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Another month another school board meeting: March 22, 2016
This evening began with a serenade from the Denfeld High String Orchestra. It’s always nice to be greeted by music in the boardroom. These mini-concerts by ISD 709 students are musical reminders of what school board meetings are ultimately about.
This evening’s spotlight remained on a student achiever, after the musicians were finished. Tonight’s Community Recognition Award was given to a Lincoln Park middle school student, Logan Griggs. Young Mr. Griggs recently won the State spelling bee and will represent Minnesota in the National bee next May. The word Logan won the State bee with--“durezza”--only has seven letters, but my spell-check kept wanting to change it to “duress,” and I had to go to my multiple volume dictionary to look it up. The word means “harshness” in musical tones, just the opposite to what we’d begun the evening with.
March is “Music in the Schools” month and the first speaker from the public podium was music instructor Teri Avervik. Ms. Averik thanked the Denfeld orchestra and their teacher for starting the evening on a fine musical note, then gave everyone an upbeat report about all the “wonderful things going on” music-related in our public schools. As she ran through her impressive list of performance and achievement, she noted with special pride that the Myers-Wilkins’ Elementary School World Beat Drummers will again participate in the Homegrown Music Festival this year, in “a bigger venue, on a better night.” The group will perform Friday evening, May 6th, at Sacred Heart.
As she has in the past, Ms. Avervik ended her comments with a little hard-bitten reality about where the years of district financial decrepitude have left her beloved music department. Despite a lot of success, “there’s some things we need help with. We are working hard, but we are struggling to provide materials and curriculum to meet standards and benchmarks for students…We need support in developing a long-range repair and maintenance plan for our instruments and equipment, and support for the replacement of equipment…We need (this) help, just like we need to keep up our buildings…”
A few off-key notes, but Ms. Averik ended her solo with an up-tempo crescendo of “great things going on every day!”
Another teacher, Caroline Sorenson, followed Ms Averik to the podium. Ms. Sorenson told the audience she was teaching her kids about the veins in the leaves of plants one day, when she noticed they were all looking at the veins in their wrists. They informed her they’d just gotten a lesson in gym class about venous blood, which is “kind of blue--dark, because this is blood that hasn’t been oxygenated yet…” The point of this teacher’s story was to exemplify the “cohesiveness” of her school’s curriculum, and how a lesson about the heart and the body’s circulatory system in gym class dovetailed beautifully into a discussion of veins in the leaves of plants in science class.
Funny how you can learn something, listening to a teacher. I knew veins look blue through the skin because of the lack of oxygen in the blood, but I didn’t know it was called venous blood.
We had the pleasure of one more teacher’s comments, this evening. “Hi,” she said in a friendly voice, introducing herself, “I’m Holly Bowen-Bailey, and I’m used to talking to seventh and eight graders.” Her laugh brought some chuckles from the audience. Ms. Bowen-Bailey thanked the Board for its long support for middle school athletics, which she coaches. She apologetically explained that she might “get a little weepy (which she did,) because I love it so much!” (At the risk of pointing out the obvious, most of us are in no danger of getting weepy about our jobs--at least not out of love.) Ms. Bowen-Bailey demonstrated the way some kids jump into a swimming pool for the first time. She actually walked up in front of the school board dais, and without a trace of inhibition, jumped forward in a leap-frog manner, to show us how “just so cute!” it all is.
You gotta love teachers!
More voices, from outside the schools.
Our next speaker addressed the biggest news of the evening: an offer by Edison Charter to buy the Central school property. Some of you may remember from my February column that a citizen addressed the Board on this issue, pleading with them to sell the Central property to Edison, rather than letting the Charter school build a new high school on ecologically sensitive property. Her name was Linda Ross-Sellner.
Apparently Ms. Ross-Sellner woke a few folks up. The next speaker to step up to the public podium this evening was Paul Goosens, a Board member of the Tischer Creek Building Company, the company that leases property to Edison Charter.
“Edison Charter remains fully committed to opening a new high school in August of 2017.” Mr. Goosens informed the Board and audience from the podium. “Plans are already well under way to construct the facility on the site known as ‘Snowflake,’ (on Rice Lake Road), but before we put a shovel in the ground we are returning to ISD 709’s school board--one last time, really--with an offer to purchase the vacant Central High School Property…We’re prepared to pay our maximum capacity of $14.2 million for this property.”
(Edison’s offer is a half million dollars more than the district’s asking price for the property; no other property sale has come close to asking price.)
Mr. Goosens walked us all through the logic for the sale, raising three main points: (1) “Central was constructed and financed by taxpayers of the city of Duluth for public education purposes.” Selling to Edison “would return the building to its original intent.” (2) The sale has “financial benefits to ISD 709 and the taxpayers, (with) essentially no downside. ISD 709 clearly has been unable to sell the property for over six years, because to anybody but a school it is simply not worth the price expected. Developers have told both of us (ISD 709 and Edison) it’s worth about $7 million.”
Edison’s offer is double that amount, and Mr. Goosens pointed out how much the money could help a school district “with significant financial challenges.” He added that Edison is going to happen with or without the sale, so “the question before you (the Board) is not whether or not there should be a new Edison, the question is what’s the opportunity for district 709 and the taxpayers of Duluth?” (3) Mr. Goosens’ concluded by pointing out some of the “additional community benefits” of the deal, such as “returning a high school to the city’s central corridor” and moving everyone “past the Red Plan era,” and how it would allow Edison to “avoid the development impacts” of a new school--the concerns Ms. Ross-Sellner raised.
If we were talking about any other entity but the Duluth school board, I’d say this deal was going to happen. The political wild card is the pressure exerted by the teachers’ union. The union feels threatened by charter schools. The DFL and the unions are closely tied, and DFLers control the boardroom.
The next citizen speaker backed up Paul Goosens’ advocacy for the Edison deal. David Johnson pointed out all the environmental and educational benefits, and the positive effect the deal would have on the district’s expenses. The last citizen to step up to the podium was Marcia Stromgren. Ms. Stromgren also voiced support for Edison buying Central and said it was time for a policy change to allow the sale. She scolded the Board for its general ineptitude of the past several years and told them she was tired of seeing her taxes “continually increase.”
The stars finally take over the show
The Education Committee Report this evening contained very little requiring school board action. Member Oswald is the only Board member who pulled an item for discussion: the upcoming budget for achievement and integration. She pointed out that the budget is the third installment of a 3-year budget cycle, so is already locked in and the Board “can’t really make any improvements on it…But I just know that we are failing a lot of students and families of color. And I’m definitely hopeful that we will see something drastically different in the next 3-year plan.”
Chair Harala, who dislikes any negative observation, followed up with a bit of a reprimand: “Member Oswald…I think this district has some room to grow…We’re seeing that we’re having some improvement in some of our elementary schools, (and our) graduation rates will be tied to those students as they go through school. I think, overall, all of these different areas we’re working on will collectively impact. I’m just glad to know we’re working to streamline and integrate a lot of our system so people aren’t working in silos.
And so,” our Chair continued, “I appreciate that, when you look at the achievement gap, it’s not just one piece of the pie. And that it takes a whole school district, and actually, a whole community, to address how we offer opportunities. When you look at the poverty rate in our community…poverty really affects our students’ outcomes. That’s not to say our schools can’t continue to grow. What it is saying is that it will take all of us…so I appreciate you bringing this forward, and also encourage this whole community--as you are jumping into this discussion--find a way that you’re going to paddle the oar, too.”
The moral of this lecture, roughly: Don’t hang out in silos, just bellyaching and eating piece after piece of pie. Get off your butt, pick up your oar and start helping us paddle out of this mess.
No more discussion or sermons in the offing, the Education Committee passed unanimously and we moved on to Human Resources, which was also very brief. Chair David Kirby ran through the list of personnel changes (thankfully skipping the 345 people associated with the district’s co-curricular activities,) then informed us that there were no informational or action items. In lightening speed, another Committee Report passed unanimously!
It was back to the budget and other Business.
This Committee Report is never a quick and smooth ride, though tonight was a little less bumpy than it could have been. The discussion immediately launched into the most important business item of the night: next year’s budget. “By June will have a complete budget that will be set in concrete.” Member Welty began. “The question that I have is, “How firm is this particular concrete?”
“As we spoke about during the Committee meeting,” the Superintendent responded, “this is kind of like working in wet cement, if you will. This is a first blush to give you an idea of the direction we’ve taken…” He went on to explain that some parts of the budget will require MOUs--memorandums of understanding--with the unions. “So, none of these numbers are solid yet…But that’s what our work, going towards June, will be: to make sure our dollar budget we bring you is solid.”
“I’d like to thank administration,” Member Johnston said, joining the discussion. “I think this was a good start. I think this was the most information we got in this time of the budget cycle since I’ve been on the Board…” He had some “concerns,” however, that
he wanted “to express publicly.” His concerns, as it turned out, were about his concerns. He pointed out that some Board members had expressed reservations about parts of the proposed budget. “How do we forward our concerns? How do we get those items discussed?”
One specific item he mentioned that he believed required more discussion was the Board’s “continual chipping away at the zero hour.” Zero hour is an optional class period offered at the beginning of the day in the high schools. Only music instruction will now be offered during this time, under the new budget proposal.
One of the student representatives, Spenser Frederickson, chimed in with his own concerns about paring down the zero hour. “I have met and talked with many students who have loved the zero hour option.”
Members Johnston and Oswald voted against the proposed budget. I wish I had another page to go into more of the discussion in detail, but the budget is going to keep coming up over the next few months, and I want to mention another business item I found particularly interesting. Member Oswald brought one phrase from the School Resource Police Officers’ contract to the Board’s attention: “The police officers should conduct investigations within the school and surrounding community in both criminal and other (matters)…” She said she was curious why a generalized word like “other” was used to describe the parameters of police intervention.
“What is ‘other?’” she asked.
The ball was thrown to the district’s CFO to define “other.”
“‘Non-criminal’ is what I would guess,” He said, “but I don’t know what would all fall into that category…This was a document put together by the city and we enjoy a good relationship with them. Sometimes you’re negotiating a contract with an entity that you’d put into the category of adversary, but this isn’t one of those situations. That doesn’t mean that we don’t delve into them (the contracts), but--I can’t answer your question. That’s my long answer to a short question.”
Member Sandstad, an attorney, offered: “I’m guessing that it may relate to truancy or other (transgressions) not considered criminal…”
It could, but the word in the contract is just a vague “OTHER”--a bit carte blanche for the land of civil rights.
After witnessing so much indiscriminate rubberstamping over the past several years, it was refreshing to find a Board member assiduously scouring over the details of contracts, doing her job.
We were at the meeting’s end, time for closing comments. Superintendent Gronseth used the opportunity to praise his secretary, Sue Talerico, who is retiring. “I know that being the voice of the Superintendent in his office on the phone is not always the easiest job in the world, and (Sue) does that with grace and treats people with respect and she will not be easy to replace. I’ve appreciated our time together.” There was a round of well-deserved applause for Ms. Talerico--a public employee who (while a tragicomic melodrama continually erupted around her) never failed to be very courteous and competent, a real pro.
On that nice note, we were done for the night.
Striving for accuracy and eating crow
I suspect those not fond of my reporting are more unhappy with me than usual, and rightly so. I mistakenly wrote in my last Reader article that school board Chair Annie Harala is a district employee. She works as the regional coordinator for a multi-county health Board. Because I’d heard (and I believe accurately) that she’d been involved in assuring healthy food choices in district schools, I’d mistakenly assumed she was an employee. I found out Ms. Harala was not a district employee 13 hours too late to change what I’d written. That’s the downside of print, versus the electronic world. Once print is off to the printer, it’s as good as concrete.
This error was unquestionably a regrettable one, and I sincerely apologize to the Chair for it. Looking over the published article, I also discovered a technical slipup. The potential enrollment loss from ISD 709 I identified (eighty students) was based on the current percentage draw into the public school system from Edison’s last eighth grade graduation of 119. Not every student is anticipated to leave ISD 709, however. Edison estimates an 80% matriculation rate of its own students into its new school, which would drop 80 to 64. Another part of the equation--the differential between the number of students Edison hopes to keep within its own system and the full capacity of its high school--I made an editorial decision to exclude because of space consideration and worries about a number overload. (For more insight into this potential problem, reread this paragraph.)
In regard to one other error, I declare my innocence. The highlighted statement that “Edison doesn’t take kids into its system beyond kindergarten” was lifted from an earlier draft of my article by the Reader’s staff. After cross-checking information with the Chair of Edison’s Board, I determined this statement to be inaccurate and had subsequently removed it. In an email to me, Chair Crystal Palmer stated: “As a free public charter school, all students, if residents of Minnesota, are eligible to enroll at (Edison.)” The statement that the school only takes kindergarteners had been removed, and should have stayed OUT, so please hold your stones.
Of course, these technical details pale in comparison to the mistake I did make about the Chair’s employment. I felt awful when I realized, too late, that I’d dropped the ball. I literally felt physically ill when I realized that the Chair would have to live for a whole week with a charge I was responsible for and powerless to do anything about it. I strive very hard for accuracy. I rewrote the article six times and thought I’d nailed down every last detail.
I did correctly report that the Chair’s mom is a district teacher, which undoubtedly means she’s a very nice person, likely even a saint. It also means the question I asked about the Chair’s ability to exercise complete independence from the teachers’ union is still valid. The teachers’ union exerted a lot of pressure on the Board to stop the sale of Central to Edison, and moms can be some of the most influential lobbyists on the planet.
However: if the Chair says “mum” was the word from mom, I’ll believe her.
Finally let me extend my apology to my readers. The reason I hate making a mistake isn’t just because I have to eat crow and suffer a bruised ego, but because I know any mistake undermines my credibility on the many myriad points I made in my article that were painstakingly verified and--as far as I can humanly proclaim--spot-on accurate.