Last summer, the Duluth District School Board voted to proceed with what's called the "red plan." It's intended to improve and replace the district's aging facilities.
Over five years, seven buildings would be closed, including one of three high schools. Four new schools would be built, and others remodeled. It's pricey: almost $300 million. And the district intends to to do it without a public referendum.
"This may be the largest bonding referendum proposed for a school district in the state's history," says Herry Welty, a former school board member and current candidate for the ISD 709 board.
Welty is running largely in opposition to the red plan. Welty's group, Let Duluth Vote, wants to give district residents the final say.
"This is not a school district that should be building for huge growth, because we've been flat for the last ten years, and declining," Welty says. "And we'll probably have a flat population for the next 10 years in our schools."
Let Duluth Vote member Brenda Anderson of Duluth is also fighting the proposal. Anderson says the red plan is a bad idea for a district with a high number of low income residents.
"Half of the phone calls I've had have been senior citizens," Anderson says. "A lot of the people who have called me, who took petitions, have been senior citizens, who were so passionate about this issue. They believe in this so much. They're so afraid of this being passed. They're stretched."
“A lot of the people who have called me, who took petitions, have been senior citizens, who were so passionate about this issue. They're so afraid of this being passed. They're stretched.”Brenda Anderson
School officials say there are good reasons for proceeding without a referendum.
For one, referendums take time, and every day delayed increases the cost of construction.
School District Director of Business Services, Bill Hanson, says there was a clear message four years ago when the district asked for and received an operational levy. At that time, he says, the public was demanding a comprehensive school facilities plan.
And Hanson says the plan was developed through a long, and very public process including a dozen district-wide meetings, more than 200 other informational meetings, and several mailings.
"I really can't think of any thing more that we could have done to make this more public a process than what it was," Hanson says.
Hanson says, legally, the district can proceed without a public vote.
"We've got the authority under Minnesota statute to finance the project without a bond referendum," says Hanson. "And, basically, this authority belongs to those larger school districts in Minnesota that qualify. And we happen to be one of those."
Opponent Harry Welty doesn't dispute that. But he's hoping to stop the red plan by muddying the process. Let Duluth Vote has raised and presented one petition for a public vote. But Welty admits that petition has no law behind it to force anything.
Now they're considering a new petition, to force a vote on a much smaller improvement project, in the range of $40 to $60 million.
"Our plan is just simply to confront the school board with the possibility that two plans will be approved," Welty says. "One by the voters, and one by the state. And hold the school board hostage - the lame duck school board hostage - until a new school board is seated in January. And allow that new school board with a new composition of membership, to determine the future of the schools and whether or not to offer the red plan, or another plan up to the voters in a referendum."
Members of Welty's group meet this week with state officials to better understand the state's review and comment process for the district's red facilities plan.
But it could get a positive state review by October 15th. With that, the district could sell bonds and start the red plan before Let Duluth Vote's alternate proposal hits the ballots, and before a new school board is seated early next year.