Superintendent’s Report Card

report cardWhat does it take to get “less than high marks?”

Isn’t it ironic that Superintendent Bruce Thomas got high marks on his annual review by the school board?  I would think the main goal for Bruce Thomas was to get the school bond issue approved. We all know that the school bond issue was resoundingly rejected in last fall’s election by the taxpayers of ISD 318.
This was the main reason Bruce Thomas was hired and he failed in epic proportions.  How much money was spent by the proponents of the school bonding bill?  What were the money sources?  How many man-hours were wasted on this effort?  Could there have been a more effective use of this time?
This issue drove a huge wedge between the school board and its constituents. It will take years for the wedge to fade away.
I’ve been involved in receiving and giving annual reviews.  The first thing to be considered is the status of the annual goals? Were the individual goals achieved? It would be helpful to know the goals for current year and the previous year.  Did the school board set his annual goals?
An annual review is a key item in evaluating a professional’s performance.  If there is no constructive criticism and key goals are failed to be addressed, the person undergoing a performance review is being handed a dis-service.   If you are an elected official executing this type of performance review, you have also failed your constituents.

Question of the Week: Does ICTV influence local politics and elections?

Itasca Community Television (ICTV) is a Governmental Access provider to the City of Grand Rapids.

From ICTV’s website : “At minimum, each candidate for local, regional, state or federal office representing a community in the ICTV viewing area will receive air time to discuss his or her position. These appearances will be arranged with the operations manager and shall occur no later than the Friday, three weeks prior to the election.

ICTV retains the right to schedule, record and air forums and discussions, as applicable on any issues of ballot.  These may or may not include incumbent officers or individuals seeking office.”

Does this rule allow ICTV to determine when and if candidates and issues receive airtime?  If this is true then doesn’t also mean that ICTV may promote or bury issues for airing as the operations manager and ICTV Management sees fit?


The Best Education We Can Afford – Part 2

By: John Nelson
Grand Rapids Voice

In a previous article published by the Western Itasca Review and Scenic Range News Forum, Grand Rapids Voice stated that we all want the best possible education for our children that we can afford. In that article, we showed that the community cannot afford the proposed $80 million bond presented by the school district for several reasons. There are, however, other compelling reasons to oppose the approval of the bond issue.

The ISD School Board has published and disseminated reams of material stating how badly the district needs the proposed new schools. But, can we rely on the information presented by the district? Grand Rapids Voice believes the district has misrepresented the need for these new schools and has misled the public with their publications.

For five years, the district has worked with Johnson Controls to develop the plans to build the two new grade schools. It should be noted that Johnson Controls is in the business of building new schools and their efforts are directed to that end. To show the district pursued due diligence, they had Johnson Controls also provide proposals for refurbishing and remodeling the existing schools. In this, the district has had a company whose business is to build new schools do the proposal for the refurbishing of the existing schools which is not in their business expertise. The numbers clearly show that the proposals presented by Johnson Controls heavily favors building new schools. Big surprise!

The public has not been informed that Johnson Controls proposed and convinced the Duluth schools that closing of schools and consolidation was an answer to the district’s problems. Johnson controls then controlled the engineering, contracting and construction of the new schools they promoted. In doing so, they controlled the process and prevented any competitive bidding on the project. This is an obvious conflict of interest and appears to be continued in ISD 318.

Grand Rapids Voice was contacted by an independent company whose primary business is the remodeling and refurbishing existing school buildings to fit the needs of modern education. The company informed us they had approached the district asking to provide a competitive proposal to the building of new schools which is in their area of expertise. The district would not even consider allowing them to enter into the proposal or bidding process. Grand Rapids Voice was also informed that, while the estimates are not exact or precise, the independent company felt that the four existing schools could be refurbished, remodeled and made more energy-efficient for a community contribution of $25 million and potentially less. This possibility is far less than the Johnson Controls refurbishing proposal of $55 million and 30% of the Johnson Controls proposed $80 million for new schools. It appears that no companies other than Johnson Controls were permitted to bid on any part of the process and they claim they have exhausted all possibilities. This is misleading on its face.

At a recent public forum, Superintendent Thomas stated that the district had entertained submissions by four separate companies. When asked to name the companies permitted to submit proposals, Thomas said he could not remember the names of the companies. It is odd that the names of four companies submitting proposals on an $80 million project that has been in the works for five full years could not be remembered. It would appear that Thomas and the district cannot supply the names of competitive proposals as they, apparently, may not exist. The district is telling the public that the process has been open and transparent but the facts do not support this assertion.

The district states that skyrocketing K-5 enrollment requires new and expanded school facilities. However, the district does not tell the public that a substantial part of any increase is in the manner in which kindergarten students are counted. When kindergarten was ½ day, each student was counted as ½ student. This year all kindergarteners attend full days and are now counted as 1 student. By this simple change, the kindergarten enrollment doubled without adding a single child. In her article Itasca County Student Numbers Hold Steady by Kitty Mayo published in the Scenic Range News Forum and Mines and Pines, she showed clearly that the enrollment over the past 5 years in our community has not only held steady but has declined over the past 5 years. In their publications, the district has presented graphs of student population increase. The district, however, did not publish a complete graphic representation of student population and started their data at the low point following the recession of 2008 where enrollment dropped precipitously due to families leaving the area. Again, the district has misrepresented a crucial part of its rationale for building new schools. The data showed by Ms. Mayo shows that enrollment this year, with the change of the manner in which kindergarteners are counted, the student enrollment is less than in the previous four years and only 66 more than in 2011-2012. Assuming a kindergarten class of 200 children, the increase in enrollment from the manner in which they were counted accounts for 100 child increase. It is apparent that the enrollment is not skyrocketing and is, at best, holding steady. Again, the district is making an effort to mislead the public.

The district has made great efforts to show that the tax increase on a $150,000 house is nominal. The numbers may sound good but they represent a significant increase in property tax. For a $200,000 home, the increase represents an increase of approximately 10%. Business taxes will be substantial and the district does not mention the impact on the public in having to pay this increase due to increases in the price of all goods and services sold within the district. People with agricultural land that is non-homesteaded, hobby farm, Christmas tree farms, woodlots, etc., will pay additional by the acre. Rent for apartments will increase due to substantial increases in apartment building taxes. This is hardly an insignificant and minor increase.

What does Bigfork get from the bond proposal? Bigfork does not get a desk, a chair, a text-book or a sheet of paper. For their tax increase, Bigfork and other outlying areas get absolutely NOTHING.

How much is $80,000,000?

MoneyBy Grand Rapids Voice

Recently, while enjoying a cup of McDonald’s coffee with a group of friends, also recently referred by a local as the old white men’s club, I was asked how somebody even related to a number like eighty million dollars. Almost immediately as people tried to draw a comparison it became apparent that very few can comprehend such a number. To that end I spent some time the next day trying to put some meaning to the number in some form of local context.
After some thought of what might help us visualize what can be built with eighty million I went to the county parcel inquiry sight and looked for anything that might be a facility that was familiar to the public as usable as a school. In my quest I couldn’t help but think of some of the local hotels as they usually have big ballrooms also known as gymnasiums, conference room, commercial kitchen and perhaps a pool. A pool is always nice. The most likely candidate for my comparison appeared to be the most recently completed Timberlake Lodge valued for tax assessment purposes at $4,700,000. Now let me say that this is certainly a top of the line hotel property and I thank the owners for making this kind of commitment to the tax base, it is a wonderful property.
Using the county parcel inquiry measuring tool, it was relatively easy to measure the length of the property to be somewhere between 950 to 960 feet long. Now I think I have something I hope my friends can understand or at least get a vision.
Let’s say we lined up these hotel properties valued at $4,700,000 end to end using the land footprint of 960’ long, how far south could we go if we were to spend $80,000,000? The simple math calculation tells us at that price we could build 17 of these beautiful hotels with 960 feet of land under each and it would reach continuously from the existing hotel to beyond the Harris Town Road.
Now of course we don’t need 17 pools with water slides or 17 gymnasiums but are you getting an idea of what 80 million dollars might look like?



By: John Nelson
Grand Rapids Voice

We all want the best possible education that we can afford for the children of ISD 318. After all, these are our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews. We want their education to be the best possible because their education is the basis for their success in life and in their chosen careers. In our ever-changing world, education is the pillar on which our community and society stands. Nobody can dispute this.

The community is being asked by the ISD 318 School Board to approve an investment of $80 million to build two new grade schools to replace the four currently in use. They tell us that increasing student population and the best possible education for the children requires this investment in our children’s future. The school board does not say that a substantial contribution to the increase in student enrollment is due to the manner in which students are counted. Kindergarten children, when they attended half-day kindergarten, were counted as ½ student. However, now that kindergarten students attend all-day kindergarten, they are counted as 1 student. By making this simple change in the way students are counted, the enrollment in the primary grades increased over 10% without adding a new student to the enrollment. This hardly qualifies as a real increase in enrollment and makes the argument based on increased student population a myth.

In their publications, the school board also stated that the new schools would have space for “community involvement”. What exactly is “community involvement”? Are we to understand that they are including space for purposes other than educating our children? We agree school facilities are very important. But, we do not build schools as auditoriums and venues for “community involvement”.

When any of us find the need to make a significant investment, i.e. a new car, a new home, etc., we all have what we would want on one hand and what we can afford on the other. We may want all the bells and whistles of a luxury SUV but a mini-van will be sufficient to do what we need it to do without those wonderful extra things on our wish-list. The real question that confronts us is, “Can we afford the schools the school board proposes or is there a plan that more closely fits our ability to pay?”

There are many things to consider in determining what we can afford. The school board says that the increase in property tax will only be $8 per month to pay for the entire investment. This may be close for lower valued properties in the county but it is not for the average property. The average property owner will pay substantially more. While this may sound good and attractive, nowhere in their published material does the school board give the total cost over the term of the debt. We all know that when we buy a car or a home and make payments, the total amount we pay is far, far greater than the purchase price. The amount they are asking is $80 million but the total cost is significantly more and will saddle the properties in Itasca County with debt for 20-22 years. The community will be paying the debt and deserves to know the real cost of the indebtedness and not just a statement on what the cost would be to the lower valued properties.
We are already facing an 8% increase in county levy for wage increases of county employees as reported by Kitty Mayo in the Scenic Range News Forum on Thursday, September 17, 2015, Blandin has successfully litigated a case in Tax Court and the county must potentially repay Blandin $10 million due to over taxation, the tax values on Blandin’s forest land has been reduced from $190 million to $26 million, the City of Grand Rapids has bonded new projects that require an additional $4.275 million which will require increased tax levies to repay that debt together with interest; Enbridge Pipeline is closing its Number 3 pipeline through Itasca County and revenues from this closing are being lost. We live in a community where: property values are already decreasing; median per capita income is falling; unemployment is among the highest in the state; population, as a whole is decreasing, the City of Grand Rapids is already the sixth highest taxed per capita city in the state. In short, our capacity to pay for large debt is rapidly decreasing. Is there now or are we approaching insufficient population, income and employment to justify the financial burden of providing the board what they want and not what we, as a community, can afford?

Look to St. Joseph’s, for example. St. Joseph’s was able to construct a new school accommodating 175 students and a gymnasium for a total of $3.7 million. The ISD School Board states the proposed schools are to accommodate 900 students or just over 5 times the enrollment at St. Joseph’s. Based on a per child cost, St. Joseph’s could build a facility for 900 students for less than $20 million. Why, then, does the school board want us to believe that they need $80 million. Surely, there is a plan which is affordable and gives the community the best facilities and education the community can afford.

Grand Rapids Voice is actively working with the ISD 318 School Board, elected officials and the community to provide quality education for our children and facilities that we can afford.