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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Time for School Board to vote, not delay
Duluth News Tribune, June 19, 2007

Tonight, the Duluth School Board will be asked to consider a plan to eliminate one high school, build or remodel two others and consolidate other facilities.

The decision is enormous. The prospect of closing Central High School, or any school, would be big enough by itself, but it’s only one of many components to be evaluated by the School Board.

Not the least of those concerns is the plan’s projected price tag of $257 million, an amount that district administrators point out must be weighed against the very high cost of doing nothing.

A portion of the $257 million that will have to be paid only if the proposal is adopted is more than $30 million in architectural and engineering services and project oversight fees. That check would be made out to Johnson Controls, a company best known as a manufacturer of heating and cooling devices.

Obviously, the company isn’t being asked to provide the schools with $33 million worth of thermostats. Rather, it would serve as the general contractor for the engineering and design work and pass most of the money on to subcontractors. Johnson Controls would retain about a $4.5 million profit.

Over the weekend, some of those details were publicized by a community activist and a former School Board member quoted in yesterday’s news story, “Duluth school contractor’s ‘plum’ could reach $33.4 million, resident says.” The “revelation” led many to call for today’s vote to be delayed, contending that district administrators failed to disclose the details of the Johnson Controls deal, as well as other crucial aspects of the plan.

In fact, the school district did reveal the information, though not necessarily in a form easily comprehended by the average taxpayer (or average School Board member, for that matter). Hundreds of documents, including a Jan. 24, 2006, request for proposals for what eventually became the Johnson Controls contract, are posted on the district’s Web site. Reams of information on everything from student demographics to uses of school buildings have been made available at hundreds of community meetings held by the district’s Citizens Advisory Group.

Yet that explosion of information may have been where the district erred. It’s analogous to a recent interpretation of the Enron scandal by New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell. Though popular belief has it that the company never told its investors about its very complex stock deals, it had in fact made all the filings required of it by law. The information — more than anyone would ever want, Gladwell wrote — was available, but virtually incomprehensible, to the common investor.

Comparisons to the worst corporate debacle in American history notwithstanding, School Board members have all the information they need. If they require more time to digest it, so be it, so long as the delay is not used as a tactic to kill the plan by purposeful inaction.

Change is inevitable in the Duluth Public Schools, and at least some variant of the red plan, especially one incorporating a “left-right” proposal for two demographically balanced high schools, is a reasonable approach. The School Board has the power to modify the recommendation, perhaps approving it as a strategy only, with the economics to be considered later. But to delay it entirely will only postpone the inevitable and pile on costs while fanning the flames of discontent.

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