Duluthians may not be tossing and turning with worry in their sleep, but I suspect a few of them are wondering if the Art Johnston imbroglio was some kind of catharsis in the school board room. Did all the poison drain off? Or, at the minimum, will the unseemly ordeal now lead to more cautious and wise decisions? Will the new Board look out across the school district, sort of the way the Germans looked out across the bombed-out debris of their beautiful Berlin after World War II and think, “Damn! Don’t ever want to do THAT again!”
As is often the case, the mainstream media’s analysis of the situation was over-simplified. The media kept trying to paint the situation as strictly personality driven--white hats versus black hats. Of course, in this case, the color of the white hats should have been RED. The News Tribune’s editorial page continually suggested some anti-Red Plan ne’er-do-wells in the boardroom just weren’t being “cooperative.”
The Red War did lead directly to Art Johnston’s fight for his school board life. Peal away the chaff of overblown charges, and the Johnston saga was a fight to the death by two of the war’s toughest opponents: Art Johnston and Judy Seliga-Punyko. The nasty spectacle was essentially two battle-hardened combatants verbally knife-fighting each other across the smoking, scorched earth landscape of the Red Plan battlefield.
What the mainstream media got wrong, however, was depicting the fight as a lingering argument about something that was “over.” Big money is still being spent on Red Plan “finishing work,” and the huge government boondoggle’s deleterious effect on the district’s budget is ongoing. Also, no reporter or debate moderator seemed to have a clue that it wasn’t just a disagreement about the Red Plan and other district business that was causing boardroom conflict. The Board kept having an argument about having an argument.
The conflict had essentially distilled down to a fight over the Board’s agenda, and, by extension--about representative government and free speech. Some Board members kept insisting they had a right (in fact, a duty) to ask questions about what the Red Plan had actually achieved for education, while others (who controlled the power structure) kept obdurately opposing any discussion of the Red Plan’s fallout or any other subject potentially embarrassing to administration to occur in a public forum.
The DFL has already locked in control of this new Board (the four DFLers took all the officer positions and all the Chairs of the Standing Committees,) so the basic dynamic is still in place. Again, the only hope for a better outcome rests on the Board’s desire for some peace after the Battle Royal that just ended, and the fact one of the worst actors (Judy Seliga-Punkyo) has finally made a stage exit.
To be fair, Judy S.-P. did do a fairly good rendition of Marie Antoinette: “The peasants have no water? Let them drink lattes!”
Curtain up on the new players.
I’ll begin by reintroducing the four remaining members of the old cast, then introduce the three new actors. The four veterans from the last act (thrilling spectacle, horrible government) are evenly split--two from each feuding camp.
Art Johnston. May as well begin with the plot’s catalyst. For six years, Mr. Johnston has had the misfortune of actually knowing something about construction, while he was ostensibly overseeing a half-billion dollar construction project. Being a structural engineer would seem to be a plus under such circumstances, but the boardroom of ISD 709 is a world of inversion. Johnston has had to endure the aggravating ordeal of being surrounded by a bunch of obsequious rubberstampers who couldn’t have cared less about the details or the facts. Most of Johnston’s Board colleagues were much better suited to talking about soap costs, than soft costs. Not blessed with unlimited reserves of patience, Johnston can be combative and abrasive. Trying to have a discussion with Art Johnston, when he’s locked onto a point, is a bit like climbing into a cage and trying to have a philosophical debate with a pit bull.
Harry Welty. While Mr. Johnston is gritty, gravel and steel, his ally from the past two years is silk and a sunny sky. Harry Welty is one of those rare creatures in the political jungle: a genuinely nice guy . In terms of personality, Mr. Welty, dapper and urbane, is best described as a verbal Fred Astaire. Dancing gracefully about to the music of words, he sometimes becomes so awed and impressed by his own pirouettes, he forgets he has a partner.
Annie Harala. Harala will remain the youngest member of the new Board. She was only 29 when she ran for the Board two years ago, and has shown every indication of remaining a wide-eyed ingenue until she’s 99. She tends to speak rapidly and often peppers her boardroom comments with positive words like “proud” and “excited.” She is clearly convinced with her whole heart that if can just somehow turn every public Board meeting into a festival of happy talk, the Duluth public school district will transform into an educational Shangri la--a propitious place of rainbows and pots of gold achievement stars.
Rosie Loeffler-Kemp. Loeffler-Kemp is a very active local politico. She can schmooze and work a room as well as any politician I’ve ever seen. She often flatters and “thanks” administration during meetings. She states repeatedly that she believes the primary role of a Board member is to promote “all the great things that are going on in our schools.” Rosie L.-K. has a loud alto voice and tends to speak very haltingly, often pausing and interjecting a long, deep, “ahhhhhhhhhh--” as though getting a throat exam. A (moderately modified) example of a Rosie L.-K. boardroom speech goes something like this: “I would like to publicly thank--ahhhhhhhhhh--Mr. Easter Bunny and Mr. Santa Claus for--ahhhhhhhhhh--taking time from their busy schedules to--ahhhhhhhhhhh--tell our students just how important it is to--ahhhhhhhhhhh--give back to the community. I would also like to thank administration for--ahhhhhhhhhhh--once again doing an excellent job in arranging this pertinent presentation. I think it is the job of a school board member to--ahhhhhhhhhh--promote all the wonderful opportunities offered by the Duluth public school system.”
Nora Sandstad. One of the three newbies, Sandstad is a former teacher, turned attorney. She’s smart and very earnest about desiring to help Duluth public schools. During the campaign, however, she displayed little actual knowledge about the district’s budget and never specified how she was going to deliver on all the classroom improvements she was advocating. She repeated several times that wasn’t going to take sides in the boardroom, but her candidacy was heavily promoted by Harala and Loeffler-Kemp, and she is likely to often vote with her DFL sisters. Throughout the campaign, she displayed little understanding about how her predecessors on the Board had slipped into such virulent rancor. She agreed everyone has a right to speak in the boardroom, but again fell short on specifics about how she intended to facilitate more inclusiveness. She seemed overly confident that “as a lawyer” she could bring the Board around to start conducting its business “in a professional manner.” Sandstad did say some heartening things while campaigning, most notably this observation about the Board majority’s foolhardy attempt to throw out Art Johnston: “I would not have voted in favor of removing Art Johnston, and that’s because I would have hoped that the attorneys for the Board would have sat down with the members ahead of time and said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. Here’s what it’s going to cost the district. This is going to drag through a year, and it’s going to ruin your name in the media…’ In the end, whatever occurred to cause that vote to be taken, I don’t think it was worth the impact on the Board and the district as a whole.”
Alanna Oswald. Oswald’s election was by far the biggest change on the Board. She took over the at-large seat that was vacated by a large presence in the room--Mike Miernicki. Miernicki was an adamant believer in the power of positive thinking and a stanch defender of Superintendent Gronseth and his administration. Like Sandstad, Oswald repeatedly stated throughout the campaign that she wouldn’t take sides in the boardroom. Also like Sandstad, however, her candidacy was heavily supported by one side (Johnston and Welty) and she is likely to lean their way. Unlike Miernicki, Oswald shows every indication of being a much more independent thinker when it comes to what administration is trying to sell. In other words, she seems to possess something that has been in short supply in the boardroom: a first-rate bs detector. Alanna has the watchful stare and the sly smile of a Cheshire cat. She is in her fifth year on the State-wide Minnesota Department of Education Title One funding committee, and already possesses an impressive breadth of knowledge about school district finance. She seems to actually enjoy digging into the details. Oswald is the citizen who exposed the curriculum shortcomings at Laura MacArthur elementary, a discovery which led to a re-alignment of all the district’s curriculum with State standards. I look forward to this sharp new Board member questioning the district’s finance Sphinx, Bill Hanson, and the rest of the reticent administrators.
David Kirby. Like most of the other Board candidates, Mr. Kirby seldom (if ever) stepped foot into the boardroom until he decided to run for the Board. He recently expressed surprise by the commitment of time and energy the Board of Education requires. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Kirby referred to the Think Kids(And Not About the Board) meetings whenever questioned about district business, and often admiringly brought up Superintendent Gronseth’s spotty Continuous Improvement Plan as though referring to the Holy Grail. An intelligent, upstanding citizen--an M.D.--Dr. Kirby has given every indication of following in the cement steps of the Board member he is replacing--Judy Seliga-Punkyo--and being a lock-step vote for administration. (Judy S.-P. herself described him as “clearly the best candidate” to replace her.) At this point, however, one can always still hope.
Last year’s drama is definitely a tough act to follow, but it’s onward with a new Board. On a cold winter night, it will be interesting to see how warm it gets in the auditorium of Old Central: school board meeting, 1/19/16.

Back in the wheelhouse.

DFLer Annie Harala is now Board Chair. DFLer Rosie Loeffler-Kemp in now Chair Clerk. DFLer David Kirby is vice-Chair. DFLer Nora Sandstad is Board Treasurer. The infamously inclusive DFL majority divvied up the three Standing Committee Chairs this way: DFLer Loeffler-Kemp took over the Education Committee as Chair, DFLer Kirby took over Human Resources Committee as Chair, DFLer Sandstad took over the Business Committee as Chair.
In other words (in case I’m being too subtle), the auditorium of Old Central, as it has for a decade, still flies the bright RED banner of the DFL. The fact that Harry Welty (ten years Board experience) and Art Johnston (six years) were passed over for two newly elected members with zero experience is called winner-take-all politics.
If you’re part of the winning team you win all the power, but nepotistic political connections trumping knowledge in the boardroom has been anything but a winner for the city of Duluth.
The Education Committee turned out to be a nice, gentle way for the new Board to begin. Reading through her report, Chair Rosie L.-K. accented all the wonderful things going on in our public schools with lots of kudos and thank-yous to staff. One highlight was that Lincoln Park school recently won a Full Service School Community Grant. The idea behind these grants is to address all the underlying social problems that are roadblocks to educating kids.
The grant is fairly small--$97,171--for a school coordinator position to organize and implement the program. A similar program is currently producing good results at Myers-Wilkins Elementary. It was especially heartening to see some attention paid to Lincoln Park, one of the western schools shortchanged by the Red Plan. Hopefully ISD 709 will continue to search for funding sources (other than Duluth taxpayers) to shore up what is being offered in the shiny new schools.
The Human Resources Committee report also looked like it was going to be a smooth ride, until member Welty mentioned some personnel issues that threatened to rekindle the School Board War--one resignation, one termination.
The resignation was recently tendered by Harrison Dudley. Some may recall my Reader interview with Mr. Dudley. He was the gentleman the alleged racist remark had been directed towards, during the Johnston lynch-mob days. Mr. Dudley was one of Art Johnston’s supporters, and stated clearly that he didn’t believe there was anything to the charges. Strangely, the person recently given the boot from the school district is the fellow with the good ears who claimed to have overheard the alleged remark.
When Member Welty started probing into this strange coincidence, he was sharply challenged by the new boss--Chair Harala: “Member Welty, this not the place--!”
“Madame Chair! I’ll explain, if you allow me to continue--!” Mr. Welty went on to express “some concern that this (the loss of these employees) does not represent a house-cleaning, a purge--”
The exit of both these players from the passion play does stir a bit of intrigue into drama.

First Real Test.
The Business Committee report is usually the truest stress test of any Board meeting. This is where “you-know-who” usually starts administering some doses of reality to people who like to hear only happy things. Whenever Art Johnston started to speak during previous Board meetings, Judy Seliga-Punkyo would turn rigid with a clenched jaw and Mike Miernicki would cover his face. Miernicki’s head would glow so red, he looked as though he might self-detonate.
Member Johnston did not disappoint again tonight, heading right for the WADM numbers: “We’ve lost another 28 students…we’ve basically lost another classroom of kids.” Superintendent Gronseth downplayed the number as an end-of-semester anomaly, while Johnston’s new colleagues passed their first stress test with admirable restraint.
. The next few items up for discussion--some changes in Board policy--have also spurred some boardroom antagonism in the past. The Board is required to review policy 8030 annually, to see if it should give itself a raise--an idea members were actually entertaining. Even Art Johnston didn’t question the wisdom of THIS BOARD giving itself a RAISE, during the Business Committee meeting. Fortunately, Harry Welty, who was out of town during the Committee meeting, was back tonight with some proper perspective: “I don’t think this (raise) is something that looks good…this just sends all the wrong messages to everyone…”
Like, perhaps: we still have a blind-deaf-and-dumb Board.
Board members timidly backed off from their first reading of a change in policy 8030, which would have granted them a pay raise--generally regarded as a reward for a job well done.
In another policy review, Administration recommended the Board supersede the MSBA requirement of a simple majority to amend the Board’s agenda during a meeting. Administration thought it would be a good idea to instead continue employing the Board’s long-standing draconian requirement of a unanimous vote. The Board actually (for once) showed some independence and agreed that a simple majority was a fairer standard. When the policy governing the Board’s agenda-setting process is formally approved next month, four votes instead of seven will be required to add an item to the agenda during a meeting.
Again, it was member Welty who expressed the wonder of it all: “I’m kind of heartened by what I’ve seen here--.”
A rare concession by the controlling majority did give reason to hope there may be some breakthrough in the happy talk-v.-free speech fight. Is it possible our hapless Board did learn the lesson of war, and really doesn’t want to do THAT again?