Red Plan Chronicles

Part 5 Wai Lee's Story

Last fall I called several sitting Faribault school board members to get the measure of Keith Dixon. Two of them warned me that I should “watch my back” when dealing with him. It was suggested that I talk to Dr. Dixon’s first school board critic, since retired, Wai Lee.

Dr. Keith Dixon was hired by the Faribault School Board in 1995 to pass a school building referendum. Like every other school district in the state (other than Minneapolis and St. Paul ) Faribault had to get voter approval for a building project and the charismatic Dixon was just the man for the job. Dixon promised that the new schools would be “state of the art” and voters OK’d the $38 million plan. There were problems.

An audit of the building project discovered that $900,000 had gone missing. The story was downplayed by Dixon ’s good friend, the editor of the local newspaper. A state building inspector, Richard Olson, followed up rumors that the walls of one of the new buildings had been constructed without steel rebar. An x-ray examination proved the rumor true 

The project never set aside money for furnishing the buildings and after their completion money had to be found elsewhere in the District’s budget. The School District fell into Statutory Operating Debt. The project’s fallout put the voters in a sour mood and they defeated two excess levies in a row to bail out the district. They were defeated despite Dr. Dixon’s warning that there would be massive program cuts without the levies. Unlike Duluth , all this was happening in a District which was getting increasing state aid because its student population was growing. As programming withered so too did student test scores.

Through it all Dr. Dixon’s School Board remained supportive. Dixon had done what they wanted and they were all in the same boat. Most things that Dr. Dixon asked for were granted unanimously. In addition to their support and the newspaper’s support Dr. Dixon had very loyal subordinates. Many of them were given hefty salary increases. For instance, the Curriculum Director’s salary jumped from $54,000 to $98,000. But even such insulation can not last forever.

The Superintendent’s first critic on the Board, Wai Lee was elected in 1999. She won her office with the biggest vote count in School District history. Lee knew a thing or two about finance having gotten an advanced degree in her native Taiwan . Although she did not campaign against Dixon she told me that she was running because many of her friends were teachers who were unhappy that Faribault was being jerked from crisis to crisis. Lee intended to start asking tough questions. About all Lee could manage, however, was to become a pain in the neck.  The other six board members always sided with Dixon and information was rarely forthcoming.

In the 1980’s, before joining the Board, Lee had been asked to mentor a dozen Cambodian girls who were refugees from the Vietnam War. She volunteered without compensation for years until a county extension agent suggested she request a $3,000 stipend for her self-funded work. The request would have to be signed by her school supervisor who also happened to be Dr. Dixon’s new wife, Sarah Dixon.

Lee was about to get the shock of her life when Dr. Dixon told her “I have something to show you.” He handed her the forms for the stipend and told Lee that Sarah Dixon’s signature had been forged. Lee considered this to be an act of intimidation and an attempt to frighten her into silence. Rather than backing down Lee insisted that the state conduct an investigation to clear her name which, she told me, led to her complete exoneration.

Lee was suffering from high blood pressure when her term ended in 2004. She would not run for reelection but that was the year when the Superintendent would become the top issue. All sorts of stories were circulating about him, like the story that had him conning the City Council into financing a youth center. When the councilors asked what had been done with the city’s money Dixon grandly told them that a school cafeteria was the new youth center. The councilors were so mortified they decided not to make a stink about it for fear of looking foolish.

Leaders of the business community were concerned about the School District and conducted a survey. The Superintendent earned an approval rating of only 34 percent. All three of the candidates who campaigned to retire Dixon were elected including the building inspector who had reported the unreinforced walls. A majority of the Board now wanted Dixon to leave. Dixon made it clear he wouldn’t go unless his contract was bought out. Three years times a hundredtwenty thousand salary proved too rich for the Board. Their hands were tied.

But then the frustrated School Board got some promising news. A school district up north was looking for a new superintendent. Their last Super had foolishly removed a hockey coach from his duties. 

More Red Plan Chronicles in two week. Meanwhile, anyone wishing to insure a public vote on a new building plan can visit: letduluthvote.com or call: 390-7768