A plea for STC

by Loren Martell

During the debate over the school district’s consolidation project, Duluth’s news media focused on Central high school, paying almost no attention to the other buildings on the Central campus.  Of all the project’s failings, however — its undemocratic process, its huge, continually expanding price tag, its faulty financing scheme, its callous elimination of the city’s beautiful, beloved central campus — the loss of the Secondary Technical Center was almost shocking to me and many others.  The very idea of a highly functional facility only a decade and half old being shut (and possibly even torn) down seemed indicative of something deeper going on. 

Many suspected the Red Plan, framed as educational egalitarianism, was in fact thinly masked educational elitism: that the rich East Enders believed the minimal goal required for any child’s future happiness was a four-year, university degree.  The facilities plan forced upon us without a vote was an aggressive takeover of Duluth’s public education system by powerful elitists.  It primarily reflected their worldviews and desires.  When the Secondary Technical Center was closed, it was easy for all the suspicious ill will already sown in the town to ratchet up to a new level. 

Educational adequacy 

The full report detailing the “adequacy” of ISD 709’s educational facilities was released by Johnson Controls in December of 2006.  I suspect no sitting member of the school board has ever looked at the report, including the members who were teachers in the system at the time (one of them now Board Chair.) 

The report praised the Secondary Technical Center on the Central campus, describing the facility as a “shining example of the breadth and quality of programs offered by Duluth public schools.”  It further pointed out that STC was one of the primary reasons “the district enjoys a positive open enrollment ratio in the upper grades.”  

The lower campus STC building is a 52,775 square foot structure that was only 10 years old when the adequacy report was released.  It’s 23 years old, now.  When it was shut down (June, ‘11,) it was only 15 years old and the district still owed $2,342,730 on the construction bonds.  Taxpayers paid the debt on a empty building.  The last payment of $578,136.25 was made in March, ‘15.   

Built into the corner of the promontory, the lower STC building has a replacement value of $13 million.  With its stunning view, it appeared to be one “excess” property vacated by the Red Plan that would move relatively easily in the real estate market.  Several buyers have expressed interest, but a prickly problem has made it difficult to sell separately from the rest of the property.  

Utilities for the lower STC building are connected into the high school,  “The utilities currently come from the main site,” Superintendent Gronseth said during the April, 2018, Business Committee meeting, “and so, you’d have to have an easement going across the whole property.  Unless you have new infrastructure, with a road through it, we wouldn’t be able to sell it, just that one piece of property.” 

An easement “going across the whole property” would be an untenable arrangement for any owner.  The other alternative--installing new utility infrastructure as part of the site development— would be very expensive, given the rocky, hilltop location.  These kinds of reality-based details were buried under the grand, hyperbolic distortions of the Red Plan hustle.  Even a building seemingly as marketable as STC had hidden problems.  The public was misled into thinking a campus consisting of 77 prime acres and 3 buildings could be easily liquidated for millions of dollars, to finance a huge capital investment.  

What was lost

STC was one of the projects tossed over the side of the boat in 2010, when $11.6 million worth of “unforeseen problems” started popping with the Red Plan’s budget.  Dixon and JCI claimed the Secondary Tech facilities (only 15 and 17 years old) needed physical upgrades requiring an estimated expenditure of  $5,062,309.  Closing the facility would “free up” this money.  The fact that taxpayers still owed millions on the STC facility was glossed over.  In effect, the citizens of Duluth, while paying off the debt for one STC facility, were forced to pay simultaneously for replacement facilities at the two remaining high schools.  

The facilities built onto the high schools added a total of more than $5.5 million to the cost of the Red Plan: $1,473,623 at East, $4,202,599 at Denfeld, for construction alone.  (These cost estimates are based on the first amendment to the Red Plan Review & Comment document.  Actual costs, as with every other aspect of the plan, likely ended up being higher.)  

In January of 2015, three years after the Red Plan was supposed to be completed, the Board approved spending $5,373,779 more for “finishing work” in the schools.  A significant amount of the money allocated for more work in the two high schools ($1,334,820) was used to “expand and improve vocational spaces and equipment.”  

Good luck to anyone trying to document the actual, total amount of money spent on the new facilities.  As late as 2016, change orders adding more cost to the projects kept pouring in.  From July through September, three change orders on the CTE addition for Denfeld High for such things as: “revising underground plumbing layout” that was “non-code compliant,” and upping reimbursable hours “to account for excessive weather” jumped the cost from $639,000 to $684,615.86.  By November of 2016, the change orders for the CTE addition had reached five, for a new total of $702,268.95.  

Nearly every Red Plan cost exploded higher than the original estimate.  A fiscal miracle would have to be declared if all these never-ending expenditures calculate out to a fair deal for the taxpayers of Duluth.  The career-technical program is still accomplishing good things in our public schools, but we now have a repurposed classroom for the restaurant program at East, compared to the sterling facility still sitting vacant in STC.  

During the 2019 Minnesota legislative debate over education funding, the Chair of the Senate’s K-12 Finance Committee said: “65% of students in school today will work jobs not even yet created.”  Much of this transformation will occur in the trades.  

USA Today recently reported that the movement towards automation “means 16 million to 54 million workers--or as much as a third of the U.S. workforce— will need to be retrained for entirely new occupations.”  Speculating on the “accelerating impact of automation, machine learning and AI,” TIME magazine wrote in its Feb 3/Feb 11 2018 issue: “Automation in the world of manufacturing erased around 8 million jobs in the U.S., just in the first 10 years of this century.  But many more jobs could be done more efficiently either by or with the help of machines…The scale of change is potentially epochal.”

The average K-12 graduation rate for career-technical programs in the country is 93%, and the Duluth’s program has been consistently running in that range. The renewed interest in (and need for) career-technical education holds much potential to help solve the achievement gap and structural poverty.  Technology is altering all phases of the consumer economy— product development, manufacture and marketing — in profound ways.  Four-year university degrees will not solve the problem of mismatched job skills.

What could still be saved

Before he left ISD 709, the former Vocational Program Coordinator, Brad Vieths, took me on a tour of the district’s CTE facilities.  Sharing his insight on the subject, Mr. Vieths said: “Everybody got caught out by the four-year degree focus; some school districts dropped vocational-trades education almost totally.” 

“But we paid a boatload of money to an ‘expert’ consultant.”  I responded.  “We paid all that money, based on a claim that the company could set us on the right path for many years into the future. The whole point of a ‘long-range’ plan is to position your organization so it can deal with a wide range of variables and not get caught out.  We’re only ten years down the road and look at how we’re scrambling to try to adjust to reality.” 

The worst outcome has been on the bottom line.  The facilities plan left ISD 709 broke, and CTE courses are more expensive to offer than academic courses.  Class size is generally smaller and material expense for some courses is considerable.  Erase the reckless excesses of the facilities plan, and I believe the good people of Duluth would willingly shoulder the burden to expand this opportunity.  

In the survey that supplanted the public’s vote on the Red Plan, an overwhelming number of respondents agreed with this statement: “I’m willing to invest in education by paying higher taxes, provided the schools continue to operate efficiently and offer high-quality educational programs.”  

While we spoke, Mr. Vieths shook his head sadly and declared: “It’s gone, now.  I keep telling my staff that I don’t want them bemoaning the loss of STC.  I keep telling them it’s gone, and I don’t want them bringing it up anymore.”

STC isn’t gone!  IT’S STILL SITTING THERE, the lower campus building vacant for going on nine years!!  The well-designed facility could still be resurrected, for very little cost and great benefit.    

Central high school has a replacement value of $40-$50 million.  It is a 228,826 square foot structure only 48½ years old.  Some of us— vilified and ignored during the Red Plan debate— wanted the whole campus used for vocational education.  We advocated for using the high school for career academics, including college preparatory courses in pre-med, engineering, computer programming, etc.— and expanding the hands-on facilities in STC.  If we’d been listened to, the Central campus would be an educational Mecca today, and it still could be.  

The upper campus STC building is a 16,000 sq ft structure only 25 years old.  It once housed the district’s construction and auto repair programs.  The building is currently being used by the district’s Facilities Management department, which lost its previous facility with the reshuffling of the Red Plan.  For a few more years, until the district gets on firmer financial footing, Facilities Management should be left where it is, and the other two buildings on the Central campus should be used to maximum benefit.  

Use what we have  

Before proceeding with the proposal on the table, shouldn’t we at least consider stopping an environmental crime and the wasteful expense of tearing down a 228,826 square foot building and hauling it off to a landfill?  

“As my regular readers know,” The fearless and persevering reporter, John Ramos, once wrote about exaggerated figures being used to justify demolishing the public library, “I exposed the fallacy of MSR’s (the project consultant’s) numbers in these (the Reader’s) pages.  The renovation cost was too high, and the build-new cost was too low— the consultants essentially doctored their report to match the wishes of the mayor.  Because of my articles, the idea of building a new library disappeared.  It is no longer being considered by anyone in City Hall.” 

The plan already in motion for the Central property needs to be looked at— all the numbers crunched--more closely.  What exactly are the costs of fixing up and using Central high school, compared to the costs of tearing down and building new?

The last big, grand scheme our school district forced on us deepened the east-west divide and left an educational void in the center of the city.  Claims of big savings from big expenditures were false.  The district spent hundreds of millions on facilities, and still has space needs for administration and transportation and early childhood education.  We should carefully assess the benefit of using what we have, this time around.  

Reality won’t go away because our school board doesn’t want to face it.  We are going to have to rethink what we’ve done.  We are going to need central educational facilities again in Duluth.  Any parcel sold from the Central property should be aligned with its future use for education.     

In the interim, our school district should start rebuilding trust with the community by putting the WELCOME mat back at the Central entrance.  Maybe have the garden community reopen the greenhouse that’s been unused for so long on the lower STC building.  What I yearn for from this government body is a commonsense plan that will let everything flow back to a natural, reasonable order.  

The loss of the Secondary Tech Center was as traumatic as the loss of the Central High School to our community.  It was a beloved facility, that should never have been shut down.  Any viable plan for the future should hold open the possibility of one day bringing STC back to life.