Tilting at the windmill

Loren Martell

The Duluth News Tribune told its readers during the last election that “one candidate on the ballet is Loren Martell, a longtime critic of the district who has run unsuccessfully for a board seat four times since 2011.”  

I can’t blame the newspaper for its faulty addition, when even my long-time associate, Mr. Harry Welty, got the number wrong. The math error is probably due to the fact that I was bumped out in one primary. This past election was my sixth run for the board; I’ve run five previous times: ‘11, ‘13, ‘15, ‘17, ‘19. 

As I wrote in my memoir, just a tiny fraction of the effort I’ve thrown into this battle directed instead toward a group-sanctioned “positive” goal would have likely earned me all kinds of accolades.

I still hold out hope, however, for a modest, posthumous ceremony, with words along these lines:

Never before has anyone in this city thrown so much of his precious life away on a loser mission against a stronger foe. To honor and acknowledge the countless breaths this individual puffed pointlessly into the abyss of eternity, the city of Duluth has created a special honor.  Our fair city wishes to finally recognize Mr. M.’s astounding efforts with the prestigious Fool-Tilting-At-Windmill Award.”

The battle

“The district and its taxpayers certainly could benefit from Martell’s wealth of knowledge,” the News Tribune further told its readers, “but...statements during the forum [sponsored by the newspaper] made clear he isn’t ready yet to let go of the battles of the past.”

One of my opponents for the two at-large seats, Amber Sadowski, said: “We’re moving forward positively, and I’m a forward thinker. The Red Plan is in the past, and we’re looking forward.”

My other opponent, Kelly Eder, declared: “We can have robust debates in this town about long-term facilities planning and buildings and the past, or we can think about our kids and our families now.”

It is factually inaccurate to call the Red Plan in the past when the board just rebooted it, spending millions on more buildings with no vote from the public. 

I also pointed out in the forum that board policy 8005 was still on the books. It’s called, “Purpose and Role of School Board.” Tenet nine of the policy states very clearly that the board is supposed to go back periodically and test its decisions “against actual results achieved.”  

How much do these two individuals (in fact the entire sitting school board) know about a facilities plan that their group rubber-stamped, a plan that will cost taxpayers more than half a billion with bond interest and is still wreaking havoc on the district’s budget? 

Answer: collectively, less than zero.

The board is not following policy 8005; in fact it may have already deleted 8005 since I mentioned it during the debate. This group has a long history of altering or eradicating any policy or statute that puts a crimp on its governing style.

My two opponents for an at-large seat are top-notch citizens: intelligent, well educated, earnest about doing a good job to educate the city’s children.  I agree with the Tribune’s assessment of them as “great school board candidates,” except for the fact that we will get exactly what we’ve gotten in the past with them in the lead. 

They’re not moving forward at all. From the inception of the Red Plan this group has painted themselves as the forward-looking leaders, doing everything for the children.

As I pointed out during the campaign, if they’ve been making wise choices for the children with our money, why has ISD 709 lost 25% of its enrollment? Why are so many families pulling their kids out?

In its editorial, the Trib told its readers to vote for candidates endorsed by the same power group (DFL/union) that have dominated the scene since the Dixon days, then turned around and took that group to whipping shed for “its sometimes controversial financial and spending choices.”  

“(Also) keep in mind,” the newspaper continued its flogging, “this (is) the same largely unchanged school board that allows agenda-setting meetings to be held in secret and that, earlier this year, withheld the sale price of Historic Old Central and other details, in apparent violation of state statute. 

Additionally, in 2020, the Duluth school board didn’t promptly release the names of its finalists for superintendent, as also required by state statute, and (its secretive machinations having no boundaries, the board even) attempted to ban the media and the public from recording its interviews with the finalists, a clear violation of Minnesota’s open-meeting law – and probably the First Amendment.”

The board apparently confused the constitution with a copy of 10 Easy Steps to Totalitarianism, a guide for dictators ghostwritten by Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

Unpacking the “reasoning” of the newspaper’s editorial: The News Tribune advised its readers to vote for candidates who were part of the group that has ruled the roost all these years, making numerous controversial and disastrous business decisions with our money and governing in a chronically secretive and undemocratic manner. 

The newspaper told its readers not to vote for the candidate whose knowledge would be helpful to the district and taxpayers, because he won’t let go of his battle to make the power group learn from the past and STOP making dumb, undemocratic decisions.

I could fill The Reader with an accounting of this group’s abysmal track record since Dixon’s arrival, but I’ll just add a few more items to the Trib’s truncated list. 

Exploiting a loophole in a state statute, they rammed through the largest consolidation project in the history of the state without a vote, ignoring one of the statute’s co-authors when he declared they “abused and misused the law.”  

They promised taxpayers that “due to savings and sales of unused property, almost half of the total (cost of the plan) is already paid for,” then proceeded to run over anyone who got in the way of their fantasies and cut them out of the information loop. 

The Zenith City Weekly reported in 2007 that “some school board members never saw the contract with Johnson Controls before it was signed only by the board Chair.”

One board member admitted she didn’t recall “being told that the contract would include implementation.”  

They attacked former board member Gary Glass when he exercised his right as a citizen to join a lawsuit questioning the legality of the Red Plan’s no-bid implementation. 

Determined to believe a fairy tale that would bring them all the things they wanted: new swimming pools, a new stadium for East, they recklessly accepted $122 million of claimed efficiency savings from the plan on face value, with nothing in contract to protect the public – no performance clauses – to verify the results. 

They dumped 10 buildings, eight of them school buildings and 200 acres on the market in a little town like Duluth and promised us they would sell them all quickly for $26.8 million. 

They cut $11.6 million of the work scope out of the project when the budget went south in 2010 and chastised Gary Glass for complaining about “major revisions to the plan the public (and at least some of its representatives) did not know about.”  

One year later, Mr. Glass and one other board member were again cut out of the loop, when the cotton-topped hustler called a meeting, right before skipping town. The flimflam meeting went on for the better part of an hour before two resolutions for $34 million more Red Plan expenditures finally materialized out of thin air.  

They censured Harry Welty and Art Johnston and tried to throw Mr. Johnston off the board, using trumped up charges to try to silence his persistent questioning of change orders being signed in secret and all the exploding costs and monies being robbed from the General Fund that nearly destroyed the district’s budget.

The district’s once-bountiful $30 million reserve was blown into the red; families ran away in droves; the tax levy spiked through the roof. 

And this is just a thumbnail sketch. In any other town, this group would not still be running the show. The only reason they are still making these decisions, and making them exclusively, is because Duluth is a party-machine town. The power of that well-financed machine has at times led to a presumptive attitude. 

One of the candidates for the superintendent position told me two board members declared to him: “Duluth is a DFL town, and the DFL owns it.”

Proud Democrat

During the campaign I pointed out that I used to be “a hard-core Democrat in Wisconsin many years ago, likely before my two opponents were even born.”  

I added that I obviously don’t hate the DFL, “but I do dislike one-party rule. I think one-party rule is inherently flawed.”  

I elaborated that, in my opinion, all voices are needed in the deliberative process of government, so ideas are properly vetted before implemented as decisions.

We may as well have had the PTA in the boardroom for as well as this group vetted the wrap-up to the Red Plan the district is launching in the center of our city. 

Since Dixon came to town, the board majority has been a rubberstamping machine in regard to these big multi-million dollar business decisions. 

Bill Gronseth – a failed administrator on his seventh attempt to get out the door – handed out the resolution during the meeting instead of three days before, ala his mentor, Dixon.  The chair of the board didn’t even read it before declaring full support for it.  When the only member asking any questions at all, Alanna Oswald, pointed out that this was bad government, the pattern held the same as it’s always been: the person speaking truth to power was jumped on.  

Oswald was lectured that she shouldn’t be “scolding” people in an open forum.

Just like with the original building extravaganza, all the rules were bent with this reboot. Statute 123B.595 states very clearly that long-term maintenance revenue is not supposed to be used for new construction or administration buildings, but again a rule was circumvented and abused. 

When member Oswald also brought up the fact that the board was going to again rob the public of its right to vote, the chair declared dismissively: “A couple of people may come in here and tell us we’re gonna go to hell to taking away their vote,” displaying the same attitude this group has always displayed: that those people and their birthright to vote meant nothing to her.  

The nominal head of the Democrat Party, President Biden, pointed down to Georgia and accused the Republicans of “designing legislation to go around the voters.”  

What do you think a board dominated by Democrats is doing locally?

The legislation for this project states: “The district must comply with Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 475, except…sections 475.58 and 475.59.”  

If expunging the two clauses that have anything to do with an election out of the statute being used for taxing authority isn’t purposely designing a piece of legislation to go around the voters, what is?

I’m nonpartisan now, which is what the school board is supposed to be.  The nonprofit news organization, MinnPost, pointed out (11/17/16) that only one elected office in the Twin Cities “remained a DFL stronghold: the Minneapolis and St. Paul school boards…,” but, in theory, these elected seats shouldn’t be politicized at all.  

“In effect, the party endorsement politicizes something that was intended to remain neutral.”

MinnPost further observed: “Back when the state was formed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that providing an equitable education for all students was a nonpartisan goal. ‘I do think they (school board elections) should stay nonpartisan.’ A spokesperson for the Minnesota School Boards Association was quoted as saying, ‘It’s a shame they’ve become party-endorsed.’”

I think it’s a real shame in Duluth.

Of course the power of the political machine is enhanced when the public doesn’t vote and people are too scared to even run. Only two people (both of us retreads) ran against the machine for four seats. 

Some good citizens looked at a run, but begged off. They saw the futility of going up against the machine and were also worried that, if they beat the odds, they might find themselves attacked by the people who preach diversity and tolerance. 

On top of local issues, school boards have become hotbeds of political controversy. Some of the people who declined to run were afraid, in a town dominated by the left, they could have protesters harassing their businesses, find themselves blacklisted professionally or experience some other negative fallout on their livelihoods or families.  

I’m not saying I was aligned with the voices that were canceled out.  What I am saying is that democracy is damaged whenever anyone is afraid to speak. 

Duluth citizens were so disengaged and put off, only 22% of registered voters cast a vote.

Amber Sadowski, who won the most votes in my race, only garnered 12.5% of the registered vote. Obviously it’s absurd to argue 12.5% reflects any kind of true majority mandate.

Door after door, I told people they were stealing their right to vote from themselves by not going to the polls. “Vote!”  I pleaded. “Please vote!”

I can’t exaggerate how hard I worked to try to get people to cast a ballot, and how disappointed I was by a 22% turnout.

The way the board operates contributed to the apathy. If a bond referendum for the building project had been put on the ballot, and the public given legitimate say with a vote, a lot more people would have shown up at the polls. The secretive, underhanded way the whole process was handled left most citizens completely in the dark. 

I was astonished by how few of the many people I spoke to even knew the district was tearing down the Central high school and constructing more multi-million dollar buildings. A functioning democracy is predicated on an informed citizenry. As any dictator worth his salt knows: Ignorance is exploitable.  

Barely more than 1 in 5 voters showing up at the polls shows the system in Duluth is not working and something needs to change.