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For anyone disappointed to discover my article was cut off last month to make room for an ad, I was more bummed than you. I’d tied the whole thing up so neatly with a witty line no one had a chance to read.
Of course I’m used to getting cut off. I’ve had the microphone shut off at least four times in the boardroom of ISD 709. One time I stumbled on the pronunciation of a word and the Chair turned the microphone off in the middle of my last sentence. I asked for five extra seconds to finish and was told: “You get three minutes--that’s all.”
I have no idea how three minutes became the standard cutoff point for the public. It’s impossible to even begin to broach how badly we got screwed by the Red Plan in three minutes.
I did bring the subject up again, however, during the meeting held 6/16/15. I pointed out that three major promises made during the selling of the Red Plan are clearly not materializing. Equitable education is not occurring across the city; students are not pouring into 21st century schools; and big savings are not pouring in curriculum.
Needless to say, these statements were about as well-received as informing the room Duluth had become the epicenter of a new plague outbreak.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the only other citizen speaker of the evening stepped up to the podium. His name was Joel Keller and he’d shown up to share a nice story about how some girls from the Duluth East High swim team took time out to teach a bunch of younger children, including his son, how to swim. Mr. Keller was very impressed by how decent and caring and generous with their time the older girls had been. He self-deprecatingly said he wasn’t very good at public speaking, but he was. He was articulate, and his warm, charming manner was infectious. Any tale about children being kind is uplifting, but it was an especially welcome tonic in the boardroom. Chair Seliga-Punkyo proudly informed Mr. Keller that she was the girls’ swimming coach, and he responded that she had every right to be proud of them.
I’m considering trying to drown myself in the Ordean middle school pool, in the hope that the swim team will save me and give me a heart-warming tale to tell next month. (Of course if the swim coach finds out who’s coughing and sputtering at the bottom of the pool, I likely will be allowed to drown, which will be a much more heart-warming tale for some.)
Time to Rub the Plates.
I entered Old Central this evening wondering what the Board’s mood would be. After engaging in the most intense and vicious government spat I’ve ever witnessed first hand, I thought maybe all the members might be ready for a summer’s respite. The dynamic in the boardroom, however, is essentially like two rubbing tectonic plates. Tension builds up along all the friction points until an inevitable earthquake shakes the solid bedrock of Duluth. After it’s over, everyone hopes we’ve lived through the Big One, and will now experience a long stretch of peace and stability. But the plates keep rubbing and rubbing, and tension almost immediately starts building up again.
It wouldn’t have surprised me to find a blackboard set up behind the Board dais, and Chair Seliga-Punkyo forcing the two censured bad boys to do some public punishment before the meeting began. I could easily imagine Mr. Welty and Mr. Johnston wearing T-shirts embossed with a large, crimson C, writing on the board a hundred times: “The Red Plan is good and I’ve been bad,” while Chair S.-P. slapped a ruler reproachfully in her hand.
Aftershocks of the Big One reportedly sent tremors through one of the committee meetings held the prior week. Friction flared up so intensely some members stormed out of the Human Resources meeting.
This evening, however, the subterranean stresses of the rubbing plates remained almost undetectable throughout the Education Committee Report. Committee Chair Annie Harala dove into the report with her usual spirited enthusiasm. If the role of a school board Member consisted only of caring earnestly about education--molding young minds and saving little kids from the terrible tragedy of wasting God-given potential--Ms. Harala would be the perfect prototype. Her mother, who is a district teacher, must be very proud of a daughter who so passionately cares about the mission of educating.
Maybe Mike Miernicki is right. Maybe positivity and love (of education) can conquer all. If so, Annie Harala is unquestionably the person for the job. I don’t know if it’s humanly possible to pour more sweet, earnest enthusiasm into a Robotics Team Mentors Presentation, or some student managing to achieve all the requirements for a Certificate of Attendance, or some revisions to an anti-bullying policy. After she was done, Member Welty gave her credit for once again going the extra mile to explain things that had been discussed during the Committee meeting.
Mr. Welty also brought up a suggestion that’s been raised in the past: televising the committee meetings. Despite Ms. Harala’s good synopsis, Welty argued too much detailed information from these meetings is “lost in the ether.” The meetings are sparsely attended by the public, but some board members are happy with that. They like the opportunity to let their hair down. Besides, broadcasts of the meetings would probably only be tuned in by a handful of citizens wanting a sleep aid for an early evening nap.
Member Miernicki closed the discussion with some of his trademark positive remarks about the “heart-warming, moving, absolutely phenomenal” experience of attending graduation ceremonies as a Board member. Then the Education Committee Report passed unanimously.
The Plates Snag on Some Sharp Rocks.
Next up was the report from Miernicki’s committee--Human Resources. The good news from the report was that no tenured teachers are going to be laid off. The district has received copious amounts of largess from local taxpayers and the State over the past couple of years, so much so that even ISD 709 has managed to return to some semblance of fiscal stability. The floundering organization, however, still hasn’t climbed enough out of the hole to reinstate seven class periods to the middle schools (much less the high schools)--a fact member Johnston prompted CFO Bill Hanson to admit on the record.
Lack of seven periods in middle school and high school is one factor undermining ISD 709’s competitiveness and contributing to a perennial bleeding of students. (More rumblings on this subject in the Business Committee.) No one disagreed with Member Johnston when he expressed worry that the district is going to have to go another year without addressing the problem.
A brief discussion of a new, three-year contract for the district’s food service employees also brought no tremors. The plates slipped past one another so smoothly, you’d swear maintenance had squirted some grease into the fissure. Member Welty inquired how many employees were covered by the contract was informed there were “roughly 76.”
Then we hit discussion item #5 and I felt the first tremor. If there’d been a glass of water on my desk, I think it would have started shaking a bit, sort of like the approaching of Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park.
Item # 5 was the Board’s first reading of changes to its Code of Ethics. During Art Johnston’s Federal court proceeding, the presiding judge trashed the Board’s Code of Ethics. He even threatened to “pencil-out” parts of it as flat-out unconstitutional. Administration and the Board majority are now proposing to “revise” the Code. It was this discussion a week earlier, during the Human Resources Committee, that sent some Board members fleeing from the room. Two readings are required in front of the public before a policy can be changed. If earth tremors are something you enjoy, show up for the next Human Resources Committee meeting in July, when these changes will once again be “discussed.”
The previous Code was 13 rather succinct sentences, a half page. The new proposed Code is four pages long. Studying the document, one noticeable aberration jumps out. There are a number of crossed-out statements--clearly deleted, but still left in. “Offer the superintendent counsel and advice,” for example, is crossed out. Apparently someone came to the conclusion Board members counseling and advising the superintendent is a bad idea. Instead, it is now proposed that board members will be required to “recognize the status of the superintendent as the chief executive officer and a non-voting, ex officio member of the school board.”
The actual Board members will also now be required to genuflect before the Honorary Member before the start of each meeting and promise not to chuckle if he wears one of those high, fancy hats the pope wears.
Looking past all the blah, blah, blah of the new revised policy, these are the words Chair Seliga-Punyko really wants included: “…violation of this policy may constitute grounds for censure, removal from internal school board officer positions, removal from school board committees and/or removal from the school board.”
Just try getting away with your shenanigans again, Lone Ranger!
If anyone doubted we were experiencing a Richter scale-registering aftershock, the next item that came up for discussion shook us all into reality. The plates jolted, and my imaginary glass of water flew off my desk. It would have been duck-and-cover time in California the moment Member Welty requested crossing a name from a list of two employees requesting a leave of absence from the district.
The employee--Cheryl Lien--has been on leave for a year and was requesting another year’s leave. The reason this request was so explosive is because Ms. Lien was a central player in all the Art Johnston commotion.
I Would Caution You, Board.
Ms. Lien has become something of a heroine for the occupants of the opposing continental plate. Mr. Miernicki, particularly, sprang to defend her request of extended leave in his commanding, raspy voice:
“We’ve done this for years…It is usual and customary…We voted last year to award this leave of absence…and I see no reason to deny a second year…This person is a well-thought-of educator. She taught at Denfeld for years. Wonderful reputation. She’s a Goldfine Gold Star winner! She’s an outstanding individual…”
As he is wont to do, Member Welty was frank and honest about his reservations in regard to extending leave to Ms. Lien. He acknowledged that she’d met the procedural requirements to request the leave extension, “but I’ve had two occasions to observe this individual. The first was about 14, 15 years ago, and a part she played covering up sexual assault; and more recently we (the Board) have endured a year of trauma in part due to the actions of this individual. I think both of these things argue against our continuing this unnecessary, and strictly optional, extension of leave…”
HR Manager Tim Sworksy jumped in: “I’d like to caution the Board about where these comments are going…”
Mr. Sworsky was undoubtedly especially worried about the reference to assault, which involves a dark Denfeld tale Mr. Welty has more than once come very close to revealing on the record.
The second point was an observation that Ms. Lien is deeply immersed in the Art Johnston mess. She was assistant principal at East High, where Jane Bushey, the Lone Ranger’s significant other, was working as an LPN nurse with special needs children. It was Ms. Bushey’s charge that Ms. Lien was harassing her unfairly because of her relationship with the Board’s tenacious contrarian that sparked the original ground shaking.
Continents rumbled past each other for several minutes, shaking the public school world, then the audience witnessed what is called “subduction” in the field of geology. The plate of two was simply pushed under by the plate of five and Ms. Lien got her extended leave. She can still come back to her job a year from now if she wants.
Next we moved to the Business Committee Report, and to the bad news of those bleeding enrollment numbers. Member Johnston tried to pass around some graphs he’d put together from past WADM reports, but Chair Seliga-Punkyo refused to hand them down the dais. The plates became snagged by the tiniest of pebbles. The Lone Ranger wanted to use the graphs as a visual aid to explain graduation and enrollment numbers, but the Chair simply would not capitulate to his request. The squabble went on for more than a dozen lines of friction-filled dialogue I don’t have room to write down.
A sample: “I’m asking you to pass what I’ve handed you around this dais.”
“You have a question about 1-E, correct? Go ahead.”
“Would you please pass my paper around?”
“There’s a paper, here, that we should--”
“Well, then, I’ll pass it out myself.”
The Lone Ranger got up and handed out the graphs, which were actually quite effective in illustrating a troubling trend. Mr. Johnston pointed out that the district had lost another 340 students this year, “dropping us down to 8280 (total enrollment), the lowest as far back as I can look...” His graphs showed that Denfeld High actually graduated fewer students this year than before $46 million was spent to greatly expand the building.
At the rate ISD 709 is losing students, it could easily lose another 1000 in the next few years, especially when a brand new Edison high school begins offering families another educational choice in 2017. Across Duluth, water glasses may yet start trembling as though Chester Park has been transformed into Jurassic Park.
Don’t get overly comfortable. The REALLY Big One may still be coming.
Note: Art Johnston took a stand that was very important for the protection of all our civil rights. His opponents had the taxpayers’ wallets to fund their legal ventures; Art paid his lawyer bills--some $50 thousand, now--out of his own pocket. Any contribution the citizens of Duluth can make to help him pay those bills will be greatly appreciated by both Art and Jane. Visit gofundme.com/v49w8w and click on “make a donation.”