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Duluth shouldnít spend money on divisive red plan

Duluth News Tribune
Published Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mike Jaros is saving Duluth. Itís as simple as that. Thank you, Mike. Iím suddenly very glad you beat me the two times I ran against you.

But the News Tribuneís April 4 editorial, ďMultiple questions of intent behind Jarosí school fight,Ē doesnít see it that way. The News Tribuneís top dogs all seem to think that shiny new schools guarantee a better education. We will put this theory to the test in November when angry voters get the chance to reauthorize an annual property tax for classroom spending. If that $5 million is lost along with the $6 million being cut this year, weíll soon find out whether bricks and mortar or teachers educate our children.

The top dogs must have been educated by bricks and mortar. That would explain why no teacher ever taught them about the Boston Tea Party.

The newspaperís editorial is right about one thing: Jarosí intention is to kill the red plan. Itís in his DFL DNA. He was elected back in the Minnesota Miracle days when a bipartisan legislature freed Minnesota schools from their dependence on property taxes. For Jaros, it was a matter of funding schools without resorting to the highly regressive property tax that will fund the red plan.

Iím amazed that the News Tribune didnít consider this after having published its excellent series on poverty in Duluth. Duluth is the third poorest city in Minnesota. Many of our elderly people live on fixed incomes, and their chief asset is their home. Now the Duluth School Board is using its newfound power to finance the biggest school building project in Minnesota history on the backs of the poor.

The law that has bestowed this authority is far more complicated than the newspaper has reported. Itís not just Jarosí law but two or three other laws that interact with each other in unexpected ways. This interaction is what gives the School Board this awesome taxing authority and without Jarosí law, it all falls apart.

The discovery of this authority by Johnson Controls has been a great surprise to many of us. It has been about 15 years since Jaros got his law passed and no one ó not Jaros, not the Legislature, not the Minnesota Department of Education, not the School Board and not even the School Districtís lobbyist ó had the slightest clue that the Duluth School Board could use it to impose such a colossal building plan without a vote.

The last time the School Board offered a successful building bond was 1992 and it too was passed without a referendum. But ó and this is a very big but ó it did so under another statute that allows citizens to put a building plan on the ballot through petition. Itís called a ďreverse referendum.Ē In 1992, for reasons none of the top dogs can remember because they werenít living in Duluth at the time, the public had no objections and the $25 million plan was put into effect. But the voters could have demanded an election had they wished.

Not this time. The statutory authority of 1992 was intentionally avoided by Johnson Controls and the School Board. They didnít want a vote. Instead, they anesthetized Duluth and turned up the heat so slowly that we didnít realize that the water had started to boil until it was too late. Itís frustrating to hear the red planís few remaining vocal supporters demand to know where its critics were when the water was cool and the red planís dire consequences were still unclear. To put it simply, we were snookered.

There is only one problem with the red plan that the top dogs have conceded. It will, according to a map sent by the district to the Minnesota Department of Education, split Duluth along 14th Ave. East into rich/poor, high minority/low minority halves. There is a great irony in this and Jaros knows it well. His law originally allowed some building without referenda for, among other reasons, to encourage integration. Itís ironic because the red plan kills our integration program and segregates Duluth. It completely violates the spirit of Jarosí law. Over time the red plan will impoverish Jarosí western district as its prosperous residents flee to eastern Duluth. Shiny new schools will not stem this exodus.

The News Tribuneís passive-aggressive criticism of Jaros is an embarrassment. Instead, the newspaper should ask the same questions that Jaros has been asking. Why should the voters in Jarosí district pay taxes to segregate themselves from the rest of the city? And why should they give up their right to vote?

Itís the Boston Tea Party all over again. If the News Tribuneís top dogs donít know what that is, theyíd better ask a teacher.

Harry Welty is a former member of the Duluth School Board.


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