Swarms of people showed up at the Duluth School Board meeting Tuesday night wearing a request for board members on theirT-shirts: Let Duluth Vote.
The group of about 50people was asking for the chance to vote on the$293 million long-range facilities proposal, known as the red plan, which the board adopted in June. At that time the board also voted to not put the proposal up for a referendum.
The decision spawned the creation of the Let Duluth Vote organization, spearheaded largely by Harry Welty and Gary Glass, two candidates running for seats on the Duluth School Board this fall. Two other candidates running for seats, Deb Anderson and incumbent Tim Grover, are involved in the organization, as are dozens of community members, many of whom were present at Tuesday's meeting.
Since its inception, members of the group have been soliciting signatures on petitions demanding the School Board reconsider its June decision and give the people a chance to vote on the red plan.
Brenda Anderson, the contact person for Let Duluth Vote, presented the petition with about 2,700 signatures to the board Tuesday night.
"I have received seven to 15 calls a day from concerned citizens who thanked us for starting this petition," Deb Anderson said. She added that she needed to extend her cell phone minutes to handle the influx of phone calls.
"Each one had their own story about how this would affect them financially," Anderson said, adding, "I've heard stories from 80-year-old senior citizens that are so concerned about the impact this will have that they walk around neighborhoods talking to people they have never talked to before ... I ask once more, please let Duluth Vote."
The statements took up the first hour of the regularly scheduled meeting. Several people expressed skepticism they had about the survey the district used to justify skipping a vote. Others talked about the effect such a massive project would have on future operating levies and programming if the public is denied the chance to vote on this plan.
Welty compared moving ahead without a vote based on what he called "questionable evidence" to President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
"If the School Board does not wish to recognize the community desires we will hamstring it; we will kill this or put it to a referendum one way or another," he said.
Nine people spoke in favor of a referendum. Most were met by applause and sometimes supportive shouts from the audience.
Three people spoke against a referendum, including David Ross, the president of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.
"I am here to share the chamber's unwavering support of the district's long-range facilities plan," Ross said. "We affirm the disciplined process that was set into place before making this decision and we encourage board members to proceed as planned with what is in the best interest of the school board and the best interest of the community."
No action was taken on the community members' request, but all of the present board members addressed the audience. Tom Hustad, Mary Cameron and Nancy Nilsen reiterated their intentions to proceed without a referendum, saying it was what they believed the majority of the community wanted. All three voted against a referendum in June. Member Anne Wasson, who also voted to not hold a referendum, was not at the meeting.
"Is there a plan in existence that is going to please everyone in the city of Duluth? I doubt it," Cameron said. "Every decision we make is going to cause controversy with someone. We asked for a plan the community could support and I have to believe we got that."
Husted said he has heard little to no resistance from community members about the board's decision in June.
"I am not saying your group doesn't exist and I am not saying you haven't collected 2,600 signatures on a petition but I still feel that does not at all represent the majority," Hustad said. "I think we have to move forward."
Members Laura Condon and Mike Akervik, who voted along with Grover to allow a referendum on the plan in June, reminded community members that their hands were essentially tied on the issue unless the Minnesota department of education issues an unfavorable review of the red plan.
The department is reviewing the document and a decision is expected sometime in October.
Grover declared his support for present community members' efforts.
"The battle is not done; we are going to have to continue and I want you to know that I will be with you as this moves forward," Grover said. "We are going to have to keep on, keeping on."
SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at email@example.com.