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The Debate we should have had
if there had been a referendum

Below is a vigorous debate which started with a column by Peter Langr and subsequent emails between Peter and Harry Welty.

Peter Langr Column 

Breaking news: the City of Duluth, along with the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Duluth, and the group Let Duluth Vote, have presented a new marketing plan for the City.

The plan will promote Duluth as the “Adequate City” says a Chamber spokesman. “We’ve got a lot of adequate things in this town”, he related. “No one has ever thought to promote it before, but there’s a whole lot of people who are satisfied with adequate, and they just might like to come here!”

Along with the plan, Visit Duluth will place billboards with the slogan “Duluth, We’re Adequate” on I-35 north of the Twin Cities, while all future promotions will feature the phrase.

At City Hall, an assistant to the mayor spoke of the impetus for the plan.

“We’re great at adequate,” he glowed. “Our roads are fine, if you don’t mind a few potholes. Our sewers don’t overflow, except when it rains. Our zoo is good, except it’s not accredited and we can’t buy more animals. If Let Duluth Vote manages to keep our school facilities just adequate for the next 20 years, we’ll have the whole ball of wax!”

“We’re great at adequate,” he glowed. “Our roads are fine, if you don’t mind a few potholes. Our sewers don’t overflow, except when it rains. Our zoo is good, except it’s not accredited and we can’t buy more animals. If Let Duluth Vote manages to keep our school facilities just adequate for the next 20 years, we’ll have the whole ball of wax!”

OK, I admit it. This whole thing is just something that came to me like a bad dream. Except for the part about Let Duluth Vote. Sadly, their effort to derail the school district’s “red plan” is bizarrely true.

According to de facto spokesman and school board candidate Harry Welty, the Let Duluth Vote group hopes to create “a lot of confusion” by proposing to voters a school facilities plan that does little more than bring the existing facilities up to the level of “educationally adequate.” The cost of those renovations last year, according to Johnson Controls, was $41 million.

In reality, the idea that Duluth could solve its facilities problem with just $41 million is indicative that “a lot of confusion” has already been achieved, perhaps mostly among Welty and Let Duluth Vote. A look at the numbers shows why.

First is the actual cost of implementing the $41 million “adequate” plan. As Let Duluth Vote has insisted, once a plan is approved there are added inflation costs, and there are interest costs. Using the same rates as the School District has used for the red plan, the cost of the “adequate” plan grows to $71 million.

That’s not all, however, since a major reason for the red plan is to decrease inefficiencies in the current school facilities. Those inefficiencies, which last year were estimated at $5.3 million, won’t be solved by the “adequate” plan. They will grow, at least by the rate of inflation. The total of those costs, using the same 20 years that it would take to/0 pay for the red plan and a 3 percent inflation rate, is over $147 million.

That’s $147 million taken from programming and wasted due to inefficient facilities. Millions of it, literally, will go up in smoke.

(Welty tells us that taxpayers will vote down the next excess levy if the red plan is completed. Does he think that taxpayers will continue to vote for levies knowing that 100 percent of those monies effectively are wasted on inefficient facilities?)

Add it up - $71 and $147 million - and the minimum total for the “adequate” plan would be $218 million.

In reality though, it’s unlikely that the “adequate” plan will get us through the next 20 years without more costly inefficiencies, more costly lost students, and costly piecemeal construction projects. Welty himself has said he wishes to close East High School and do major (read: expensive) renovations at Central. A million here and $10 million there, and we could easily end up paying as much for the “adequate” plan as for the red plan.

When people ask poor questions, they get the wrong answers. Such is the case with Welty and Let Duluth Vote. They want to ask us if we would like to spend more than $400 million on the red plan, or just $41 million on their “adequate” plan. That’s the wrong question.

The real question is whether we would like to spend over $400 million to solve our facilities problems with the red plan, or whether we would like to waste $218 million to solve virtually nothing, and then pay millions (likely hundreds of millions) more down the road.

I, for one, expect better than temporarily adequate for my money.

Or should we just have Visit Duluth start putting those billboards up?

Harry Welty's reply 

Mr. Langr,
You posit that stopping the Red Plan would cost the Duluth School district hundreds of millions in wasted money through inefficiency. The numbers the red plan partisans have been throwing around is something like this: spend $20 million a year and we can save $5 million a year. That's not a very good spending to saving ratio. 
You obviously don't know much about the politics of excess levies. I've had a hand in trying to get the last four passed in Duluth. The notion that people will vote against them because they are mad at permitting the inefficiencies to continue is just silly. The notion that they will vote against them because their taxes went up too high is not. You will be sacrificing money for the classroom to have nice shiny new buildings with crumby, gutted programming.  Dr. Dixon will be gone when that happens but my grandchild will suffer from Dixon's legacy. When the 2001 excess levy failed we lost a lot of music programs, the seven hour secondary day, and crowded more kids into classes. Two Harbors, which built a shiny new High School hasn't been able to pass excess levies and they just laid off 25 teachers. If we lose our $5 million a year how many teachers will the much larger Duluth lose? I used to calculate that teachers cost about $54,000. Of course, we won't be losing the highest paid teachers but the new teachers on the bottom of the payscale. Divide a $30,000 salary into $5 million and you can begin to see how big a hit the young teachers could take. I calculate 166 teachers. Do you still feel like being cavalier about my worry?
You have put tremendous faith in all that Johnson Controls has spun about the red plan. What ever happened to good old fashioned skepticism?
Here's a portion of what I told the State Department of Education last week and I'd match my figures against yours any day.

"According to the information coming out of JCI and the Duluth School District the average Duluth household will only pay between $9 and $11 per month in property taxes if the Red Plan is adopted for a maximum of $132 annually. Let’s test this.

If you multiply $11 dollars, by 12 months and then multiply that by 20 years you get $2,240 per household. If you assume that there are 2.5 people per household this would result in $896 in taxes for the average resident of the Duluth school district over the course the Red Plan.

But if you multiply this average individual tax burden by the 94,000 residents of the Duluth School District the resultant taxes over twenty years would yield only $84,224,000 a far cry from the $437 million it will take to finance the Red Plan..

If you simply divide the $437,000,000 figure by the District’s 94,000 residents you come up with a considerably higher per person tax over twenty years - $4,649. As some wag once said, “figures never lie, liar’s figure.”

JCI has had a long history of working with school districts on issues relating to air quality and construction. It advertises itself to school districts as an expert in helping pass bond referenda. It must be very annoying for JCI to put in lots of work with a District only to see a referendum voted down. In fact, half of the Minnesota school referendums failed in 2005. It must have been tempting for JCI to search for a way around this unprofitable work and since JCI’s attorneys have so much experience with school finance law its not all that surprising that they would discover a way to avoid referenda all together...." You can read the rest here. 

And its that last point which a lot of you don't get. Your vote is being stolen. I'm an old Civics teacher and I believe our votes are precious and should be defended. It will take a lot more than your snarkiness to derail my train.

Sincerely, Harry Welty


Peter's riposte with Harry's inserted comments

Dear Mr. Langr,


It’s late and I’ve had a long day so I won’t do justice to your reply but I’ll insert some comments throughout the body of your reply.


PETE LANGR <> wrote:

Dear Mr. Welty,

Thank you for your comments.  I appreciate that you took the time.  I was hoping someone would critique my numbers. 


I fail, however, to see how you have shown my numbers to be false. 


Unlike what you say, I do not advocate spending $20 million per year to save $5 million.  I believe I showed that the minimum cost of not doing the red plan is well over $200 million, or $10 million per year.  So in a worst case scenario (as a defender of the red plan) I advocate spending $10 million per year to save $10 million per year, and then spending another $10 million per year to buy new or like new facilities, and solve the facilities problem.  I think $10 million per year over 20 years to solve the facilities problem is reasonable, given the large amount of work that ought to be done.



One of the first conversations I had with the State Dept. of Education revolved around the skepticism they had for the “savings” figures offered by JCI and the District. Some are highly speculative. One of the savings comes from the elimination of “specialists.” from the payroll.


When Gary Glass pointed out that these were teacher he was surrounded by JCI suits who said he was misusing their figures and that “specialists” were not teachers. They are wrong.


I understand how the elimination of an assistant principal or a janitor, or a secretary from an unnecessary high school can save money but I’m not sure that eliminating teaching positions is a very good way to save money. I’m also skeptical about the transportation savings as well.


I have always advocated closing a high school because I knew maintenance costs could be cut down and put into programming. When I was on the Board the public wasn’t in a frame of mind to give us a blank check so I wanted to close a high school to save money. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected it to cost a quarter of a billion dollars to close a high school.


As for the necessity for tearing down and rebuilding so many schools…..I don’t see it. While I was on the Board we had a very carefully constructed ten year plan that was updated to fix major problems. It would have been nice to pump more money into the buildings but we weren’t letting them fall into disrepair. Some of the buildings slated for destruction have had major building renovations in the last twenty years such as Nettleton. It makes little sense to me to destroy it and doing so will destroy the center of the city for the sake of “savings.” Phooey!


Remember, this is a small town. We are only about the 286th biggest city in the US . We are also a city with a high proportion of elderly on fixed incomes and a much larger percentage of folks in poverty than most cities. The recently released bankruptcy numbers are also alarming. We’re in a housing bust at the moment. Why we are contemplating offering up the single biggest building program in state history when construction costs are at an all time high. That makes no sense to me.


You mention the politics of excess levies.  I have been involved as an observer in several excess levies, one fairly intimately as a teacher.  During the passage of Duluth's most recent excess levy I seem to recall several letters to the editor, and I have also heard personal comments, from people who stated that they would not vote for the excess levy until the school board had quit wasting so much money on its inefficient facilities.  I too, am much less likely to vote for a future excess levy if the red plan does not go through and I know that my money will just be wasted, and not really applied to programming at all.


Some of what you say is true. We were criticized by many for not closing a high school. Ironically, the people who felt that way were my disciples. I had over the years convinced them of the value of this position after years of stubborn refusal by the Board to consider this. Bevan Schraw, a fine fellow who I helped two years ago by personally passing out 6,000 flyers for his school board campaign, told me that his wife had voted against the 2001 excess levy for just that reason. Never, however, did a single person complain because they wanted us to spend a ton of money to rebuild our facilities. That was in no way part of the discussion. My disciples wanted us to close a high school because they wanted more money in the classroom.


A critique of some of your numbers, some of which matters to the overall debate and some of which does not.  I hope you will correct your information, since you have stated that you are opposed to information that is misleading.


First, the cost of a teacher, even a new teacher, is much more than $30,000 per year when benefits and other costs of the hire are factored in.  I believe (from my teaching days, where my school district would require teachers to budget for the overall cost of their salary) the costs may be as much as 60% higher, but you can check on that.  Its probably largely irrelevant to the overall discussion, but your number is well off and if you believe in accuracy you should check it.  As for your worry about not passing the excess referendum if the red plan goes through, I remain unconvinced that it will be any harder to pass if the red plan goes through than if it does not.  That seems to be more of a he said/she said than anything.


You are right about these numbers. I hastily threw them together when I emailed you. Frankly, I am a little rusty on some of the stuff I dealt with four years ago. I believe that $54,000 was about the top salary for our top teachers and now that I reflect on it, it was the cost of a new teacher plus benefits. Obviously, if this is correct my dire numbers for layoffs would be cut back considerably. Even so, they would be significant and I believe we made some serious staff cuts after the 2001 levy failed. I recall taking calls from distraught staff but I can’t remember the total layoffs any more.


I believe you make a fundamental error in your analysis of the per household cost of the red plan, and therefore the $84 million number that you give as the total property tax levy is incorrect (as would be your implication that somebody is a liar).  You state that the average Duluth household will pay about $10 per month for a total cost of $132 per year.  I believe this is incorrect.  I believe that the District has said that the median household will pay about $132 per year.  As you know, there can be a huge difference between average and median.  Median means that half of the citizens will pay more, and half will pay less.  However, those that pay less won't pay too much less, since there is a limit to how cheap a home can be (there aren't many homes below $90,000 any more).  However, those that pay more can easily pay much more, for example for a $400,000 home.  Since there is an equal amount of families paying significantly more as compared to the number of families paying a little less, your number is skewed low - probably very low.  Your $84 million number could be much more, depending on the range of home values in Duluth , but you would need to get some better data to find the actual number.  In any case, you are misleading the public by using the $84 million.  If in fact the $84 million is significantly increased, then that, plus the efficiency savings, along with other sources of revenue that the District has we would get near the $400+ million.  In any case, it makes little sense for you to use a number that you now must suspect is significantly wrong. 


The District did indeed say that the $125,000 home was the “median” home which would mean that half the homes in Duluth would cost more and half would cost less. And yes, we don’t have many two or three thousand dollar homes. However, in the infamous survey that JCI paid to have done 46% of the participants said their homes cost more than $125,000 and only 15% said their homes cost less than $125,000. If the people being surveyed had been typical the split would have been much closer to 30%/30% that is, if the $125,000 really was the median. I suspect the people surveyed were typical and that this indicates that house prices are considerably higher than JCI has let on. The $125,000 figure, even if it is a median number, has been thrown around as though it meant an “average” home. You and I know that there is a difference in statistical nomenclature on this point but most people reading this won’t understand that fine point.


I’m not sure if you are right about whether the taxes would be that much greater because the expensive homes would skew them higher. I suspect there is truth in your observation but I doubt that it would make up for the difference I pointed out - 437 million minus $84 million. If I was a school board member it’s the sort of question I’d be intrigued to ask. It would take some legwork to ferret it out but, of course, I’m not a school board member and am dependent upon the numbers coming out of JCI and the District. On that score I’ll just mention that Gary Glass has been trying to get information of a financial nature from the District but that he has been stonewalled. I told Gary it will be different once he is on the school board.


(Just as an addendum to this question, do not businesses pay property tax also?  Maybe not for a school levy.  But if they do, this would also significantly increase the $84 million.)


Yes, you are absolutely right. This is something that occurred to me shortly after I presented this simplistic figure. I have not attempted to find out how many businesses there are in the Duluth District but I’d bet it would be between 5 and 15 % of the number of residences. Commercial and Industrial taxes are steeper than residential property taxes but they can’t come near raising three times as much revenue as residential taxes or no one would do any business in Duluth.  Just what proportion of the taxes raised come from C&I I’d like to know just for the sake of curiosity. Duluth also has about 33 TIF districts. My guess is that the businesses that aren’t in the TIFs will really get socked hard.


(On your website you make the same mistake when you say that JCI says that the median priced home in Duluth is $125,000, but the Duluth City Assessor gives the average price as $168,000, and you imply that JCI is misleading the public.  They are not.  They simply know the difference between median and average.  Also, there is often a very significant difference between assessed value and actual value of a home, which you no doubt know from reading your property tax statement.)


That $168,000 is the average sale price of Duluth homes over the last three years. I make no claim as to whether it reflects the average price of a home. I use it merely to undermine confidence in the claim that the “median” priced home is $125,000.


So much for numbers.  You asked me what happened to good old fashioned skepticism.  I will tell you.  When the facilities planning and public meetings were going on (over more than a year) I paid fairly close attention and attended meetings.  I was skeptical, and in fact several times remonstrated the Superintendent and representatives of Johnson Controls to not have preconceived notions.  After the data was in I looked at it myself and came up with my own facilities plan based on the data and what I know of the schools from personal experience.  I expected Johnson Controls to come up with a plan far different from mine.  I was wrong.  The "two school" plans were essentially what I had determined on my own.  So far from becoming more skeptical, I was instead given the idea that those plans were reasonable, and would solve our facilities problem for a price that is reasonable, given the magnitude of the problem.  I don't think skepticism is particularly productive on this project anymore.


It will be the voters who decide what a reasonable price is. They won’t get to do it in a referendum but they will have an excess levy next year. We’ll see whose prediction comes closer to fruition.


And no, I don't believe my vote is being stolen.  I voted for the school board to implement a facilities plan, and they did.  I'm proud of them for having the guts to do so.


Had it not been for Johnson Controls it would never occurred to our school board to skip a referendum. They did it because they were afraid a referendum would raise doubts and cause the red plan to be defeated. This is not California . This is not a damned initiative. People in Duluth have always been able to vote on major school building projects. Skipping a vote is a duplicitous way to avoid answering questions. The questions we are raising would have been discussed in a referendum and the School District would have been quick to answer them. Our current campaign is a left handed way to get the same debate going. Not voting on this is unprecedented. Yes, sadly, it appears legal but if it is, it is almost certainly unintentional. And just because it may be legal doesn’t make it right. This is the School Board as “thief in the night.”


If you would define snarkiness I would appreciate it.  The context makes me think it is a bad thing, and I would correct it in the future, but I am not sure what it means.


I believe snarkiness is a new slang term for being snide.  I know you are passionate about the red plan but the tone of your piece undermines your case. It’s what I expect from people who have nothing but contempt for others. Because I think I’m going to win I actually prefer it to having the Superintendent laugh in my face about how there was nothing I could hope to do to stop the Red Plan’s approval by the state. That arrogance is a lot like Tom Hustad’s telling one of the Let Duluth Vote people to “shut up and sit down,” last spring. for which he later wrote an apology.


I believe this plan at this price was a forgone conclusion the moment JCI realized they would be able to skip a referendum.


Unless I am much mistaken in my numbers, the email that you sent me and put on your website holds several inaccuracies in the numbers.  I hope you will correct them on that site, or place this email on that site, or else if I am incorrect in my numbers please show me how.  I do make an effort to be accurate.


I will not correct my numbers on the website but I will put this email with my replies on it. This is a poor substitute for the debate which we should have had on the Red Plan but I guess it will have to do.


Thank you again for your comment.



Pete Langr


And thank you for your comments.


Harry Welty

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