Of all the School Board candidates who lost in the last election, I was the only one who continued to go into the boardroom. I sat through every regular meeting from beginning to end. Often, during standing committee meetings, I was the only person in the room not paid to be there.
I don't care to sit on the sidelines and make judgment calls, however. I always feel duty-bound to offer to take the reins myself.
There are many positives to build on in District 709. Our school district has a good staff in place. Considerable progress has been made, such as the addition of a high-tech FAB Lab at Denfeld High School and the Spanish-immersion program at Lowell Elementary.
The overriding problem with the school district is that its negatives - persistent inequities and large class sizes - keep outweighing all its positives in the educational marketplace.
Solving these issues and becoming competitive require dealing with the financial situation the district has been led into by the School Board. The deterioration of ISD 709's fiscal health has been staggering. The reserve fund was at more than $30 million 12 years ago. The reserve balance for fiscal year 2017 (still to be audited) is $2.3 million. Where did $28 million go? Definitely not into our public school classrooms. In fact, millions of dollars are being pulled out of the general fund annually (out of classrooms) to pay off the $22 million annual debt run up by the board.
And taxpayers have been hit hard, too. The levy has gone up by $19 million over the past 12 years, and yet our school district is still so broke it had to borrow against its already abysmally underfunded maintenance fund. The board ran up a bill, with bond interest, of $481 million on facilities, and has almost no maintenance money available to protect that investment.
Current board members were not the ones who made the initial decisions, but the same power group - the DFL-endorsed members - still control the boardroom, and they're stuck in a rut. To exemplify this point: it was the four DFL-endorsed members who refused to sell any Red Plan-vacated property.
It's time for change. My unique knowledge of what led the district into its current predicament would be helpful in finding a way out.
Another undervalued asset I bring to the table is the trust I have built up with the part of our community that still feels disenfranchised from our public school district. This year marks the eighth time in the past nine years I've been out knocking on doors, talking to the public about district issues. District 709 has failed to mend fences with a large part of our community. I can be a liaison with those who still feel resentment toward the strong-arm politics employed by district leaders over the past decade.
No public institution can flourish without the full support of the community, and it is especially imperative to heal Duluth's old wounds and re-energize the entire city in light of the fiscal difficulties our school district faces.
Loren Martell is a candidate for an At Large seat on the Duluth School Board.
About this race
Five candidates are vying for two open At Large seats on the Duluth School Board. The top four vote-getters in the Sept. 12 primary election will advance to Election Day on Nov. 7. Commentaries from each of the candidates are being published Tuesday through Saturday this week on the News Tribune Opinion page. The five candidates are Josh Gorham, Bogdana Krivogorsky, Loren Martell, Sally Trnka, and incumbent Harry Welty.