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Before I begin to report on the second regular school board meeting of this new year, I want to make Chair Harala happy by being “positive” and “people-centered.” I like our new Board. For the first time in years I sense a nascent feel of collegiality. Fault lines are still visible to a boardroom veteran, but I’m generally feeling a little more upbeat about the dynamics in Old Central.
Can the goodwill last, given all the challenges on this Board’s plate, like dealing with a $3.3 million deficit right off the bat? Ceaseless time flows onward, revealing all answers, one grinding meeting at a time.
Our Board in action: School board meeting, 2/23/16.
The audience gathered in the ornate hall of Old Central was kept dawdling for a quarter of an hour at the onset of the evening, while the Board engaged in some obviously vigorous debate behind closed doors. Occasionally, the Board disappears into a hidden chamber behind the dais, which must have pretty good sound-proofing, because I’ve never been able to pick up a peep.
While the audience waited, whispered speculation about the delay was inevitable. One of the most imaginative explanations was that the Board had sequestered itself into a space comparable to the White House Situation Room, and the Superintendent was ordering real-time drone strikes against district naysayers. Others speculated that the district had actually received an offer to buy one of it’s hot, boarded-up properties. It turned out the session involved two separate disciplinary actions against a student and district staffer.
The alleged offenders were not present in the secret chamber, so we can at least mercifully rule out any corporeal punishment meted out by our rulers. Member Welty, who is prone to walk the line in such matters, started giving everyone a hint once business was being conducted again in the boardroom: “I want the record to show that in my opinion the members of the school board take their role very seriously…We are contemplating the termination (extermination?) of someone who has made a terrible mistake--”
“Member Welty!” Chair Harala tried to stifle this spilling of secrets. “That’s not public data.”
Pleasantly undaunted, Mr. Welty continued his dance along the tightrope. “I just want it to be known that I’m very pleased and proud of the discussion we had. The decision we’re going to make is not an easy one, and I certainly hope it’s best for all the people involved.”
We can at least hope things work out well for the poor terminated bloke, and he finds a good spot in the breadline.
Time for public recognition.
Duluthians make many generous contributions to the education of our youth. Tonight, William Keller was given kudos for matching a $1500 grant from a foundation with another $1500 out of his own pocket--at total of $3000 for the Duluth East High orchestra. Mr. Keller is ninety-seven years old. Part of his donated money is going to be used to buy the school’s orchestra a new viola. This is the instrument once played by the father of the generous (nearly centenarian) Mr. Keller, who is obviously still quite alive, with a warmly-beating heart.
After the ceremony honoring Mr. Keller was over, some of his fellow citizens stepped up to the podium to give voice to the plethora of opinions--both positive and negative--always swirling around ISD 709.
The first was the current president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers’ union, Bernie Burnham. Ms. Burnham has been shepherding some of her union members into the boardroom lately, to get them to share with the Board their generally upbeat assessment of their jobs. Teacher Cindy Jamar praised her fellow teachers in the Phy. Ed. Department of Lester Park school. Apparently the strengtheners of brawn have been collaboratively engaging in ways to strengthen the brain. They’ve been innovating ways to incorporate academic reinforcement through exercise.
Two more teachers--Kim Eaton and Alli Yakle--also spoke of collaboration within the ranks. Ms. Eaton has been a mentor for Ms. Yakle, who is a first-year teacher at Laura Mac Elementary. Ms. Yakle elaborated in the kind of earnest tones only teachers can muster about how much having a “safe, comfortable” relationship with an older, wiser mentor has helped her survive the (truly challenging) experience of trying to relate to a classroom of clueless little urchins away from mom and dad for the first time.
All these wonderful teachers were very supportive of one and other. From the podium they came about as close to a group-hug as you can get with just words. I was beginning to think I’d taken a wrong turn and had somehow stumbled into a revival of Duluth’s “Ever-Loving Saints Assembly.”
But of course the world consists of a few things besides love.
The next public speaker to walk up to the podium was Linda Ross-Sellner. Ms. Ross-Sellner was on a mission to wake our Board up out of some foolishness. For nearly five years now, the district has been sitting on vacated Central High--a perfectly fine, empty high school--while another educational organization (Edison Charter) makes plans to build a new high school on what Ms. Ross-Sellner described as very ecologically sensitive land. Ms. R.-S. pointed out that the building site for new school will take up “22 acres of a 171 acre property expected to be kept in a natural condition…It’s all wetlands! This site is the headwaters wetlands for Chester and Tischer Creeks!” Ross-Sellner suggested that the best way for the Board to get out of its current fiscal deficit would be to “Sell Edison Charter the Central Campus! Find a way! Introduce a Board resolution! Change policy! You are the only ones who can save this native, virgin wetlands, that is at the head of two trout streams in Duluth!” Before turning from the podium, Ms. Ross-Sellner thanked our notoriously wooden-eared Board for its consideration and made one last desperate plea for them to “Think outside the box!”
Unfortunately the Board is locked up tightly in a big RED box, and has been unable to extricate itself for many years. The district’s own estimates show we’ve wasted $850,000 for maintenance and utilities on Central.
The next speaker was Tim Davis. As he often does, Mr. Davis spoke in somber tones about the school district’s inability to deal effectively with all the challenges involving students of color. Tonight, he lamented about the abysmal graduation rates just announced for Black and Native American students. The Native American graduation rate dropped 17 points--from 49 to 32%; the African American graduation continues to remain stagnant at 47%.
Mr. Davis described these numbers as “extremely horrible and extremely tragic, if not criminal.” He looked at the Board and asked, “Are these graduation rates the result of the Red Plan?”
Let’s just say the Red Plan hasn’t help much, and it was supposed to. As former Board member (and intrepid hero) Gary Glass once put it: the Red Plan was “a cleverly devised and deceptive plan to reform the Duluth school district under the guise of providing ‘equity’ to minority students by ‘improving’ education with newer and fewer buildings.” The exact language used to sell the scam went like this: “The long-range facilities plan will provide district-wide efficiencies, resulting in more dollars to designate towards programming to support efforts to reduce and ultimately close the achievement gap.”
That lovely language allowed the Board to bypass the nicety of a public vote and was nothing but a crass manipulation of the system by a very clever behemoth corporation called Johnson Controls.
Over Chair Harala’s objection, Member Johnston made a few comments on the subject, after Mr. Davis left the podium: “We should have a Committee of the Whole meeting to talk about our graduation rates…Minnesota ranks 46th and 48th lowest in the union for (the achievement levels of) Native American and African American students. Duluth is in the lowest 14th percentile in Minnesota for Native American graduation rates and in the lowest 20th percentile in Minnesota for African American graduation rates.”
Yikes, we’re at the bottom of one of the lowest barrels! But don’t worry, the Red Plan is going to fix it all up yet.
Our Leaders take the lead.
Chair Rosie Loefler-Kemp tried to bring some buoyancy to her Education Committee Report right out of the gate: “I’m excited about the Education Committee. And I just want to thank our student reps for your rich reports of all kinds of great activities happening in your schools…”
The Chair next delved into some staff presentations from her Education Committee meeting that were also “rich, with lots of information, and lots of numbers, and, most importantly, (a description of) the collaboration…the partnerships that we have here in the community…with our after-school programming we are serving over 1400 students throughout the summer and the school year.”
Let me toss in another cheer: there is an amazing esprit de corps around our public schools in Duluth. Too bad everything got so screwed up and thrown into the RED.
Chair L.-K. is gifted when it comes to lavishing praise. She next started gushing about some grant applications the district has been putting together: “We are very fortunate to have staff across the district writing grants and providing many different opportunities for students, families and staff.” Again, let me back up the Chair’s cheers. Given the terrible fiscal shape our public school district is in, grant writing is one way to shore up what is being offered in the schools. And staff is doing a sufficient job, given its limits of time, resource and expertise, but (you guessed it!) I’m going to take another shot at Keith Dixon’s maniacal Red Plan reign. During all of Mr. D.’s beguiling money manipulations, he canned the district’s professional grant writer.
The grants currently being written are just a taste of what could be accomplished if a professional grant-writer were to be reinstated.
The Board went through the pro forma procedure of accepting all the grants, then the Chair read a few changes to Board policy (igniting no controversy) into the record. She wrapped up her cheerful presentation with a list of ten young go-getters who are being awarded their high school diplomas, and the Education Committee Report was unanimously approved, 7-0.
People are the most valuable resource in every organization, though not everyone feels his or her boss sees it that way. It was time to take a look at the status of people relations in ISD 709, under the guidance of the department’s new Chair, David Kirby. Mr. Kirby read through all the changes in staff positions, then announced a new position recently created: a full school community coordinator position at Lincoln Park Middle School. The position (funded by grant money) is hopefully going to blossom into a program that counters negative social influences--the problems kids bring to school which tend to undermine academic achievement.
After Chair Kirby finished his report, member Welty put his light on: “I’ll confess that what I’m about to raise is not on the agenda, but I do believe it is related and I just wanted to make sure it was not something overlooked…”
“Member Welty--.” The Board Chair interrupted.
“If I could--.”
“Comments not directly related to the agenda should be held to the very end of the meeting.”
“I would like to ask just this one question: I believe that we are about to have a number of changes made in our custodial staffing in March…I would like to know if those decisions that are about to be made follow the letter of what the Board agreed to last year?”
The tug-of-war went on, until Chair Harala declared: “You and I can discuss this after the meeting, Member Welty. We’ve already gone on beyond the agenda set at the beginning of the meeting, and as someone who always follows Roberts’ Rules of Order…”
Touche! The Chair threw out this line about Roberts’ Rules more than once throughout the meeting. It came across as a bit of “back-at-you” to the two censored bad boys--Welty and Johnston. To a degree it was a fair point, but it’s equally fair to question if the Chair will follow Roberts’ Rules just as strictly when it isn’t to her advantage. That certainly hasn’t been the track record of the ruling majority. Also, the point the Chair raised was more of a grey area than she was asserting. It was an HR question and we were in the HR Committee. It wasn’t a comment; it was a question about a possible pending action in the HR department. Another relevant point is that these are public meetings. Some clarification for the public is to the Board’s advantage, once a question like that is asked. If discussion is brusquely shut down, the public naturally wonders what is being buried.
I definitely wanted the question answered.
The tug-of-war went on, with member Johnston grabbing onto the rope on Welty‘s side. He legitimately inquired (over the Chair’s protests) why no staffing changes or pay reductions were included in the action items from HR. In the end it took HR Manager Sworsky about 10 seconds to at least ostensibly clear things up, explaining that the changes did not involve permanent personal, but were temp postings. He did not explain if using cheaper temps for those positions was normal.
The HR Report eventually passed, 7-0.
On to Business.
As has been the case of late, the Business Committee’s main point of focus this evening was a number of changes to Board policy. The boardroom moved a little closer towards real democracy with a change that now allows three Board members, working together, to put an item on the agenda. Business Chair Nora Sandstad commented on the change this way: “My hope is…that we as a Board are going to be good stewards of this and make good choices and that three members working together can be a check on each other to assure that we’re working efficiently and effectively in governing the district and taking actions and putting items on the agenda that will move our district forward and improve our district and that we’re not revisiting old issues (read: Red Plan.)”
A few quibbling points of perspective: (1) Once upon a time, every board member individually had a right to place an item on the agenda. (2) The underlying premise of the statement seemed to suggest that the agenda set by administration and the Board majority for the past several years has been based on “good choices.” (3) The majority continually proclaims that the Red Plan’s effect on the district has been fully vetted, but in fact most of them don’t have a clue what real effect it has had. (4) The DFL majority for a long time has been able to order up anything it wants on the agenda menu. Even a nice sermon from any of them about self-regulating is a sort of like listening to plump feudal lords demanding perfect table manners from bony, undernourished beggars who finally have a shot at some food. Can anyone really blame the poor hungry outcasts for being a bit gluttony until they get their body weight back up?
I know this people-centered commentary was not as positive as Chair Harala likes. So let me finish by adding that, by school board standards, it was a pretty good meeting.on the dark New York City streets.