixon leave us with?  I’d like to make a field trip suggestion for Rodent Park Elementary. After all the urchins are finished playing with their furry little buddies on the playground, we’ll take them over to Old Central so they can see the pretty pigeons, and then we’ll haul them down to the public library so they can try collecting some bed bugs. We’ll call it a day of “Reality Learning.”

Pitching his grandiose Red Plan scheme, (which required another Board-approved levy and set the stage for today’s mess,) the cotton-topped hustler, Mr. D., declared: “We have hurt our district by not making the tough decisions. If we cannot find the courage to do this, I honestly believe we are mortgaging the future of our kids.” He made these statements in 2007, after living a little over a year in his rented house. 

The flimflam man ran up a half billion dollar bill which heavily mortgaged Duluth’s children for years into the future--a huge, reckless expenditure, based on a raft of fluffy promises and overblown claims. 
Four years later, he slipped out the door, leaving all the little kids behind, and never looked back. 

Education

There was one business-related item I want to report on from the Education Committee. The technological replacement for classroom blackboards--called SMART Boards--were hyped continuously throughout the Red Plan sales pitch and implementation. The story preached to the public was that backwater Duluth was taking a big leap forward with 21st century schools and cutting edge technology! SMART Boards, which the taxpayers are still paying an astronomical price tag of $8 million (about $12 million, including interest) for, are now being tossed out. 

Intrepid Board member Alanna Oswald fought on behalf of the public against more wastefulness stemming from a colossally stupid plan. 
“I guess I have a generalized comment: I’m extremely frustrated by this entire thing, because we still have 15, 16 years to go to pay those (Red Plan) bonds off. We’re still paying for a vision that we agreed to when we were sold this idea of our new schools--our new vision. And now, this plan (to toss out the SMART Boards) takes away what the vision promised. And I have a hard time with that, as a community member.”

Member O. said she’d attended the Red Plan “ideation” meetings, where she remembered “being told we were going to have these state-of-the-art facilities, and they’re going to be all interactive, and it’s going to be great. And now,” she lamented, the new reality is that “we’re going to have kindergartners staring at a (regular) TV screen, instead of being able to touch and manipulate things on a SMART Board.”

Only one conclusion can be reached from all of this: the people who fell for the Red Plan’s SMART Board hustle with millions of our dollars were not-so-SMART. 
 
Knock, knock. Bang, bang, bang

At one point, late into another very lengthy Business Committee meeting, the Board became aware of a “Bang, Bang, Bang” reverberating in the background. Everyonelooked around, bewildered, and Super G. said: “For those viewing at home, there’s a pounding noise that we’re going to investigate.”  
If you missed it on YouTube, the Business Committee meeting was a very intriguing evening of missing budgets, stolen voter rights, and rats…
For those reading this column, that pounding noise in the background was coming from a lunatic who was trying to get IN, instead of OUT.
*A late update to the intrigue: just before going to press, it was revealed that Mr. Hasler is in so much hot water, he’s been put on paid administrative leave.