School Board member advises state to deny Duluth schools planThe Duluth School Board approved a new review and comment plan for Congdon Park and Myers-Wilkins elementary schools, but board member Art Johnston wants the state to reject the plan and force the district to stick to its original budget for the schools.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Duluth School Board member Art Johnston is asking the state to reject the district’s request for more Red Plan money, a move that district officials say could jeopardize the renovation of Myers-Wilkins and Congdon Park elementary schools.
The board two weeks ago approved a new review and comment plan for the schools and submitted it to the Minnesota Department of Education. It’s asking for approval to borrow $19 million to finish the last parts of the Red Plan project, bringing the total to $315 million. Johnston wants the state to reject the request and force the district to stick to its original plan for those schools, although district officials say the projects would have to be scaled back or even canceled without the spending approval.
Johnston sent a letter and detailed report of his objections to Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the state Department of Education. Former board member Gary Glass signed the letter.
“The expanded building program has an insufficient justification, has not been transparent to the public or regulatory agencies, and should not be granted a favorable review,” Johnston said in the letter.
The cost to renovate and add on to the two schools is now what it would cost to build new, Johnston said, and no longer compares to what was paid for other elementary school renovations.
The 2007 estimated cost to build Congdon Park was about $9 million, and today the projection is more than $15 million. Myers-Wilkins, the former Grant, went from about $15 million to $20 million. Johnston said justification for the cost increases is lacking. He said he doesn’t believe his actions jeopardize the project.
“If we keep the original plan, Congdon and Myers-Wilkins would still be built,” he said. “They’ve exaggerated the numbers.”
Superintendent Bill Gronseth, however, said a rejection from the state would put the final two school projects in jeopardy.
“If member Johnston is successful in thwarting the efforts of staff, the School Board and the community, these projects would most likely not happen or be pared back significantly,” he said.
Scaling back the two schools would mean inequity among the elementary schools.
Cost increases at Congdon Park include higher-quality facilities such as a kitchen capable of producing fresh meals instead of the originally planned “warming kitchen” that would serve food cooked elsewhere. That and gymnasium improvements increased the project by about $1.5 million alone. At Myers-Wilkins, increases include a third floor classroom addition, which added nearly $700,000, and added construction costs to the gym, cafeteria, serving area and office totaling $1.6 million.
Gronseth said in a statement that the Red Plan has gone through several major changes since 2007, including those recommended by the state Department of Education and residents with design input and concerns. Requirements also were added by state agencies and city government. Asbestos abatement and structural challenges also increased costs.
“The School Board used its discretion to improve the plan, and a favorable environment for construction projects allowed flexibility,” Gronseth said. “The Department of Education is aware of these issues and takes them into consideration. … If MDE has additional questions, we’re here to provide answers and then wait with the rest of the community to see how they rule.”
The district says the move to add $19 million to the Red Plan stays within the original tax impact promise to the community. To pay for the Red Plan, the owner of a $125,000 home pays about $111 a year plus up to $3 a year for the remaining years of the district’s 20-year bond, which began in 2008.
The Department of Education has received Johnston’s letter, said Charlene Briner, its chief of staff, saying it’s “unusual” to receive one of its nature.
“The department will review it carefully along with all of the other information submitted to us for a review and comment,” she said, and will objectively consider it. “We also believe very strongly that we should respect local decisions made by local school boards.”
The department is aware of the board’s urgency to move forward with construction of the remaining schools, Briner said.
“We just want to make sure we are being very careful and thoughtful in our review,” she said. “(The decision) is certainly not stuck or held up for any reason.”
In her own statement, board chairwoman Ann Wasson said she and other members were disappointed by Johnston’s and Glass’ actions.
“The fact that Mr. Johnston and Mr. Glass choose to focus on petty divisiveness instead of the education of Duluth’s young people is, unfortunately, nothing new,” Wasson said. “They are well aware of the meticulous process necessary for MDE to thoroughly review requests from school districts all over Minnesota. So for these gentlemen to interfere in the deliberations — especially since once of them is acting as an elected School Board member — is an affront to MDE and its professionalism.”