Lassoing the moon

by Loren Martell

 

The November levy referendum — or the current path to More Money — was topic number one during the 8/21/18 school board meeting.

First, get out the violins

The Superintendent gives a “report” at the beginning of Board meetings. I’ve never covered one of them, because they are usually nothing but fluff: spin and promotion. I suspect the district’s pr person often writes them.
This evening, however, Mr. G. told us an semi-interesting story about his bureaucratic safari to St. Paul.
“I, along with several hundred other superintendents and educational leaders from across the State and the department of education were at the (State) senate, testifying before the E-12 policy committee, regarding the new special education funding formula. The funding formula has negatively affected Duluth at a higher rate than anywhere else in the State — and that (in case anyone, for some reason, doubts me) is coming right from Paul Ferrin, who is the special education funding specialist at the MDE.”

You could hear crescendos of the violin strings growing more resonant, very sad notes, as the superintendent proceeded to do what he loves to do best--blame all his problems on big bad boogiemen, especially the dastardly State. “It’s all because of when the base was set for special education funding. It was set in FY ‘16. That happened to be a year that was notably lower — or, well, there were higher tuition adjustments for us that year. So our revenues were lower. The base was set lower, to the tune of $1.2 million lower than we had the year before. That then set the floor for all the years following.”

The lights in the boardroom should have dimmed at this point, and the violinist should have appeared in the shadows above the audience, in the ornate upper balcony of Old Central’s auditorium--his/her emotional music accenting Super G.’s story of governmental unfairness...
“So, each year we get a 4.6% increase. However, we started $1.2 million lower than we should of. The state recognizes this. The MDE recognizes this. And we will continue to work closely with our local legislators and legislators on the E-12 policy committee, as well as the education finance committee, to try to advocate for change, but also to advocate for that to be retroactive for Duluth, so that we can regain some of the reserves that we lost when this was implemented.”

Mr. G. went on to tell the audience that “we have a lot of people working side-by-side with us…I did tweet and post on Facebook me and some other superintendents down at the Capital, and am glad to have their support, as well.”

How we’ve been put upon

The theme of Mr. G.’s story (a version of which he’s repeated several times,) was that the blame for ISD 709’s rash of fiscal problems, and its completely depleted, in-the-red reserve, is rightly assigned to a bit of nasty and callous bureaucratic thievery by the State of Minnesota. In truth, the budget has been circling the drain for years, and the district’s once-robust reserve fund was depleted by a much more clever thief of a corporate stripe: Johnson Controls.

As our preeminent leader, Super G., said, himself, during the monthly school board meeting of 4/22/14: “The sales of our unused buildings were already built into the long-range plan funding. Because we haven’t sold these properties, these payments have come from our reserve fund. And that is why our reserve fund has decreased.”

On page 39 of the 2012 amendment to the original Red Plan Review & Comment document, debt from the huge investment resemble chimney stacks. Each chimney represents the years from 2009 through 2032. Between 2010 and 2017, the chimneys stick up in varying heights above a graph line that’s supposed to represent the Red Plan’s tax burden. In-between the chimney tops, reddish-orange, amorphous shapes represent pending property sales. A wash of pink-violet around the bottom halves of the chimneys is supposed to represent the plan’s offsetting “operational savings.” I am at a loss to explain how such a silly visual representation of the fiscal arrangement we were getting into could have ever passed the muster of a rigorous review by the state of Minnesota.

The primary reason for all the district’s fiscal problems, despite the denials of the DFL, the unions and the Superintendent, is tied directly to the fact that we were sold a bad bill of goods. The Minnesota Dept of Education did a very poor job of reviewing the Red Plan before giving it a green light, and the State should be forced to step in and help us out of this ENTIRE mess.

This crisis wasn’t suddenly caused by a change in the special ed financing formula. Placing all the blame on that one factor is comparable to former Board member Judy Seliga-Punkyo once declaring: “Honestly, financially we are doing great, if only the State would give us the money they’re supposed to.”

Judy was referring to aid payments delayed to school districts by the State, a political gimmick employed by former governor, Tim Pawlenty. All the money the State once owed to districts has been paid back for four years, and it hasn’t made one bit of difference in ISD 709’s overall fiscal picture. If the million dollars allegedly lost because of the special ed formula change were still in ISD 709’s reserve, it would help — about as much as having $1000 in a savings account, when creditors are hounding you for $100,000.

The ask

As always, several things were discussed (and discussed, and discussed, and discussed) during this meeting. The Board spent about an hour debating whether or not ISD 709 should apply for a $5000 grant, for example. This important discussion was so deadly and endlessly boring, most citizen-observers slinked out the exits.

Discussion of the fiscal ‘19 budget took up the initial part of the Business Committee report. The Board, without much fanfare, unanimously approved the budget, three months late. District expenditures were reduced by $1.9 million, primarily by raiding a Federal Trust Fund.
As so often happens during board meetings, the item passionately addressed by several speakers from the public podium — the item of real interest — came up last on the agenda. I’m referring, of course, to the upcoming levy referendum — or, as the Superintendent tends to refer to it: “the ask.”
The debate this evening centered on the third tier of the levy: $335 per student to upgrade and replace technology in the district. In order to sell the levy increases to the public, the district is breaking down the tax burden in monthly increments. The claim for this part of the levy is an increase of $5.03 per month for a Duluth house assessed at $150,000.

The student enrollment number multiplied by $335 per student is the only math required to calculate the annual tax burden this “ask” would total for the community. During July 9th Business Committee meeting, board member Gorham requested the enrollment number so he could calculate the money involved in using the taxing authority being debated by the board:

“Just doing some crude math on what that represents,” Gorham said, “if we lose that (the referendum money, by letting the public vote) we’d lose $371 per student…times what? 8000 students, roughly?”
“8500.” Superintendent Gronseth responded.
Multiplying 8500 by $335 totals just shy of $3 million ($2,847,500) per year that would be paid to the district by Duluth taxpayers, if this part of the levy passes. In his Board presentation, outlining his reasoning for all the levy tiers, the Superintendent said this money would “provide students and staff with devices, upgrade systems, training and technical support.”

Because no one brought it up in the boardroom, I will again protest that we just spent a boatload of money for technology through a so-called “long-range” plan. I will again bemoan the waste of dumping all of that investment and gearing up to spend another $30 million over the next decade. No wonder Apple shares just reached a trillion dollars in market value.

One Board member, Nora Sandstad, questioned the priority of putting all of this money into technology: “I’m going to make a motion to amend this resolution, and my motion is to amend as to the third ballot question: replacing the amount of $335/per pupil with $375/per pupil, and directing district administration to present this ballot question as funding for the enhancement of the secondary school schedule.”

Seconding the motion “for the sake of discussion,” member Oswald told the audience she thought “a schedule change in our secondary schools is vital to how we grow and how we attract more students. I’m not sure if this is the right time or place for this question,” she added, “but I wanted to hear from my colleagues, because this is something near and dear to my heart, near and dear to the hearts of all of the community that talks to me. I know that this affects every student in our school district, just as much as technology would, because it means more education.”

Member O. went on, describing as a “problem” a scheduling plan presented to the Board by Administration. She said the Board had been shown five “vetted” options for rescheduling some time back, then the entire plan “just kind of got lost in a deep hole.” She added that she thought it was time “to dig” the plan out of the hole and “brush it off.”

If she voted against Sandstad’s amendment, member O. told her colleagues she wanted some “reassurance” the Board would still make rescheduling one of its priorities. “Our community deserves this.” She said. “Our community deserves more education, more opportunities to take more electives and pursue their passions.”

Member Sandstad spoke next, advocating for her amendment. “I have a number of reasons for forwarding this motion, and you’ll have to indulge me a little bit. I don’t talk a lot, but I am going to talk a bit, here.”
She proceeded to lay out her first reason: “I think we should support putting this ‘ask’ for public funding towards the secondary school schedule…It would be something we could implement by the 2020 school year. We engaged a task force back in March of 2017 to research the options. They spent over a year doing that…Their task was to evaluate a large number of scheduling options for both middle and high school, and to make a recommendation. And they did that. They came up with 3 options for middle school and 2 options for high school. It was an extensive process that we, as a Board, asked them to engage in, and they did it! And they gave us the report in February of this year, and nothing has happened since then.”

Member S. told the audience this inaction segued to her next point: “This is a ten-year levy. This is our ‘ask’ to the community for more general education funding at the local level, which is nearest to the thing we can control…The other sources of our funds are State and National, and we don’t have a lot of impact on them. This is a levy asking for general education funds; it’s not a tech levy, which is a second option that we could consider in the future. But this is a ten-year levy, which means our window to ask for anything more is unlikely to reopen for five-to-ten more years. There is a cost associated with the secondary schools schedule change…, and (that cost) is not insignificant, but it’s something we need to dedicate funds to…I’ve been on the Board for three years now, and never before have we been asked to dream BIG, and think about what we would do with an extra couple million dollars a year…”

Sandstad elaborated on this “window of opportunity” the Board may not see again for some time. “We, as Duluthians, value music, art, language and technical skills. And offering our children the ability to take more of those electives, instead of having to choose between them is a standard that we need to meet, as a district. It is a given. Right now, our current schedule leaves some of our most at-risk students taking four core academic courses and reading and math lab, with no chance at elective (courses) at all. So they don’t have that opportunity to try something new, to develop new talent, to interact with students outside their usual circle. Having an enhanced schedule would allow students to better stay engaged on their way to successfully graduating…”

Member Sandstad pointed out that “we are in an era of a skilled workforce, and having a shortage of skilled workers. Industrial technology elective courses may be the first and only opportunity for some children to start down such a great path.” She also made the argument that changing the schedule to allow for an extra period during the school day would “allow our students to access electives in a more equal manner.” She concluded her arguments by pointing out that her suggestion to change the levy amount from $335/per student to $375/per student was based “on the most expensive of the scheduling options.” She was hopeful the actual price tag would be cheaper, leaving money for other needs, like rebuilding the district’s reserve fund.

It was a good, well-thought-out argument for a different priority, but Sandstad’s amendment failed 4-3. Lofald, Loeffler-Kemp, Kirby and Gorham voted nay. If the public votes to approve the third question of the levy, all the tax money raised will go into technology.

A few of the opposing words

“I just think in today’s age,” member Lofald said, in response to Sandstad’s argument, “computer literacy is an integral component of many students’ learning plan. And by giving students access to the greatest learning tool ever invented, whether you like it or not — your Luddites (which she pronounced: ‘Loodites’) — it is the internet…And so, I just think they (the students) would gain unprecedented access to resources and information. And so I’m wanting to dream BIG as well. I want to dream BIG with technology. I want to dream BIG that we’re going to pass question # 3.”

Lofald argued that the community would see progress gained from the technology in the schools and also see that the Board was “working hard.” She said this progress would give the Board “the credibility to go back then (to the public) and ask for (the money) for the high school and middle school schedule change…Talk about dream BIG!” She added. “I want to dream BIG and come back to our community in two years with another referendum. That’s dreaming BIG!”

I wish I could draw my own visual representation of this financial proposal. I would place the DFL standing once again on the backs of the town’s taxpayers, dreaming BIG dreams, trying to lasso the moon. They failed to reel in all the moonbeams they promised a decade ago, but you can trust them to deliver really, really BIG on their dreams this time.

Photo credit: T Heinonen
Photo credit: T Heinonen