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Let Duluth Vote raises $100,000 to keep suit against schools alive

The citizens' group that filed a lawsuit to halt the Duluth school district's red plan announced on the steps of the St. Louis County Courthouse on Tuesday that it has posted the $100,000 surety bond the court ordered to keep the suit alive.

Let Duluth Vote members
Foes of the Duluth school district's long-range facilities plan were all smiles Tuesday after announcing that they had raised $100,000 for a court-ordered bond. If they had not raised the money, their lawsuit could have been dismissed. Larry Burda (left, front) announced the news on the steps of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The citizens' group that filed a lawsuit to halt the Duluth school district's red plan announced on the steps of the St. Louis County Courthouse on Tuesday that it has posted the $100,000 surety bond the court ordered to keep the suit alive.

Larry Burda, one of the plaintiffs, four of whom have ties to the anti-red plan group Let Duluth Vote, said their group of Duluth citizens "have chosen to fish rather than cut bait.'' He said the plaintiffs were gratified that hundreds of people contributed money toward the bond.

He said he didn't know the largest amount donated by an individual. Let Duluth Vote member and lawsuit plaintiff Harry Welty said about 3,000 people have contributed to the group's cause.

If the $100,000 had not been raised to cover some costs of a delay in the project, the suit would have been dismissed by the court. The money has been ordered by the court to be deposited in an interest-bearing account.

"This lawsuit is about an illegal and improper contract agreed to by School District 709 and Johnson Controls,'' Burda read from a prepared statement. "The school district entered into a binding agreement to use JCI for all professional services for implementation including repair, remodeling and reconstruction before there was any agreement as to fee structure. In other words, they bought the thing before they knew what the price was.''

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Burda opined that the school district's contract with Johnson Controls is void because it is contrary to public policy and unfair to the taxpayers of Duluth.

An attorney for Independent School District 709 said Tuesday that the plaintiffs did not follow state guidelines in relation to their surety bond and is calling for the case to be dismissed.

Four separate checks drawn from four banks were deposited with St. Louis County court administration on Tuesday. Sue Torgerson, attorney for the Duluth school district, said that was not the proper way for the plaintiffs to file a surety bond.

"There is a difference,'' she said. She explained that a surety bond is the only way to guarantee that no one else can lay claims to the money presented. For example, if a check is taken out of a home equity line by a spouse and the other spouse doesn't know about it, the money could be subject to court proceedings, Torgerson said.

"That's why you need a surety bond, which is issued by a bonding company that says, 'We will guarantee this no matter what happens,' '' she said.

Under state court rules, 6th Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden has until mid-September to rule on the school district's motion to throw out the case and the plaintiffs' motion to issue a temporary injunction until a three-day court trial takes place starting on Oct. 15 with Hylden deciding the case. A pretrial motion hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18.

Burda said the plaintiffs support Plan B, an alternative to the district's long-range facilities plan. Plan B involves keeping all three high schools open and, in general, renovating rather than rebuilding.

"We all should know that good students are a product of good teachers, good programs, supportive parents -- not gold-plated air-conditioned buildings,'' he said. "Plan B is better for minorities. It keeps neighborhood schools; it keeps more teachers; has smaller class sizes; allows more student-parent participation in school activities; requires less busing and provides safer, more secure schools. It also allows the people of Duluth to vote.''

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News Tribune staff writer Sarah Horner contributed to this report.

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