“Obviously in Duluth we’ve got some catching up to do.”

Who wouldn’t be reluctant to brave another snowstorm when the destination is a school board meeting, especially one that will eat up more than two and a half hours of the finite and precious gift of time? The many who did not make the trek, however, missed a treat. A mini concert was put on for the school board, and citizenry who trudged in shaking off snow, by two East High music groups: the East High School Choralaires and the Sterling Strings. To put it into current vernacular, the whole performance, especially a rendition of “Rolling in the Deep” by the Sterling Strings, rocked! The talented youth brought into focus what education is all about and why facilities-versus-curriculum spending has been so fiercely debated in Duluth. Despite the stellar performance, a few citizens stepped up to the public podium and lamented the decimation of the music program in the Duluth Public Schools in recent years.

Teri Akervick, a district music program Administrator, started out with educator optimism: “I’m happy to say I’ve just celebrated my 25th year in Duluth teaching,” Ms. Akervick proclaimed, looking quite happy. Then she went on: “Sometimes it has felt like a rollercoaster ride, with great moments of creating and performing beautiful music with students, and then the struggles—the layoffs, the budget cuts, the staff changes.” She voiced hope about “the achievement of the students in their musical growth,” then listed more troubles that “we, as music teachers, have struggled with: the student/teacher ratio, cuts to lesson times in the middle schools, the funding sources that provide for our program have been cut…”

Given this woeful litany, the East High minstrels who’d just serenaded the room must be under the tutelage of miracle workers.

Sweet music was on the mind of another citizen who stepped up to the podium. Janna Blomquist taught in Iowa for thirty years, and another seven (qualifying her for sainthood) in the Holy Rosary Catholic School in Duluth. “Moving up here (from Iowa) has been somewhat of a shock…” She told the Board, glumly reporting on what she’s observed in the public schools. “I’m just really worried, because I don’t want to live in a community that doesn’t have a good public instrumental music program. And it shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be that kids have to go to a private instructor, like myself. I’m hurting my own business, I know, but they shouldn’t have to pay twenty dollars a half hour for a private lesson instructor.”

Strands of this melancholy melody were heard throughout evening, but Member Welty is a buoyant spirit, continually demonstrating a gleeful love for civic discourse. He chuckled a bit as he began pulling out a lengthy list of items for verbal dissection following the Education Committee report. Chair Miernicki tried to rein him in with a remonstrative reminder: “It is a stormy night.” The Chair began the meeting with a plea against over-exuberant verbosity: “So we don’t have to plow through snow on our way home, I’m hoping our discussions will be short and to the point.”

One can always hope. Member Welty chuckled again and limited himself to three items. Levity evaporated into the cavernous boardroom and things got down to business. Member Johnston announced some gloomy stats about district graduation rates: “Our black graduation rate is 47.3 percent… the national medium for state graduation rates for blacks, according the U.S. Department of Education, is 67 percent. Minnesota is the second-lowest of all states, at 49 percent. Last year, our American Indian graduation rate dropped to 32.5 percent. The national average is 68 percent for Native Americans. Minnesota was the lowest of all states, at 42 percent. Our graduation rate of 32.5 percent puts us lower than our state average, which is the lowest of all the states.”

Everyone seemed to flinch a bit from this dismal report. The sole remark came from Member Welty: “Obviously in Duluth we’ve got some catching up to do.”

The next item dashed all the Chair’s hopes of brevity. The whole subject was like listening to someone being disqualified after winning a beauty contest. Laura MacArthur Elementary School just received national recognition for springing up from the mucky pit of education (the lowest 5 percent in the state) to the upper 40 percent in one year, but now the school (and the Board) found itself fending off criticism. Did the school just teach to the test in a couple of subjects, making the terrific one-year results a little less applause-worthy? The incident also revealed that much of the Duluth district’s curriculum did not meet state benchmarks, a small detail that had “dropped off the plate,” according to the superintendent. The Board was considering a plan to fast-track aligning all district curriculum with state standards, but there were a few other issues ruffling Members’ feathers. Member Johnston groused that the Board had been kept largely in the dark about the whole issue. “I am getting a little concerned hearing about the Duluth school district in the newspaper, rather than from Administration… I’m asking that we, as a Board, share some of that responsibility.” Member Seliga-Punkyo outdid this airing of aggrieved concern with a tongue-lashing of the Board’s favorite scapegoat, the state. “For the Department of Education to fight us for not doing enough in the other subjects—but we get cited for not having good test scores—to me, it’s very hypocritical… I see no problem if some things aren’t taught as much because you were trying to get kids to read or be able to do math.”

So what if little Molly gets short-changed in science, as long as she can eventually read her rejection letter from MIT’s aeronautics program?

While snow swirled outside the sturdy walls of Old Central, Chair Miernicki moved to the next agenda item, a motion to rescind a Board resolution passed last June to have closed campus lunch periods at the two high schools. The Chair argued, “I just don’t think it’d be effective… Schools are full of doors… We’re going to spend a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of personnel chasing these students around.” Judy Seliga-Punkyo again proved the most formidable counter-puncher in the ring. She not only discounted the estimated $200,000 price tag, she suggested an underlying conspiracy: “Someone who came up with these figures was trying to have this so we did not do a closed campus.” She asked her fellow decision-makers, “How can we keep changing our minds, over and over again?… What kind of message does this send to the community? Oh, my gosh! We’re going to do it; we’re not going to do it! I think it just makes us look really idiotic.”

“I guess I take issue with my good friend about this being idiotic; I will not take that as a personal insult,” Chair Miernicki responded, clearly taking it a bit personally that his suggestion had been so roundly trashed. Two hundred grand was eventually moved into investments, which means future Board discussions are going to be as elusive as spring in Duluth. The issue is essentially decided: campuses will be closed.

Undaunted, the Chair again led the charge in defending the next agenda item, decried by some critics as silly bureaucratic bean counting. To make up time lost due to this year’s wintry assault, the district is going to add 12 minutes to the school day, beginning March 24th. Mr. Miernicki took umbrage at this community’s persistent naysayers, who were again joyfully criticizing government decisions. “Again, they’re calling it ‘idiotic,’ a stupid thing to do.” The Chair complained that these uninformed chatterboxes didn’t “understand the parameters we’re working under. They say, ‘Just have school on Saturdays!’ Well, there’s a teachers’ contract! I’m going to go up to teachers and say, ‘You’re working on Saturdays!’ And they’re going to say, ‘No, I’m not!’ And I’m going to say, ‘Work, or I’ll beat you!’” The Chair accurately informed us, “You just can’t do that.”

“I was a teacher,” the Chair continued. “Boy! You give me an extra three or four minutes in this or that class, I’m happy!”

Who knows? Maybe a few extra minutes spent nurturing a young, impressionable mind will somehow change the course of history. Then again, maybe it’ll just preserve a few extra vacation days on the golf course for tenured teachers.

Beans, anyone?

A famous bygone national political figure was nicknamed “Iron Butt” for his ability to outlast his opponents in meetings. Mine was telling me well over an hour had passed when we reached the Human Resources Committee report. Chair Welty again promised Board brevity: “I’ll try to make this quick, since nothing else has been.” His promise held sway until he hit the placeholder for Superintendent Gronseth’s contract. Member Johnston claimed the superintendent’s performance review required by Board rules had not been done. He said an annual review was required, and that the last one had been conducted a year ago, February. Other Members did not dispute his timetable, but claimed that review was adequate to offer the contract. Johnston wanted the review, partly so he could voice his concerns in a more appropriate forum.
A procedural debate ensued, drawing in Human Resources Manager Tim Sworsky, who declared, “Individual contracts are required to be presented and discussed in an open forum.”
Fearful of another runaway discussion, with Mother Nature throwing snowballs outside, Member Seliga-Punkyo cautioned, “I’m a little concerned. I’m not really sure about the weather tonight… Let’s go ahead and vote.”

The elements were evidently not going to deter Member Johnston making his point. “If the Board wants to go forward with this anyway, I guess I’m going to have to say some stuff.” He complimented the superintendent on “some of the progress that’s worked,” but his listing of “some issues” should have been accompanied by a violin: “Decrease in staff (200 in the last few years), cuts in curriculum, large class sizes, no progress in bringing students who have left back, 300 more students lost in the last two years, our bond rating near junk bond status (the worst rating in the state for schools), and I’d like to have some discussion about the continuous improvement plan, as well as graduation rates.”

Get out the snowshoes!

Mr. Johnston also questioned the superintendent’s salary. $168,000 struck him as a bit pricey, especially considering that taxpayers are also dishing out an extra $15,000 to help attach a PhD to the superintendent’s name, and that Duluth’s medium income is a very modest $41,000. (And don’t forget those public employee bennies!)

Johnston’s attempt to table the
contract offer failed.

But he made another quixotic attempt at fiscal accountability after the Business Committee report, objecting to what he called “premature” approval of a one-page outline of preliminary budget considerations and investments. “We still don’t know what the impact of the teachers’ contract is going to be on this… the full budget isn’t going to be approved until June… why are we approving this one-page thing?”

The Chair deferred the answer to the district’s fiscal sphinx, Mr. Hanson, who gathered himself with the strained patience of a long-time teacher, reviewing material already covered many times in class: “Board members, you’ll recall from the several budget meetings that we’ve talked more than once about the idea that this sheet that you’re considering through this resolution is essentially the roadmap to continue down the budget path…”

The Board majority was more than ready to stroll trustingly down that path. The resolution was passed and the rest of the Business Committee report relatively swiftly moved. Chair Miernicki asked for further comments, an invitation taken up by student representative Paul Manning, who brought everyone back “to the music groups that came earlier.” A member of the jazz band at East High, Manning beseeched the Board to reverse music program cuts and “fine arts being taken out of kids’ lives.” This melancholy note lingered, with Members Johnston and Seliga-Punkyo chiming in, and Member Welty concluding: “I don’t see how we can save the music program without a serious re-evaluation of how we do things, how we finance things, and as heartfelt as these comments are, I have to say, ‘Talk is cheap.’ Until we re-evaluate a whole lot of things, music is going to continue to slide downhill, and I regret suggesting that that’s the future.”

“With that!” The Chair announced demonstratively, sending a tittering chuckle through the room. “We close with a quick prayer: Let’s hope tomorrow isn’t another snow day!” He dropped the final gavel and we all dashed out to see how deeply our cars were buried.

Based on March 18th
Duluth School Board Meeting