This will be my last article in the Reader, at least for a while. I’ve plunged into the turbulent waters of another school board race. Covering the school board over the past several months has been like reviewing scene after scene of a tragi-comedy. Someone I know actually cut out all my articles and sent them to relatives in Austria. The Austrians were really getting a bang out of our school board. When I first approached the Reader’s owner about doing the column, I said, “You wouldn’t believe what goes on in that boardroom, Bob. This stuff is gold for a writer. I can’t believe nobody’s writing about it.”

The mainstream media had been in the boardroom all along of course, acting sort of like a baseball play-by-play guy blandly covering the sinking of the Titanic: “The ship seems to be listing a bit, Joe. I wonder if it’ll affect Johnston’s swing?”

The writings of the editorial page editor of the paper of record, Chuck Frederick, have been particularly bad. Just go back and re-read “School Board Has Mighty Nice Problem,” printed July 23, 2010. After I read that article the first time, I called Mr. Frederick and asked, “How in the world could you have run something like this, Chuck? These numbers will never stand up.”

That article was so atrocious, such a shoddy piece of journalism, the paper should apologize profusely to this town for disseminating blatantly false information about an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sip from a Glass of wisdom.

For about a decade the school board has been dominated by the same group of people. Faces have changed, but the same bunch has aggressively elbowed everyone else out of the discussion. By now it should also be writ large that they’ve been WRONG ABOUT VIRTUALLY EVERYTHING.
The Board is supposed to be a deliberative body. A full debate ensures a more thorough examination of options and will generally lead to better public policy. Elbow everyone else out of the discussion and you end up with a cheerleading squad spurring on a railroad job like the Red Plan.

The mainstream media likes simple sound bites. It likes to put a black hat on this group and a white hat on that group. There are usually two sides to any fight, and that certainly has been the case in the boardroom for the past several years. Anyone who tries to claim all boardroom problems have been due to the cantankerousness of Art Johnston, while Judy Seliga-Punkyo has been a pure angel, is either very ill-informed or completely delusional. Speaking of delusions, in 2007 the News Tribune’s Editorial Page described candidate Seliga-Punkyo as “a blast of reassuring sunshine and a positive, can-do spirit that could slash through the many contentious issues challenging the Board.”
That worked out well.

During a rare return to the boardroom a few months back, Professor Gary Glass pointed out the flaws in running a government completely intolerant of dissent. From the public podium, this estimable citizen, one of the true heroes of our town, said that the Board majority’s relentless quashing of dissent takes away the “chance to use the best you can by letting (other Board members) speak, by letting them come to your agenda-setting meetings--not holding (the meetings) in secret as you continue to do--a major problem when I was on the Board. You prevent your (colleagues) from giving you their best ideas.”

Rigged for Conflict.

The problem in the boardroom is not personality-based, as much as it is about the way business is conducted. Harry Welty, who has previously served on the Board, and can make a comparison, calls the protocol that exists today “rigged.” What exists certainly isn’t representative government. It is a government run by bureaucrats. The secret meetings Mr. Glass referred to bar most Board members from their own agenda-setting sessions. Only the Chair and the Clerk are allowed to attend, but the room is filled with administration. The Superintendent has veto power over any agenda item. The only resolution I can remember the Board minority getting on the agenda was the SUNSHINE RESOLUTION, and the majority refused to allow Gary Glass’s sunny resolution to include the word “truth.”

Mr. Glass wanted his resolution to state that Board members “must tell the truth,” but the majority objected, claiming there were “too many versions of the truth.” Since Mr. Dixon came to town, I think Duluth has heard every version, variance and vicissitude of the truth known to the human race.

I’ve always suspected, deep down, the city council loves the school board. The two government bodies have a sort of sibling relationship, where one gets extra slack because the other one is always screwing up. Compared to juvenile delinquency, a solid “C” average and no police interventions can be enough to make you look like a pretty stellar kid. Even the dustup around council President Krug a few months back was reconciled relatively quickly.

The council generally gets along better because it operates in a more inclusive manner. I once witnessed Sharla Gardner second a motion by Jay Fosle, even though the two of them tend to view things from opposite ends of the political spectrum. I’m not certain I have this quote perfect, but councilor Gardner said something to this effect: “This may surprise some people, but I’m going to second this, so councilor Fosle can have this debate.”

That sort of action is called collegiality, and without basic collegiality, you will not have a civil tone. In an atmosphere of complete majority hegemony, where the minority members are not allowed to have their concerns openly debated and made part of the record, not able to represent their constituents’ interests, friction and conflict are inevitable.

The city council’s agenda-setting sessions are not held in secret. All councilors are free to (and generally do) attend. Some administrators are present, but only in an advisory capacity. The Council runs the show and sets its own agenda. The meetings are open to the public and transparent. The sunshine of transparency is the best safeguard to prevent nasty Red fungal masses from growing on government.

Open debate, even when it leads to heated passion, is much healthier than the brewing resentment of repression.

Over the years I’ve heard many well-intended Board candidates promise to pull people together and “bring a little more civility and decorum” to the boardroom. I’ve even heard candidates use the word, “kumbaya.” The Civility Project folks have come into the boardroom and given lecture after lecture. The reason all these nice words haven’t translated into reality is because the place itself is set up for conflict. Some systemic changes need to be made in the way Board business is conducted, otherwise good people will find themselves sucked into the same quagmire their predecessors found themselves stuck in. I doubt very much that sweet Annie Harala or good-hearted Mike Miernicki ever dreamed they would find themselves in the middle of the worst government brawl many of us have ever witnessed first hand.

The Board majority would only be able to run a frictionless show if it could win all seven Board seats. Majority members of course have tried hard to throw everyone but themselves out and gain every seat, but have never quite succeeded. If they ever did, the room would instantly fill with happy talk, but only an illusion of good government, because there would be no real debate at all. There would be absolutely no check-and-balance on administration. Dissent is valuable in government. Accountability is often best attained through the dissenters. As the Federal judge in the Art Johnston hearing said, “Gadflies make the best laws.”

I haven’t met many of the other Board candidates yet. I’m certain every one of the lambs has good intentions, but I’ve learned some hard lessons from past experience. Whoever comes out on top in this election better have the wisdom to finally open things up and return fair, open, representative government to the boardroom, or I might be back at the Reader four months from now, covering round 5 (another set of combatants from another two-year election cycle) in a raucous, ten-year fight.
*Personal note. Not everything in this world is hardball politics. My late wife, Karen Burmeister, was an art teacher and a very talented artist. I’m having a retrospective show of her artwork in the Duluth Art Institute. For those who don’t know, the Art Institute is in the old train depot on Michigan Street, just below the main library. The exhibit will run from Sept. 10 through Oct. 4. The opening reception will be held from 5pm to 7pm, Sept. 10. The whole town is invited.