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Even one-agenda special School Board meetings are seldom simple. Some kind of off-the-stage drama often heightens the tension right out of the box. Before the meeting, I spoke to the chair of the Board, Mike Miernicki, about the current drama. I asked, “Are you aware, Mike, that some people are finding the claim that stormy winter weather threw the District’s schedule off and prevented this debate from being held in front of a camera during the April meeting hard to swallow? And do you think your contention that this vote on the teachers’ contract couldn’t be postponed two more weeks until the Board’s May meeting deepened suspicion you’ve been purposely trying to dodge the camera and lower your public profile?”
To his credit, Mr. Miernicki responded with pleasant aplomb to these impudent inquiries. He said the weather did prevent the teachers from congregating and ratifying the contract deal, and that the Board couldn’t act until the teachers acted. He patiently explained that the District still had nine more contracts to settle and that the Board was feeling pressure, especially because of insurance enrollment. Insurance eligibility couldn’t be certain until the contracts were approved. He also pointed out in a calm and reasonable tone that the media was currently present with its cameras. He didn’t get flustered until I asked my next question: “And do you think it might look a bit too convenient to some that you found a night for this meeting that did not accommodate the schedule of the Board member who most often challenges the agenda of the controlling majority? Art Johnston will be back in town tonight. You couldn’t just delay the meeting an hour, to make sure he could make it?”
“I didn’t know!” the chair declared, looking surprised.
“His plane landed in the Cities a few hours ago; he may even be able to make this meeting yet. An hour’s delay and he wouldn’t have had any issue at all.”
“I didn’t know!” The chair again exclaimed. “I swear on the lives of my children! And I love my kids!”
The tall, hulking man poured a look of earnest sincerity into his ruddy face that would have shamed a Boy Scout. I was convinced he didn’t know.
But I continue to harbor some healthy skepticism about the need to sign (and the likeliness of signing) nine more contracts in 47 days (by the end of the fiscal year), and that 14 more days made an insurmountable difference.
At any rate, we found ourselves in the boardroom of ISD 709, the same place as always, with three or four union people present and no public access camera running. The reason this meeting should matter to the citizens of Duluth is because our city passed an operating levy last November. The ostensible purpose of this money was to help public school classrooms look more like K-12 classrooms than college lecture halls, upgrade classroom materials, and expand curriculum. Some cynics kept asking, as the District begged and cajoled for more largess, “What about the impending contracts? How much of the money is really going to go into pay raises for teachers and other district employees?”
This was the night we’d find out.
Richard Paulson (the only citizen in the audience who wasn’t union or media-related) stepped up to the public microphone to get us started. Mr. Paulson is a former Board member and retired banker. Over the years he’s amassed an encyclopedic knowledge about the District’s insurance plans, but this evening his analysis was challenged. Superintendent Gronseth took the unusual step of disputing one of his assertions after he was finished speaking. The superintendent claimed out-of-pocket medical expenses had been frozen at prior contract levels, which seemed to conflict with documentation quoted by Mr. Paulson. After the meeting, Paulson said the conflict could only be resolved with certainty when the District actually enrolled in an insurance plan on 7/1/14.
He’ll be watching like a hawk and deserves an award for it.
The next speaker was Dan O’Neill, a union official, who (surprisingly) supported Board approval of the contract. He promoted the contract as being “in the best interest of students, teachers and staff.” For good measure, he also reminded the Board that it was National Teachers Appreciation Week.
(And—hint, hint!—gifts are generally given to teachers.)
Board Members Weigh In
Board Member Johnston, who elated everyone in the room by making the meeting after all, had his light on before Business Committee chair Loeffler-Kemp finished reading the resolution. “I rushed back [for this meeting] because this contract is the most expensive resolution we’ll be passing for the next four years… If you count the other labor contracts which will likely be passed soon, these contracts amount to over 300 million dollars... I have asked that we televise and broadcast this meeting because of the large dollar impact. This is so important that I make a motion that we broadcast this meeting on our regular television channel.”
Chair Miernicki looked a bit baffled. “You… you make a motion to televise this meeting?”
Member Johnston expounded further: “This is the largest contract we’re going to be voting on for the next four years. I think it’s absolutely imperative that we have the public see what we’re doing here. We should have full disclosure, and we don’t… It should be televised… I think the reason why [it isn’t] is because we don’t want to be transparent… It’s very easy to transmit. We’ve got all of our technology people here. All we’ve got to do is push a button to turn on the broadcast… and it would [also] be on YouTube tomorrow…”
The chair still looked a bit flummoxed. “This is unprecedented… We’ve had these meetings for many, many, many decades. We haven’t televised our special meetings… I see we have a number of media outlets here, so I think we’re going to be able to set this up and do it… I’m worried about what kind of precedent we’re setting. What special meetings will we televise? Will we televise all of them, or just the ones certain Board members want?”
Member Welty chimed in, agreeing with the Chair that it might be “a little difficult” to change directions and broadcast the meeting on the spur of the moment, but then added, “This [meeting] is certainly unique among our special meetings… in that it is going to be so significant. We are not only contemplating a single contract for two years, but two contracts for four years… I do think we could have had this discussion at the next School Board meeting, which wouldn’t have been very far off, and that would have been quite public…”
“I’m going to correct myself as chair,” Mr. Miernicki said, still getting his feet under him. “I was caught off-guard by this… we have a motion on the floor. The motion on the floor is the resolution… all other motions are out of order. I want the discussion to center on the motion at hand.”
But the center would not hold. Member Loeffler-Kemp took the floor and started defending the process, rather than the resolution. “I just want to clarify a few things. We as a School Board met in closed session a number of times to negotiate the parameters of this contract… We have talked about this proposal since the end of March… It was negotiated in good faith. It’s a fair settlement. We talked about why we were proposing to do two two-year contracts: for consistency and the ability to plan for the future…” Looking straight at Member Johnston, she continued, her eyes sparking with the drama underlying every action in boardroom, “We all had an opportunity when we were trying to pick a date [for this meeting] that would work for us. Frankly, Chair—[Oops, a faux pas heart-stopping for some in the room!]—Johnston, I hardly got any sleep last night. I saw my daughter off to Nicaragua this morning and rushed back as well. So, you know, we all made sacrifices because we knew this was an important meeting.”
Johnston, undaunted, thanked her for opening the door again on “what led up to this.” He reminded his fellow Board members that during a March 4th special meeting, they had “been told there were no Board members on the negotiating team… Suddenly, around March 21st, there was a settlement—not only was there a settlement, but there was a School Board member who’d participated in that settlement… [Then] I heard from Member Welty he’d been barred from attending that last negotiating session…”
Member Welty tried to sit in on the final contract negotiations, but was barred while Member Loeffler-Kemp was allowed to be present, something that struck some members as unfair and a breach of Board policy.
When his turn came to address the issue, Welty’s microphone snipped off. He started to speak, but it went out again. He kept his cool pretty well even when it happened a third time, but everyone could see he had something serious to say. By the time he was finally able to vent, he said, “I think this is the most important information I’ll be sharing with the public in the next four years.” He estimated that “about 85 percent of District expenses are labor costs… The contract we accept for the teachers will be… spread out for all of our employees.” He again brought up the process leading to the contract settlement. “I was forcibly prevented from being part of the negotiations and was taken aback to discover that someone other than me—another Board member—was already [there]. Someone else had been appointed… and no one invited us [the other members] to apply to be on the negotiating team.” He described himself as “livid” and said he thought he “had a right to be livid.”
Member Johnston asked Chair Miernicki when he had appointed Loeffler-Kemp to be on the negotiating team.
“I don’t remember the date.”
“Was it before the March 4th meeting?”
“I don’t remember the date.”
“That sounds a bit suspicious.”
Nothing suspicious about sweet amnesia, a politician’s best friend!
“This agreement is not within the parameters [we] set up,” Johnston continued. “For example, we, as a Board, asked for a small, 10 percent contribution to the [insurance] premium by the teachers and we got none… In fact,” he maintained, “we got none of what we requested. None.”
Member Harala took the floor and returned to the process. She said Loeffler-Kemp shouldn’t be blamed for Board rancor that developed around the negotiations. She added, “Again—I’ll continue to say this—we, as a Board, need to have a discussion about how we make decisions.”
Especially after all the rule-bending around the Red Plan, School Board policies are as opaque, convoluted, and open to interpretation as tort law in the hands of a malpractice attorney.
Getting back to the contract
Member Johnston acknowledged teachers as “the backbone of our education system,” but added, “We do have financial problems. We have to face reality.” He claimed that Duluth already “pays $3,000 more per teacher than the average non-metro Minnesota districts. If we paid our teachers [an] average salary, we’d be able to hire 24 more teachers.” Because the teachers’ contract is the base contract, he estimated that salary increases would cost the District $7.5 million over the next four years and described health benefits as a “Cadillac” plan. “[Teachers and other District employees] pay zero premiums. In this contract their contribution is [still] zero. Zero! That’s unheard of these days!” He listed the myriad needs the District has for money: “Unacceptably large class sizes, 200 teacher positions [eliminated] since I’ve been on the Board…”
His concerns were echoed by Member Welty: “If a contract is brought to us that I view as destructive to the District and our children, I will make that case in public with particular ardor. We were given a ten-minute preview of our future in January during our first budget meeting… The year I will be facing the voters again [2017-18]… we have a projected $13.7 million deficit... I worked very hard to persuade people we would be in a dire situation if we did not add $1.8 million with that levy [approved by voters last fall] so we could try to keep our classrooms from getting any more crowded than they are—40 to 50 kids in some of the high school classes. You cannot teach that way. So if this is, indeed, ‘Treat Our Teachers Decent Week,’ accepting a contract which is going to cram more kids into the classrooms is no way to treat them decently.
“I would point out… or at least amend,” Welty went on, “what Member Loeffler-Kemp pointed out: We did talk about [contract] parameters, but… we could not fully realize what the next four years was holding in store for us when we set the parameters.” He said the District would “hire 13, 14, or 15 teachers with the [levy] money the voters authorized” but then “have to lay off twice that many” due to an increasing deficit. He finished by deploring the lack of information Board members have to work with: “I’ve been trying to have a discussion about our fiscal future for a month and have only received three very slender pieces of paper from our business office that give us no clue as to how we end up $13 million in debt.”
The superintendent and Board chair did not deny that the doomsday deficit numbers Member Welty referenced were indeed the projected estimates of the district’s finance department, but argued this was a “worst-case” scenario. One thing is clear: it wasn’t a “best-case” scenario.
Member Westholme, usually a loyal administration foot soldier, admitted soberly, “I hear Members Johnston and Welty, and yeah, I’m uncomfortable with this in many ways,” but contended “the plusses outweigh the minuses.”
There was more tug-and-pull. Johnston’s attempt to amend the resolution, making it for two years instead of four, failed. Then the vote was taken and the contract was approved, 5-2. Are we now sailing towards stability, or another fiscal calamity that finally breaks the bank? Will we regret locking ourselves into a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars for four years with no ability to adjust to tenuous circumstance?
Loren Martell has been involved in Public School District issues for several years. He wrote the Red Plan report for the State Auditor’s Office and ran for the Board twice.