A month after the 2017 election, the Duluth school district was forced to cut $1.5 million from operations in midyear to avoid slipping into statutory-operating-debt status. The reserve fund, at $30 million just a dozen years earlier, had been completely depleted. The district’s finances were in such disarray, taxpayers had to pay thousands of dollars to have an outside firm put a budget together.
This year’s budget was balanced by a 20.5% tax increase, but taxpayers will not be able to bail out our school district forever. The district’s tax levy has risen to $39,837,624.11. It was $11,940,373.81 at the end of 2005, when Keith Dixon came to town as superintendent.
While the public pays, boardroom fights roll on, resembling a family feud exasperated by financial stress.
Beneath the board’s systemic dysfunction lies a fiscal problem. Poor business practice over the past dozen years — bad contracts, bad planning, bad money management — is the primary cause for the district’s financial woes.
The most glaring example of faulty planning is the still-vacant Central High School property. Less than a decade before shutting the Central campus down, taxpayers spent $1.8 million for new athletic facilities that are now senselessly wasting away.
My position on what should be done with the Central property was only partially reported recently in this paper. I made it clear during the Chamber of Commerce- and News Tribune-sponsored forum on Sept. 24 that I wanted all options — including bringing all or part of the property back into the system — put on the table. The public wants the problem dealt with, but not necessarily by selling Central, and certainly not at a fire-sale price. The asking price for the property has been slashed nearly in half from an offer the board turned down three years ago. A property that could have fetched $14.2 million is now being marketed for $7.9 million.
The Secondary Technical Center on the Central campus was a popular student draw and the primary reason the district once enjoyed a positive open-enrollment ratio in its upper grades. The two Tech buildings are still only 23 and 25 years old, respectively. Taxpayers paid off $2.3 million of construction debt on the lower campus building — as it sat empty.
Career and technical education is reawakening with great energy. We should consider reopening the Tech buildings for education. I believe we could re-energize them as an enrollment magnet. District enrollment, the Red Plan’s worst failure, is 1,400 students below projections. That amounts to $9 million lost annually in per-student state aid.
Our school district has begun to lease space (at a cost of $14,366.40 per year) in the old Washington school because of a lack of educational facilities in the center of the city. Meanwhile, 77 acres with a panoramic view and three multimillion-dollar buildings continue to sit unused for more than eight years, losing money. This is an inexcusable fiscal failure, and citizens have good reason to be upset about it.
The highest possible standard should guide decisions in the public sector. In the public sector, you’re not just spending your own money, or your company’s money; you’re spending your neighbors’ money.
Loren Martell is a candidate to represent District 3 on the Duluth School Board. The seat is up for election on Nov. 5. He wrote this at the request of the News Tribune Opinion page.