A regrettable loss

Loren Martell

So, it’s finally happening. I still remember one of my associates from the group Let Duluth Vote telling me she would chain herself to Central High if they ever threatened to use a wrecking ball on the building. She’s gone now, from the scene.
All the people who fought so hard and sacrificed so many hours of their finite existence in a quixotic effort to turn our foolish public school district away from its hell-bent path of self-destruction, one by one, gave up and turned away.
A decade and a half later, I find myself standing alone at the base of the Central hill, holding my sign, still demanding my basic right to vote, while the wrecking ball swings and the final destruction finally begins.
Duluth leaders just announced a new sustainability app, to encourage people to be aware of and reduce our carbon footprint. The mainstream media showed the mayor with a big, happy smile on her face, telling us how “we are doing everything we can to attain carbon neutrality!”
What pill are we supposed to swallow to allow our minds to blissfully embrace this contradictory state of cognitive dissonance? Can I buy one on a downtown street corner, from one of our highly visible homeless citizens?
Without some kind of artificial stimuli, my mind just won’t be able to play along with this happy-talk narrative that ignores all the Red Plan wreckage.      
The consolidation plan has produced so much negative karma on the climate front, it will take Duluth about another century to actually move into positive territory. And this negative karma has stemmed from the political left, which has dominated the boardroom of ISD 709 all these years.
Central is 51 years old. It was only 40 years old when it was shut down. Known locally as New Central, it is a huge (228,826 sq. ft.) building. New Central is more than 66,000 sq. ft. larger than the imposing downtown icon: Old Central, roughly comparable to tacking Congdon Park Elementary onto the old architectural gem.  

New Central High is the sixth school torn down from the Red Plan. Morgan Park, Laura MacArthur, Piedmont, Woodland and Lester Park are the other five.
A sizeable pool annex on Lincoln Park Elementary was also torn down and hauled away to a landfill.
Six trashed schools and a swimming pool annex add up to about ¾ of a million square feet of building space.
On top of that, our leaders forced us, without a vote, to spend 9 million dollars for 63 private properties, most of which had buildings that were also torn down and discarded.
This all amounts to a very large pile of construction material that once created about a million sq. ft. of building space in our city. Even recycling some of the steel and crushing some of the concrete for road surface use still leaves literally tons of debris that will be rotting and emitting God-knows how much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for the next several decades.

The waste generated from New Central High’s destruction will decay in our own backyard, in a landfill facility in Gary, a place called the Vonco Waste Management Campus. Vonco is affiliated with Veit, the demolition contractor.  
This greenhouse gas-emitting waste will rot away while our DFL leaders lecture to us about carbon neutrality and the Democrats who control the boardroom keep feeding us their talking points, one of their favorites being: “All our decisions reflect our values.”
Do they?
Standing at the bottom of the hill from New Central High with my protest sign for going on two years now, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who stop and inquire what I’m doing. Several bicyclists and hikers use the trail that borders the property.
Last spring I explained my cause to one hiker, including the fact that the whole thing was again being done without a public vote. He shook his head with dismay and said: “We really peed on our own leg with the Red Plan, didn’t we? I work in the district, and the staff – to a person – shake their heads now and say there were a lot better things we could have done with our tax money to help our school district.”

If your leg feels wet yet, it’s probably because taxpayers have to pay off $31.5 million worth of bonds for this project. I don’t have the interest cost on those bonds, but just the face debt added to the Red Plan bill (and this IS a wrap-up of the Red Plan) raises the full cost to taxpayers to more than the half-billion dollar mark.

The school board has never given the public a vote on this huge expenditure – not a single bond referendum, as is customary in school district capital investments.
The idea that our representatives are voting for us is laughable, especially given the fact that the city’s central corridor was betrayed by its representative, who broke all his promises after he was elected.
The core principle of representative government has been further undermined by the fact that we live in Duluth, where democracy has been supplanted by the dominant rule and insider politics of one-party machine.  
These big-spending decisions have reflected DFL values toward education (for good or for ill,) but what about all the other value statements incessantly being tossed around – especially the clamor about democracy and everyone’s right to vote?
During the Trump impeachment hearings, one of the Democrat managers declared: “In America, our vote is our voice!”
Minnesota DFL Senator Tina Smith proclaimed: “The most basic right in our country is our right to vote, the freedom to have our voice heard through our right to vote.”
President Biden looked down at Georgia and castigated the Republicans for “purposely designing legislation to go around the voters.”
Vote! Vote! Vote! The contradiction between all this incessant lecturing and what’s been happening in our own town is obvious.
For this Red Plan extension, sections .58 and .59 were erased from Minnesota Statute 475, the statute the district is using for taxing authority. These two clauses outline “obligations, elections to determine issue” and “manner of submissions, notice” to the public. They lay out the proper way to go to the public for bonding authorization.

If erasing these two clauses out of the statute used for authority isn’t purposely designing a piece of legislation to go around the voters, what is?
Things that weren’t done before
When she was making the pitch to our school board for this project, the district’s CFO said the district was going back to finish up things that hadn’t been done. One big thing that was never done from the Red Plan was selling Central for $13.7 million.
All the school buildings vacated during the consolidation scheme were lemons on the market, selling for far less than we were promised.
We were told Lincoln Park Elementary, for example, had a value of $3.6 million if used as a school and a value of $610,000 if used for another purpose. It sold for exactly $1.
On March 21, 2016, the News Tribune reported: “The district has struggled to sell the 77-acre (Central property,) listed at $13.7 million…that’s the price for an alternate use of the property, meaning not as a school.  A 2006 property value assessment done by Duluth appraisal firm Ramsland and Vigen put the value of the entire property at $30.3 million, if used as a school.”  

We could have sold just the Central school building (and kept the other two multi-million dollar STC buildings on the property) to another educational entity for $14.2 million, but the four DFL-endorsed people on the board refused to sell.
Wouldn’t it have been better for the environment to let someone else use the 228,826 sq. ft. building instead of tearing it down and throwing it in a landfill?
The district’s dissolution of vacated property has been a crime against the environment and a terrible waste of wealth and resource.
Not once was the environmental impact of demolishing any of these buildings brought up by the verbose lecturers of carbon neutrality. The subject didn’t fit their agenda, so they all suddenly fell as silent as the dead on one of their favorite sermons.
Taxpayers are not only paying to demolish the Central school ($810,130, plus an additional $35,000 to employ a non-crushing method of foundation removal,) they are also paying for the construction of two new multi-million buildings on the property.
One of those buildings was supposed to be built during the Red Plan, but was thrown over the side of the boat when the budget went south for the first time in 2010.
During the August 2019 Board Business Committee meeting, then-Superintendent Bill Gronseth told the public about the need for a new district transportation center he was scheming to force taxpayers to go back in time and build now at twice the original cost ($5.2 million instead of $2.5 million) without a vote:

“That is one of our facilities that is in really poor condition, as far as the actual space our staff is working in. We’re also one of the few districts up north that doesn’t have a bus barn, so our buses are stored outside. So, whenever there’s snow, our staff has to go out and clear the lot and make sure that our buses will start in cold weather, where other districts (which did not stupidly blow so much money on a corporate scam,) have buses that are kept indoors, so they’re warm when they start off. And so, this (short-sighted mess created by a ‘long-range’ plan I aggressively promoted) is something that we need to consider in the future (given how badly we blew it in the past.) It (modernizing our transportation facility) was one of the things that was included in the long-range facilities plan in the beginning, but because of complications with the site and the (completely blown) budget, there wasn’t any work done, (even though the plan’s cost still went up by many millions.)”

When Red Plan’s budget first went south, in 2010, the News Tribune asked in an editorial if “putting on hold a $2.5 million transportation building (was) really the best alternative?”
Obviously not for taxpayers, if you look at the cost increase in the ensuing 12 years.
Some of the other work (a total of $11.6 million) eliminated from the original scope of the Red Plan contract included repairs on Old Central, including extensive roof work. The erasure of that work led to the deterioration of the iconic old building, and the reason a gusher of rainwater once poured down onto a tabletop just seconds after I walked away from the table during a board meeting.

One year after $11.6 million of the work scope was erased, the price of the Red Plan went up by another $19 million, with none of the erased work reinstated – $11.6 added to $19 equals $30.6 million of very loose taxpayer money.    

Taxpayers lose from bad
I don’t have enough space to list all the money we’ve lost sitting on the Central property for going on 12 years. Just the time-value of money alone adds up to millions. And there’s maintenance, insurance and the costs from two separate realtor firms. I don’t yet know how much the current realtor has killed us for, but I do have a copy of a work order signed by then Board Chair Tim Grover, listing all the charges from the realtor the district was using at the time:

• Negotiations and Acquisitions: $115/hr.
• Administration support: $45/hr.
• Research and Documentation: $80/hr.
Johnson Controls also piggybacked on the same job order with the company’s usual exorbitant costs:
   • Legal Reviews and Consultation: $203/hr.
• Legal Research: $117.35/hr.
I can’t imagine any of these costs from the realtor or project manager are cheaper a decade and a half later. The 35 cents JCI added onto Legal Research must have included a free soda an hour back then.
The current manager is ICS Consulting, Inc. The company will make $3.2 million if the project’s price remains at $31.5 million and more if the price goes up.
During the last election, one of my opponents mimicked her DFL predecessors by lecturing on about all the great things this extension to the Red Plan would do for the taxpayers and the city: “They’re going to be developing that property to widen the tax base for Duluth. That is a tax base that’s going to feed into Duluth public schools. The housing that comes over a period of time is going to feed into our western schools. That is important. And I’m gonna say this: They (administration) have done a great job at how we maintain…We are not going to be putting an additional burden on the tax base. We are structuring our debt and our bonds so we are not going to be putting an additional tax burden onto our taxpayers.”

If you believe more Red Plan-type promises about the tax burden, watch your tax bill next year when the project’s costs are included. As far as any tax revenue generated from the project feeding into our city, it will all be in TIF for the better part of three decades.
For years the DFL has viewed a wider tax base not as a chance to lower the burden for taxpayers, but as a larger piggybank to spend from. And we can all rest assured that Harbor Highlands is not going to extend across the 55 Central acres being sold to a developer.
The district has refused to give me some sense of the makeup of the housing that will end up there, but million dollar views are not generally sold to poor or even middle class families. That property will not be a child hatchery solving the enrollment differential between east and west.
The most likely development will be ritzy condos occupied by wealthy retirees who are snowbirds in the winter. Any small rich families who end up living there will probably send their kids to Marshall, right next door.
Taxpayers are currently picking up about $1.25 million a year in leasing costs to make up for the loss of district buildings: $702,667.50 in the United HealthCare building; $395,150.98 rent + $20,875.64 annual cleaning expense in the downtown Tech Center; $107,004 a year in the Arvid Building and a few years back a lease was signed for space in the old Washington School because the CFO told the board “we have no other spaces in the center of the city.”

That lease was for $14,366.40, with a 3% annual increase.
Central was a great melting pot school for Duluth, helping to temper the east-west divide, and the STC facility on the campus was an enrollment magnet. Educational competitors are sensibly taking advantage of our public school district’s poor planning.
Harbor City International Charter is talking about building a new school in the center of Duluth because, as the News Tribune reported, “the Duluth Public Schools’ ‘Red’ facilities plan consolidated its footprint to one high school and one middle school on the city’s eastern and western sides.”
Thank you to the good citizens who tried to save the Central archives once held in a museum in Old Central. I hope not too much of that gloried history has been lost forever, because I believe Central High will be reborn.
Back when the Red Plan investment was first being jammed down our throats without a vote, I predicted only a few short decades would pass before taxpayers would have to pay big bucks to go out into the center of the city again, buy prime property and start building at least one new central school to fix what fools did.

Even the person who betrayed the city’s central corridor once proclaimed that “the Red Plan would create an educational void in the center of the city.” I regarded him as an ally at the time, someone speaking the truth, and still hold to my own prediction.