The Deep, Black Hole

by Loren Martell

   

Photo illustration: T. Heinonen
Photo illustration: T. Heinonen

   To review (for those of you not paying much attention,) our school board failed to get its hands on the budget by the end of the fiscal year. In the ensuing blowup from that debacle, the district’s CFO was forced to resign and the budget work was shunted off to an outside consultant firm, on the taxpayers’ dime. 

 
School board Business Committee meeting: 7/9/18 

   The first order of business this evening was getting an update on where things now stand with the company wading through the district’s messy numbers. 
“As I’ve mentioned before,” the Superintendent told his minions on the Board, “they’re starting with the enrollment numbers. They have kind of finalized their projections. We’re meeting with them tomorrow morning, to go over those projections, and have a little more understanding of how they arrived there, and have some conversation about any special things that we see they’re not aware of (like the fact that we invested, with bond interest, half a billion dollars in a facilities plan that blew its enrollment projections by a 1000 students.)”

   Our Super, Mr. G., continued: “And so, we should have these (enrollment figures) finalized by tomorrow, after the meeting. And then, they’ll start building the budget (that we previously failed to build) from there—reviewing our expenditures, and moving ahead. So, things are moving along.” 
“And so do they have a projected timeline for us, when they think we might start being able to look at these numbers, at a Board level?” Business Committee Chair, Sally Trnka, asked. 
   This inquiry struck me as a bit impudent. Why would YOU need to see the budget, Board? Go back to sleep, now. Daddy’s driving. 
Super G. responded that the company crunching the dismal numbers is on contract with the district through the end of July. “They hope to have that done sooner than that, but they are hesitant to say, ‘Here’s where we think we’ll have it,’ because they don’t want to promise something that they’re not able to deliver. So I think they’ll have a better idea once they dig in (to the mess) a little farther.” 

   “Ok—” Chair Trnka answered, then added: “and even though their contract runs through the end of July, are they planning on attending--is someone from their organization going to attend the Business Committee meeting, to walk us through any of their processes, or if we have specific questions for them, seeing how we’re paying them to do this work?”

   “I don’t believe so. I think they’re working with staff, and we would then present their results.”
“Ok, great.” Chair Trnka replied without any hint of a reservation about this arrangement. Back to sleep for you now, Board. Daddy’s got the wheel. 
  
Policy

   The district is still attempting to rewrite all of its policies: I don’t have the time, as an unpaid volunteer, to track all of these changes, but I wish I did. Every month, a list of policy deletions and changes appears on the Business Committee’s agenda. 
The best-prepared Board member, month after month, is Alanna Oswald, but I want to acknowledge that some other members are trying. Business Committee Chair Trnka is generally well-prepared for these meetings, definitely much better prepared than I’ve seen from most of her DFL-predecessors. Especially given the fiscal crisis of the school district, there is a lot of data to pore through. 

   I’m unconvinced all the changes being made to policy are going to make our school district function better or be more transparent to the public; in fact I’m almost certain some are going to have the opposite effect. I do find it heartening, however, when our representatives at least prove they have looked through the changes, by asking detailed questions.

   In regard to the new Website Accessibility Policy, Chair Trnka correctly pointed out that it made no sense that ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliancy would be based on the person using the website to be able to read the information. 
“So--if a person can’t read, why are we requiring them to respond to this information in (the form of) writing? That just doesn’t seem accessible to me.”
“If they can’t access it, how are they supposed to access it?” Super G. concurred with a circular question. “The process for addressing it is not sensible.”
“That’s why I was surprised that this is somehow ADA compliant. So, I think we have to do some additional work on that piece.”
   I believe too many policy changes are happening each month for the Board to catch all potential problems, especially given the district’s current unstable and distracting environment. At least one detail was caught, however, and will be worked out.
As far as the process not being sensible, once people figure out it’s ISD 709’s website, they’ll all understand. This is the organization that dumped 10 big brick school buildings on the market at the same time and refused to sell to other educational entities? Oh, yeah…we get it, now!

Tough gig, and more about properties. 

   Guest speakers often appear at Committee meetings. A representative of the district’s insurance carrier showed up for this meeting and explained that premium rates are “elevating” around cyber liability insurance, and school districts are “boosting” coverage, because the organizations hold so much private data digital cretins would love to get their hands on. 

   “There are more and more creative ways that (these cretins) are coming up with to target K-12 public schools.” The insurance man said. “That is why the State of Minnesota is now requiring all school districts to carry at least $1.5 million in cyber security insurance.” 
Next he pointed out that ISD 709 has experienced an “up-tick in workers’ compensation injuries during the past year.” He said his company would volunteer about 75—100 hours of time from its in-house expert on “loss control” to study “where we’re having slips and falls at the locations where we’ve got students and most of the employee traffic…and delve into the root cause of why the accident occurred.” 

   Another reason for the up-tick he attributed to the interaction between the district’s paraprofessional employees and “high-risk students.” He said the district was fortunate his company had “a very good risk management program for deescalating those types of violent behaviors that can happen between a student and a staff member.” 

   Staff is getting injured because of contact with violent students? A public school job is clearly not a picnic in the park these days. 
One other implicative detail caught my ear: “The (insurance) carrier will no longer provide coverage for any of the roofs,” except for fire, “on the vacant structures that are unoccupied.” This point was hammered home in no uncertain terms: “If there is any other loss on the roof, there is no coverage…It’s just becoming more and more difficult for us to provide a comprehensive, all-risk policy on those buildings,” that have been sitting empty now, for more than seven years. 

   We don’t need a comprehensive, all-risk policy anyway; we’ve always had Joe and Josephine Taxpayer to back up BIG RED. 
Another property discussion came up during this meeting. With a tone of triumph, our venerable Superintendent announced: “We no longer own Nettleton (elementary school.) We had the closing on June 30th.” He may as well have said: “We no longer have the albatross, called Nettleton, around our necks. We finally tossed the dirty bird off to some other blokes on June 30th.” The announcement elicited cheers, waving arms and high-fives from some Board members.

   No mention of the closing price was made, but the last reported price was $165,000, about a third of the original asking price of $480,000. The best analogy I can think of is comparing this sale to someone who initially markets a vehicle for $10,000, and finally dumps it five years later for $3,300. From the $3,300, the poor sucker has to subtract another $1000 for the time value of money over five years, replacement of a couple of tires that went flat and body work required because of vandalism and rust. The person would understandably be relieved to finally have sold it for SOMETHING, but would he or she be high-fiving friends and family and cheering about it? 

   Government officials, especially in the boardroom of ISD 709, tend to look at the public’s money differently than they would look at their own. 
 

Maintenance

   Sometimes, during these meetings, a Board member makes a declarative statement that is so rich with irony, so staggering in its complete lack of perspective about what has transpired in the boardroom over the past decade, it nearly knocks me out of my seat. This meeting’s winner of the Ironic Remark Award is Business Committee Chair Trnka: “I would like us to consider that as a Board we should realize our priorities are to our students, and not to our buildings.” 

   Former Board member, Mike Miernicki, continues to hold the all-time winner’s spot for the Award, however, with this enunciation of the board’s priorities during the 2014 Feburary meeting: “We have our buildings built, and now we can concentrate on our students and our curriculum.”
Most of this town—especially its leadership—has not woken up yet to the depth of the black hole our school district has fallen into. And NO ONE cares about the public—either the burden the public has already borne, or the burden it will yet bear to pull the school district back up to a place that resembles fiscal stability, where it can minimally meet its gaping needs. 

   NO ONE in this town’s ruling establishment has had enough courage to point out bluntly and honestly, on the record, that we are in exactly the opposite spot from the educational Shangri-la we were promised would result from the “long-range” investment called the Red Plan. 
Besides throwing out millions of dollars worth of SMART Boards because no money was calculated into the Red Plan for maintenance, there is an even bigger maintenance time bomb ticking. From the beginning, one of the biggest (of many glaring flaws) in the inane plan was the grandiose scheme of making all the buildings “new or like-new” within a short span of time, with absolutely no plan for maintenance down the road. 

   Again, during this meeting, Facilities Manager Dave Spooner warned the Board that the bomb is set and ticking. Not only is the maintenance fund woefully under-funded, the Board has been “borrowing” from it to play a desperate shell game with the district’s finances. At the beginning of his report, Mr. Spooner read a manifesto of sorts, outlining for the Board how many times he’s had to rewrite his ten-year maintenance plan over the past few years. The fiscal situation has gotten so dire, Mr. Spooner even had to rewrite his plan to include a $1 million “salary shift” to draw wages from maintenance for three years (this year, through 2021,) “to provide relief to the general fund.”

   The earliest Red Plan buildings are ten years old now, which means the district has about 10 years, at most, which Mr. Spooner has been describing as a “grace period,” before the huge maintenance tsunami hits. Ten years down the road, we will have just finished paying off a half billion dollars worth of bonds from a “long-range” investment, a plan that was supposed to put us on easy street well into the future.

   Another problem thrown into this mix is the huge deferred maintenance bill that has been climbing higher and higher on Old Central. That bill has now jumped from $18 million just a few years ago, to $25 million. During this meeting, Super G. hinted at abandoning the decrepit old ship, but even that strategy will come with a cost: 

   “If there is a conversation about moving away from this building, we would still need administrative space, and we would still need to spend money to create a space to move to.” 
As far as how this is all going to be paid for, the district’s top administrator said this about the maintenance levy: “We didn’t want to put it all in one year, to the level the state was recommending, but wanted to have a gradual increase. So, I think this is something (hitting the public harder and harder with this tax) that I think we should revisit as we go forward.”

   Before all is said and done, the deep black hole your school district has fallen into will cost you dearly, Duluth. 
 
The upcoming levy: a take and a big ask

   Superintendent Gronseth informed the Board that he and Chair Kirby had had a conversation about postponing the Board’s vote on converting voter-approved referendum authority to board-approved referendum authority, to August. Super G. expressed some reservation about this decision, pointing out that postponement of the vote creates “some sensitivity time-wise,” meaning the vote would be around the time the Board would be “approving a referendum package.” 

 
   The Super applied some subtle pressure by laying out the timeline to submit ballot language for the levy referendum, but another motivation lurked in the background: it wouldn’t create terrific optics to be in the process of robbing the public of its right to vote on millions of dollars of its money, while simultaneously rolling out a big campaign to beg taxpayers to voluntarily give the district millions more. 

 
   Business Committee Chair Trnka voiced her support for pushing the vote off to the August meeting, saying it would give Board members “a chance to talk with community members for another month.” She suggested the Board and administration “do a deeper dive into how we’re educating the public,” and requested that the Superintendent, the administration’s finance team (now minus its Chief Financial Officer,) and the district’s p.r. specialist “work together in developing some messaging around this, and some education, because it’s confusing.” 

   She talked at length about how the Board needed help to learn how “to speak really well and articulately,” as well as tips about “promoting to the community that we’re wanting to take them (and their money) along on our learning curve…” 
Rumors are already circulating an education camp is planned for the basement of Old Central. According to these rumors (as yet, unsubstantiated,) several hypnotists will be hired as “educators,” and the process is expected to be quite pleasant—sort of like falling back unclothed into a soft feather bed. When we reemerge, our minds apparently will be wiped sparkling clean from all angst except our own guilt: “It is our fault.” We will mutter to ourselves. “The mess our school district is in is all our fault.” Only one thing will free us from our guilt: the pleasure we will attain from seeing our taxes go up again. 

   “Thank you, Board.” We will mutter with joy. “Take more, please! Take more! You have always spent it so wisely.”