Duluth school district remodeling plan draws fireby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
A state lawmaker from Duluth is asking the Legislature not to approve, but to stop a public works project in his district.
Representative Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, has introduced a bill that would block the Duluth school district's ability to build schools without a referendum. It could be the death of an expensive school facilities plan Jaros originally made possible.
Duluth, Minn. — There's a couple of things to note about what's known as the Duluth Schools Red Plan. It's pricey at almost $300 million. It could raise annual property taxes some $120 or more on a $125,000 home.
The plan is ambitious: closing seven school buildings and building four new ones while remodeling others. And it's proceeding without an up or down vote from district residents.
And, if you believe its opponents, the Red Plan is a very bad idea.
Add Duluth DFL Representative Mike Jaros to the opponent side of the ledger. Jaros has introduced a bill in the Legislature that removes the Duluth district's ability to bond for a large lease-purchase building project like the Red Plan without a public vote.
"Duluth school board had a special law that I passed; the same as Minneapolis and St. Paul, to help them with desegregation, health and safety emergency problems, to take care of, so they wouldn't have to go to the public to ask for a referendum. Our school district used that law; to I think abused it. Abused it," Jaros said.
Now, Jaros is trying to take that power back, at least from the Duluth district.
His bill would force the district to go back and ask voters for permission. Jaros said he's unhappy that residents weren't allowed to vote, and he's unhappy with the plan which he thinks is just too expensive.
"It's a huge amount. You know, Duluth has a real low tax base. We have a $300 million health care - city does - health care debt. The county is troubled. The school district is $5 million in the hole. After they build; spend all that money on capital investment, how are they going to operate schools? They're $5 million dollars in the hole right now," said Jaros.
But Keith Dixon, Superintendent of Duluth District 709, said the school district acted properly.
"We believe that, number one, we used bond counsel and legal counsel to deal with it," Dixon said. "Our plan went through the Department of Education process, and we got a favorable review. So, we feel that our plan is solid, and we feel like it's on solid ground relative to how we have used our lease levy authority."
Dixon's not alone.
A poll commissioned by the district last year found 56 percent support for the Red Plan. Almost 69 percent favored the plan's boost in property taxes.
Dixon said the district needs an aggressive facilities plan to make up for years of neglect.
"We know that we have over $200 million in deferred maintenance, and the longer we put that off just the more expensive it's going to get for the community," Dixon said. "And so we really do need to deal with this somehow now. And I think that's going to have to be the conversation and understanding which we've been having with our community, but with Representative Yaros as well."
Jaros' new bill is good news for Harry Welty, leader of the plan's most vocal opposition called Let Duluth Vote.
"Well, halleluiah. Thank goodness somebody's going to rescue Duluth from this out-of-control school board," Welty said.
Welty's group has mounted a very public opposition. But he said the district's special bonding power allowed the school board to ignore opponents.
"We've had countless people talk to the school board, and it's like talking to a brick wall. What we keep getting back is 'we were elected to do this and the law allows us to do it'," said Welty.
Let Duluth Vote has even drawn up a substitute school plan, and gathered more than 2,500 signatures on a petition.
And, if that's not enough, a third group has just emerged with an even lower priced schools facilities plan and another petition drive underway.
Either alternate plan could be ruled adequate by the State Board of Education, and either could get a vote by district residents. Either could die right there.
The Duluth district is not under any obligation to actually adopt one of the alternate plans, and it can still proceed with the Red Plan, unless that plan gets derailed first in the legislature.
The Jaros bill has gone to the House Committee on Taxes. Senator Tom Baak is expected to file a companion bill in the Senate.
- All Things Considered, 04/03/2008, 5:24 p.m.