Duluth schools proceed with controversial facilities plan

Duluth Central High School
Duluth Central High School would be closed under the district's "red" facilities plan. Built on top of Duluth's hillside in 1971, the school is Duluth's newest High School building.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

The Duluth School District board decided three years ago to proceed with a facilities plan known as the Red Plan -- an almost $300 million plan to close seven school buildings, including one of three high schools. Four new schools would be built and others remodeled.

The district chose to go ahead with the project, but never gave residents a chance to vote on the board's decision to raise property taxes.

The costly plan didn't set well with everyone. Last year, a group calling itself Let Duluth Vote drew up a petition to put up for public vote on a less expensive plan. It gathered signatures and presented its petition to the district.

Harry Welty
Harry Welty is a former member of the Duluth District 709 school board. Welty is an outspoken critic of the district's decision to proceed with an expensive long range facilities plan without putting the plan up for a public referendum.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"The district submitted that [petition] to the state Attorney General, to see if it met the legal requirements for that process," said Tim Grover, the school board chairman. "And the opinion of the Attorney General was that they could not say that it did not meet the requirements."

In the meantime, the district borrowed money and started implementing the Red Plan.

Then just last week, the opponents -- Let Duluth Vote -- were allowed to present their now more detailed plan to the board. The plan was a year in the making, and, school board chairman Grover admits, each side blames the other for stalling.

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"There's a little bit of contention involved there," said Grover. "Throughout the fall and into the early part of this year, Let Duluth Vote ... in my opinion, dragged their feet a little bit as far as getting their plan together."

Now there's yet another alternate plan -- in fact, two more. School officials said the group "Let Duluth Vote" has three seperate versions of their plan, called "Plan B."

"It does seem to be, to a certain extent, an exercise in futility."

(The District has dubbed the versions Plan B-1, Plan B-2 and Plan D.)

Board members didn't think the Let Duluth Vote plan presented last week matched well the plan describe on last year's petition. So the Duluth Board is working up two alternate versions of the Let Duluth Vote plans, and spending up to $70,000 for architectural consultant work, to refine both alternate plans.

One or both will eventually be presented to the State Department of Education, which will rule on whether they're acceptable. If one is acceptable to the state officials, a funding referendum to support that plan could go to the public later this summer.

But the vote would only be advisory. Regardless of the outcome, no one believes the district will actually adopt one of the alternate plans -- and it will still move forward with the Red Plan. The outcome of the vote wouldn't change anything.

"If there is a referendum, and if there's an alternative plan approved by the voters, the board and the district would be under no legal obligation to implement that plan," said Grover. "It does seem to be, to a certain extent, an exercise in futility."

So why bother? Grover said the district's hand was forced by the petition drive.

"I don't know that what we're doing is a wise use of taxpayer funds. But we took the prudent approach, which was to fulfill what may well be our legal obligation and go forward with it," said Grover. "So, exercise in futility or not, we feel that we're doing what must be done."

Harry Welty, with Let Duluth Vote, is just as frustrated.

"We are far more aware of how ridiculous this is than anybody else, but we've done what we were supposed to do," Welty said. "We just simply did what we could do with a school board that would not cooperate until it was far, far too late."

Meanwhile, the district's preferred plan proceeds this summer with one new building going up and several in remodeling - providing there are no obstacles like a restraining order.

Welty and a handful of others are suing the district and the project's lead contractor. Welty said the district awarded the hefty contract illegally.

"It was not bid out," Welty explained. "This was pre-arranged. We think this is clearly illegal, and we think the school district is going to have a lot of explaining to do to the judge."

The district denies any wrongdoing.

Let Duluth Vote's lawsuit gets a hearing May 22.