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Duluth district agreements

Published (4/25/2008)
By Courtney Blanchard
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An issue flaring up in Duluth traveled south for an appearance at the House Taxes Committee April 17.

Testifiers came to talk about the Duluth School Board’s Red Plan to build new schools and sell old ones. It’s financed by a lease purchase authority, which does not require voter approval.

HF4127, sponsored by Rep. Mike Jaros (DFL-Duluth), would halt the plan by requiring that voters approve any plans for lease purchase financing for future building projects. The bill was laid over for possible inclusion in the committee’s omnibus bill.

The controversy around the Red Plan stems partly from the large scope of the project. Property taxpayers were asked to shoulder nearly $95 million in bonds without voter approval this year. But others question whether the district should use a lease purchasing authority, which is directed to finance projects “relating to a comprehensive plan for elimination of segregation,” according to the Department of Revenue.

Nancy Nilsen, chairwoman of the Duluth School Board, said the plan was developed with community input. She said by the time the board approved it, a majority of the public supported the Red Plan.

School officials say new schools are badly needed because a declining student population and nearly century-old buildings have compounded into a drab learning environment.

“We have science labs that are frankly an embarrassment to our community. If I took you into them, I’d have to tell you they were science labs because you couldn’t tell by walking into the room,” Superintendent Keith Dixon said.

Jaros said the district is the third-poorest in the state, and cannot afford the project, which could top $400 million. He said it was hard for him to introduce the bill, but he thought it was necessary.

“I was hoping we could work it out locally,” he said. “The school district is closing some good schools, putting in new schools and some old ones that I think can be fixed.”

Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) sponsors the companion, SF3832, which awaits action by the Senate Taxes Committee.

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