Down the winding road

The school board is now in the process of completing its “long-range facilities plan,” known locally as the Red Plan. The promises told to us around this investment are multiple, with a price tag of millions. The former Faribault superintendent muscled the plan through, over the objections of many Duluth citizens, who saw clearly that it was a vanity project destined to fail. The school district’s total tax levy was $11.9 million, when the man from Faribault came to our town.. A decade and a half later, it has risen to $40.6 million. This huge tax hike is irrefutably linked to all the promises told (and broken) around an investment of hundreds of millions.

To this day, few Duluth citizens–including the people governing us on the school board–fully understand the promises that were made. Several rosy outcomes were promised from an investment that, with bond interest, ran up a bill of half a billion. I’ll list a few, and readers can decide if any of them came true: (1) east-west equity, (2) perfectly placed, “right-sized“ schools operating at top efficiency for thirty years, (3) better educational opportunities for minority students that would “ultimately close the achievement gap,” (4) new, attractive schools that would draw students like magnets, “stabilizing” the district’s enrollment at 9600 students.

Duluth taxpayers were also told a large percentage of the plan’s cost would be kept off their backs. Three principle promises were made: (1) The district would realize a large return on the investment of bond proceeds. (2) More than a hundred million dollars worth of “efficiency savings” would result from school reconfigurations and closings. (3) Several million dollars more would materialize from the sale of “excess” district property. The district invested $277,245,000 from the sale of four Red Plan bonds–2008A, 2008B, 2009A and 2009B–expecting to reap a sizeable dividend of $28,526,007 before the funds were needed for construction, but the scheme went south from the Great Recession. The estimated return quickly dropped by more than $12 million. The new estimate, included in my 2012 report to the State Auditor’s Office (Doc #3,) fell to $16,493,254.

No vote from the public was allowed on the Red Plan. A telephone survey of 300 people in effect supplanted a vote. In the survey, the cost of the plan was downplayed for Duluth’s taxpayers: “Due to savings and sales of unused properties, almost half of the total (cost) is already paid for.” The savings projected from Red Plan “efficiencies” was an enormous promise made to the people of this town: $122 million of tax-free dollars funneling back into bond payment and flowing into the district’s budget to be “applied to educational programs, curriculum upgrades and technology opportunities.”

According to Exhibit A-1 of the Red Plan documentation (Doc #6 of my O.S.A. report,) ISD 709 should now have just shy of $5 million ($4,921,821.92) extra money in its budget to apply to classroom improvements. This money is beyond the nearly $8 million that is supposed to be available to cover Red Plan debt payments. Needless to say, the gushing torrent of tax-free money from all the “savings” we were promised was, is, and always will be exaggerated nonsense–nothing but a sales job. It is manifestly evident now that our school board bit on a something-for-nothing scam and failed to do its job to protect the public’s interest. The third promise–$26.8 million from the sale of “excess properties”–is also an obvious failure that fell onto the backs of taxpayers.

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