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The school board held its organizational meeting on Monday, January 5th. This meeting is held annually to approve operating procedures and elect new Board officers. When the meeting was over, I couldn’t resist a facetious comment. I said to Board member Welty, as he was putting on his coat: “I assumed by the time this meeting was over we would have Board Chair Welty!”
With a wry smile, Mr. Welty quipped, “I once thought I might see that, too. But that was in my pie-in-the-sky days. Now we’re in pie-in-the-eye days!”
Of course the majority members were going to elect themselves and/or their allies. Which one was installed in which position wasn’t going to have any real effect on decisions in the boardroom.
The most powerful positions are Board Chair and Clerk. Because of arcane (and-- it’s been argued--unfair) Board rules, only the Chair and Clerk are allowed in the room for the Board’s agenda-setting sessions. Last year Mike Miernicki was Chair and Judy Seliga-Punkyo was Clerk. This year’s winners are: Judy Seliga-Punkyo as Chair and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp as Clerk. A victory for the hyphenated!
In the interest of space, these hyphenations will often also be abbreviations: (S.-P. and L.-K.)
It is of course wonderful news that Judy Seliga-Punkyo will continue to control the Board’s agenda and reign as Queen of the Court. Her banner will be RED and her theme will be: “It’s been really good.” Chair S.-P. was elected to the Board only a few months after the Red Plan was submitted to the MDE for review and comment. She has been one of the most aggressive and avid promoters of the plan in the city. She is best known as the person who pushed for two lavish aquatic centers as part of the plan. (She and her husband are both former competitive swimmers and swimming coaches.)
The aquatic centers (with huge, eight-lane pools) have come to symbolize Red Plan excess and misplaced priorities. Even the former head of the Duluth Federation of Teachers Union, Frank Wanner, not known for being openly critical of anything, said on the record: “We can afford state-of-the-art (what the local paper described as two ‘Olympic-sized’) swimming pools, but we can’t afford the teachers we need in our classrooms. I think that’s sad.”
Chair S.-P. has also been a steadfast ally of district administration. Superintendent Gronseth is undoubtedly very happy to have her as his enforcer. During the August ‘13 Board meeting, for the first time in six years, Seliga-Punkyo broke her perfect record of unbending allegiance, saying, “I’ve never disagreed with you before, Mr. Superintendent.” Her disagreement now? She didn’t want to give the public the right to vote on a tax increase in the upcoming election.
Board Chair Seliga-Punkyo has been tough and unsympathetic towards the public when it comes to all the district’s tax increases. In 2011, she infamously referred to a levy she was pushing as “a couple of lattes.”
Chair S.-P. has also been very unsympathetic towards complaints from minority Board members, especially her long-time Board nemesis, Art Johnston. She sees Member Johnston and his minority ally, Member Welty, as obstructionists and troublemakers who are just vindictive and angry about the Red Plan. She sees herself and her allies as the good army “moving forward…doing the right thing for the right reasons.” During the last regular Board meeting, in December, she declared it was time to “look at school board behavior…(and) school board members who are misbehaving.”
All indications are that she intends to whip these misbehaving miscreants into line, a goal that nearly gave former Chair Miernicki a blown aorta. It will be fascinating to listen future verbal exchanges. Chair S.-P. tends to use fragmented phrases and circular sentences. She speaks in a very crisp tone, best described as determinedly optimistic. As a candidate, she listed “member of the Duluth Optimist Club,” on her resume.
I tip my hat with all due respect to the Duluth Optimist Club. I optimistically visualize the worthy organization as a group of cheery people, smilingly doing their best to coalesce a viable and rigorously intellectual world view. I sincerely hope Chair S.-P. brings The Club into the boardroom. Some of its rainbow vibes certainly wouldn’t do any harm.
The value of lawyers…
This meeting actually went along without a bump--almost all of it, anyway. Some sparks did fly towards the end, like a cruising car dropping into one of the numerous craters on Duluth streets. The rough part of the road was a resolution to select which law firms would serve as legal counsel for the district in the upcoming year.
Art Johnston asked, “How much do we pay these people? Do they have an hourly contract, an hourly rate?”
Business Services Director, Bill Hanson offered to send board members a summary of the previous twelve months of charges, “and what hourly rate we’ve seen from these firms, if that’s acceptable.”
“That’s acceptable--” Member Johnston replied, “though I would like it here, today. In light of this, I’m going to make a motion to amend the resolution, by deleting (the firm) Rupp, Anderson, Squires and Waldspurger, P.A.”
This firm specializes in the practice of school/education law, and is the one most frequently used by the district. One of the firm’s founding partners, Kevin Rupp, usually deals with the ISD 709 account, and has been very visible in the boardroom as of late. Board members Johnston and Welty have had some misgivings about the quality of Mr. Rupp’s legal advice. During discussion of Member Johnston’s amendment, Mr. Welty was first to make the case against this attorney and his firm…
“I think before we ok a contract with this law firm, we…need to have the utmost confidence in their capacity for giving the district good advice. I have had a year’s experience with the leading member of the Rupp law firm--Mr. Rupp--and I have to say that I’ve found his legal advice to be wanting.”
Mr. Welty recounted a procedural dustup that occurred not long after he was elected to the Board. He tried to attend one of the teacher contract negotiating sessions and was physically barred from entering the room. He pointed out that Mr. Rupp was present, and claimed the attorney failed to provide accurate advice about a Board policy which granted all members a position on the negotiating committee.
“And since we are currently getting a lot of advice from Mr. Rupp about the failure of some people to heed school board policy, I find that flaw in him not terribly forgivable.”
Welty’s critique of the barrister’s legal guidance soon segued into the conflicts he and fellow Board member Johnston have been having with the Board’s majority members. He said the two minority members had “found themselves under the Board’s thumb,” and felt they “should have been given the opportunity to ask the counsel for the school district some questions relating to the legal entanglements…
“At one point, I wanted to ask Mr. Rupp questions about the legal consequences of pursuing the removal of Art Johnston, and the Chairman at the time did not give me a chance…I did not think that was a very good display of confidence in our attorney. When I was under censure, I also hoped to ask some questions about the legal implications…and I was again not given the opportunity to ask our attorney questions…
“I was also quite concerned during the meeting with (investigative attorney) Mary Rice, when (Rupp) seemed to be particularly interested in shielding some people who worked in the school district…I blame one of these people for eight or nine months of legal divisiveness that threatens to continue on through next year. I felt that (Rupp’s) rather ludicrous refusal to allow us to mention a name that’d been in the newspaper made very little sense…”
During the Rice Report meeting, Mr. Welty sent a nervous rustle through the room by making an open reference to dark scandals buried in the district’s past. To avoid sailing too far into tabloid waters, I’ll leave part of the following quote intentionally blank. Again referring to the same person (whom he blames for the months-long Johnston conflict), Welty said:
“When I was on the school board before, this person lied to cover up (-------) abuse.”
Chair Miernicki hastened Mr. Rupp into the conversation and Rupp strongly recommended Mr. Welty “not go where I think you’re going…” The attorney then looked at Chair Miernicki and warned, “What I would advise, Mr. Chair, “is that if the rules to ask questions are not followed, here--that the opportunity to ask questions stop.”
Member Welty retreated a half-step back, but did ask Ms. Rice one more loaded question: “Would it be a concern to you if one of the people you took extensive testimony from turned out to be someone who had obstructed justice in the past?”
This prickly question was a prelude to the sort of unseemliness the Board’s majority has exposed the district to in the upcoming Johnston hearing.
Nobody emerges clean from a mud fight!
“I have personally found,” Member Welty observed, summing up his evaluation of the district’s chief lawyer, “that Mr. Rupp works quite selectively with members of the (Board’s) majority, and has no contact with the minority. Apparently his information is behind-the-scenes to people who count--and the minority does not count…
“Based on things that have taken place over the course of the year, I frankly believe Mr. Rupp is largely motivated by his pecuniary interests, in continuing to work for one of the largest school districts in the State of Minnesota. The advice he’s been giving to proceed with the legal course we’re taking against Member Johnston is strong evidence of his pecuniary interest, and I feel what we have undergone, and are likely to undergo--if that process continues--is going to do a great deal of damage to the school district. If he (Rupp) was the ‘brains’ behind this course of action, I find his legal advice more damaging than useful to the community of Duluth and our schools.”
Member Johnston added that he had “similar concerns.” He pointed out that the district paid Rupp and his firm $62,000 last year. “And that doesn’t include the last three or four months, which is obviously going to be (a) very, very high (amount)…
“I’ve got experience with Kevin Rupp going back five years, now. Under Kevin Rupp’s tutelage, the district has--for all practical purposes--fired I.V. Foster, and had a very dissentious (conflict) with a basketball coach, that I think was very ugly. More recently, we literally forced a principal to resign--Leea Power. All this was stuff that Rupp advocated very strongly for in closed meetings…
“I’m very concerned that our current superintendent relies extremely heavily on (Rupp’s) advice. That advice is very poor. I mentioned to the superintendent several years ago, shortly after he became superintendent, about his dependency on bad advice he’s getting from lawyers. Unfortunately, that bad advice is continuing…I believe that advice is why we’re such a divisive Board…
“Also, through reliable sources, I understand…that Kevin Rupp is the one who threw in the racist charge against me…It was on his recommendation that it (the racist charge) was added at the last minute, to the charges brought against me. Based on those (reasons) and many more, I think this is a law firm we should not be dealing with…”
“I’d like to tie onto something Member Johnston said.” Mr. Welty added, regaining the floor. “Of all the things I’ve complained about Mr. Rupp, I neglected the one thing I think I find most offensive. And that was: learning from a very reputable source, that it was Mr. Rupp who insisted upon adding the charge of racism against one of our colleagues, when even the person he groomed and found (attorney Mary Rice) to conduct this investigation rather lamely said she didn’t think that a comment--that could not be attributed to Mr. Johnston--was all that racist…”
Attorney Rice’s exact words were: “Any allegations of any racist statement is unsubstantiated…To be honest, I don’t think the statement much matters, because I don’t see the statement as racist.”
“The apparent reason for doing that (adding the racism charge),” Welty continued, “was pure character assassination. Member Johnston has for eight months been forced to live under the toxic cloud that he is a racist. And I don’t want to have truck or dealings with an attorney who gives that kind of legal advice to a school district.”
The amendment to delete Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger from the resolution was defeated 5-2. The resolution to accept all four firms as district legal counsel for the upcoming year passed 5-2. None of the five majority members said a word during the discussion. Former Chair Miernicki again sat for long periods with his hands cupped tightly over his face, as though he was a juror listening to terribly gruesome testimony. The New Boss, Chair Seliga-Punkyo, looked impassive. Legal advice aside, she plans on laying down the law in the near future.
The drama begins on January 20th , the scheduled date for the first regular school board meeting of the year. If you plan to attend, be sure to wear some clothes you don’t mind getting muddy.
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 School Board office.