In June, the Central High School campus will have sat empty for 10 years. Factor inflation at 2% a year on $10 million over 10 years, and we’ve lost $2 million on the time value of money. We’ve lost another $1 million on insurance, real estate, utility, and maintenance costs.
The Red Plan predictably created an educational void in the center of a city 30 miles long and worsened Duluth’s east-west divide. The runner-up for ISD 709’s superintendent job, Michael Funk from Albert Lea, Minnesota, declared it was time to “go back to the future” and take a new look at what we have on the Central campus, including the Secondary Technical Center building, which was once an enrollment magnet.
Our School Board (all connected with the DFL, the group fond of lecturing about the environment) wants to spend $2 million to tear down the 228,826-square-foot Central High School building, which is barely 50 years old, and haul it off to a landfill. They want to construct another building for administration, then start leasing space in the center of town for educational programming currently housed in Historic Old Central. “We would lease space for the Area Learning Center … along with adult-based education,” district Chief Financial Officer Cathy Erickson said during a special meeting last Jan. 29.
What they are proposing to do is deeply flawed. It’s nothing but the warped logic of the Red Plan reprised.
School district leaders claim they will be “saving” us money again — by borrowing millions. If Historic Old Central is sold, the district would “save” $48.5 million in maintenance expenses. This saved money, the theory goes, would then be freed up to be used as a “baseline” for other spending. Because the Central project expense is estimated at $31.5 million, we are “saving” $17 million.
First, it is unlikely the estimate for the Central project will hold. Not a single building estimate from the Red Plan held true, and that hilltop area is a particularly tough spot for construction. On top of that, construction and demolition costs have spiked dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Second, the School Board wants to rob the money for the project from the district’s maintenance fund, which already is woefully underfunded. More than two years have passed since the facilities manager warned the board the district had a “five- to 10-year grace period” before it would be hit by a “huge number” for maintenance expense, because all the buildings were upgraded within a narrow span of time.
What happened in the boardroom last Jan. 29 mimicked what I’ve witnessed in the room for more than 12 years. With $31.5 million on the table, administration handed out the resolution during the special meeting instead of three days before, as it’s supposed to. The chair of the board didn’t even appear to read it before declaring full support for it. She and her colleagues rubber stamped everything on the heels of another superintendent heading out the door.
The new superintendent was good enough to invite me to meet with him in his office after he arrived in town. I told him, “With the right plan here, you could take a quantum leap toward pulling the city back together and healing still-festering wounds.”
On the evening of Jan. 29, however, the chair of the board rubbed salt into the wounds by condescendingly dismissing anyone who would “come to the podium to tell us that we’re gonna go to hell because we’re taking their vote away,” as though those citizens were nothing but little gnats she could easily swat away from her throne.
The proposed plan for the Central property is another end-run around democracy. It reboots the same railroad job and sends it roaring down the same tracks. Maintenance money is not supposed to be used for new construction, but the DFL/union power players ferreted out another loophole, the same way they ferreted out a way to circumvent a vote on the Red Plan.
Loren Martell is a long-time watchdog of the Duluth school district. He has run unsuccessfully for the Duluth School Board five times since 2011.