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Harry Welty: The Duluth School Board is already populated by puppets

Budgeteer columnist Ralph Doty called me a puppet master last week. Last year he called me a liar. That doesn't say much for the people of Duluth who agree with me.

For the past two years Doty's "visionaries" on our School Board have systematically stripped our schools of teachers, course offerings, administrators who aren't "yes men" and crammed more students into classrooms. They've made these sacrifices for the Red Plan because, as we all know, students in old buildings are hard to teach.

Echoing our superintendent, Doty calls for 21st century schools.

What makes such a school? It must be air conditioning, because AC manufacturer Johnson Controls will install it in every building. Our team of engineers and architects has just completed an audit/analysis of the Red Plan that suggests AC alone will cost $50.8 million. (The Minnesota Department of Education's review and comment document from November 2007 included a figure of nearly $37 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning.) Of course, Duluth doesn't offer much summer school -- and it is the "Air-Conditioned City" -- but 19th century technology will save the day.

Doty is wrong about my puppets.* There are no puppets at Let Duluth Vote meetings. We're right wingers, left wingers and mavericks. We debate vigorously. I should send him the hot e-mail one of my "puppets" just sent me. Nonetheless, we agree on two things: our right to vote and the Red Plan's stench.

The stink began when voters were cheated out of a referendum. It has intensified with each succeeding step: when Johnson Controls got a contract to build without a competitive bid in violation of the law -- the reason for my lawsuit; a contract approved by the School Board sight unseen; the 18 percent piece of the pie it grants JCI; the subsequent lie that JCI would only earn 2 percent; the outrageous claim that repairing "major defects" in our schools would cost $202 million (as recently as 2007 the District told the state that 10 years' worth of repairs would only cost an estimated $37 million); the contract language that forbids the district from building any new schools unless JCI does the work; the failure to study the Red Plan's transportation costs or study our school's energy usage.

There is a "puppet" problem. The best proof of this is Ordean High.

Superintendent Keith Dixon calls it the Red Plan's "linchpin." His school board puppets won't reconsider this looming disaster, despite the public's growing awareness of the danger of cramming 1,800 high school kids and lots of cars on a postage stamp with no parking. Yet his puppets raise no objections and ask no questions. They set the precedent when they hired Dixon.

The Board didn't look far into Dixon's record as Faribault's superintendent because they didn't have any other choice. They only had two candidates, but one had made it clear Duluth didn't interest him. It was Dixon or start a new search.

When Dixon left Faribault, he had a 37 percent approval rating and a majority of his board had just gotten elected on a pledge to remove him.

Faced with paying him two years' salary to break his contract, they kept their mouths shut when Duluth's School Board chair visited -- at the same time, Duluth's board chair basically stuck his fingers in his ears.

Faribault School Board members I've talked to have made these allegations to me about Dixon.

He was hired to promote a school building referendum. It passed in part because his sales pitch veiled unpleasant surprises like future school closings.

During construction, $900,000 of spending went unaccounted for, but the superintendent's friends at the local paper didn't want to dwell on this. A state building inspector who discovered a new school wall had no steel reinforcement got elected to the board.

The construction plan didn't set enough money aside for furniture and equipment. Operations money had to pay for it. As a result, angry voters killed two operational levies in a row. Faribault still hasn't recovered.

I suspect that Doty's attack on me has more to do with his thin skin than 21st century schools.

Doty calls me an "obstructionist." He's right. I became one the minute my vote was stolen. So were the colonists who dumped tea into Boston Harbor.

Doty would want you to think that the king is a good egg. I'm lathered up in war paint.

*The line from Doty's column follows: "It's Welty and Glass' thinly disguised strategy to draw this out until the November election when they'll field their slate of puppets to run against the four visionary board incumbents whose terms end this year."

Harry Welty is a former Duluth School Board member and a leader in Let Duluth Vote. Read his blog at www.lincolndemocrat.com.

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