I’ve got a money-making idea for our broke school district: let’s rent out our school board to Guantanamo Bay. Forget waterboarding. Just force the incorrigible terrorists to sit on hard benches and listen to our Board for three hours straight. I guarantee you every one of them will crack.

School Board meeting, 4/19/16.
Once again I walked into the boardroom, looked at the agenda and thought: “Hour and a half, tops.” By the time 9:30 pm came around, only a few diehards were still toughing it out in Old Central and I’m pretty sure they all felt the way I did: brains mushy, backsides numb. This evening’s meeting was so twisted and convoluted (and in many ways, so profoundly important), I’m not even going to try to cover it in the usual way.
The evening started out with another community recognition award. Some students had devoted considerable time and effort collecting boxes of stuffed animals. They wanted First Responders to have something to give kids comfort in emergency situations. Watching nice children receive their well-deserved award--getting hugs from, and giving hugs to, Board members--was enough to melt the stoniest heart. To ask tough questions about money in such an atmosphere feels worse than Scrooge at Christmas.
Everyone was inclined to join in with Chair Harala as she beamed and exulted: “We’re just so proud of you!”
At least a dozen more kids signed up to speak from the public podium. Every one of them was polite and nice and made you want to help them succeed. One group told us about how they’d spent History Day focusing on the past “in depth…not just doing simple Google searches.” They told us about examining the Monroe Doctrine and the Treaty of Versailles, and all the other varied subjects they’d looked into--like the history of this country’s Death Penalty legislation, Woman’s Suffrage and how Nitrogen Mustard had come to be used in Chemotherapy.
By the time they were finished, I was not only willing to pay more taxes, I wanted to go back to school!

If it wasn’t for the Board of Education!

Even the cutest, cuddliest kid tugging at your heartstrings, however, is only going to work for so long. Keep ignoring the public’s concerns, and the peasants at some point are going to get worked up.
Gordon Downs was the first citizen to start off public comment: “I haven’t attended a lot of these meetings, except in the past when you rammed the Red Plan through. The overwhelming majority of the citizens in Duluth were against that plan. All the articles in the paper were against that plan. Mr. Dixon and Johnson Controls still rammed it right on through. That’s why so many people don’t like to come to these meetings, because they don’t feel they’re being listened to. Now…you definitely should have sold the Central High School (to Edison Charter), since you’re in debt. You were offered $14 million for it and you turned it down. I’ve never heard of anything so stupid…I’d say at least 80 to 85% of the people wanted you to sell that property, to get out of debt and so the taxpayers could get a little relief. As far as I’m concerned, the four Board members who voted ‘no’ to that sale--Loeffler-Kemp, Harala, Kirby and Sandstad--should all be recalled and replaced…”
Cover the children’s ears!
Another citizen, Carrie Duncan, pointed out that the district should never have given up the beautiful Central campus to begin with. She said the district has been losing students to other districts (like Proctor and Hermantown) because, “nobody wanted you to (give up) Central…you guys lose so many students every year…” She also advocated selling the property to Edison, saying that the Board shouldn’t look at $14.2 million as a short-term financial injection that would soon be lost, but rather as a chance to buy time “to come up with four, five plans” to improve the district “and bring that money back.” She stressed that the sale would “drop people’s taxes, and they (would) appreciate that a lot more than keeping a school up to date that isn’t even in use.” She summed up her well-considered, but futile remarks this way: “You guys have had four offers--two of them from Edison--and you refused them all. I think you guys really need to stop being soooooo--and I mean no offense here--stubborn, and just reevaluate and look at the financial gain.”
‘Stubborn’ is actually one of the nicer ways I’ve heard it put. “Thank you,” Chair Harala said pleasantly, seemingly taking no offense.
The next speaker, Bob Hill, said “I hope this doesn’t become as divisive as the Red Plan.” He, too, pointed out that letters to the Duluth News Tribune had overwhelmingly described Board members who voted down the sale as “‘idiots!’ You should have sold that building!” but he also suggested the News Tribune had failed to exercise responsible journalism, “to show both sides…I never read one letter printed that said: ‘You made a good decision.’” He said he’d gone to the meeting at Lincoln Park school where the sale to Edison had been discussed and estimated “75% of the people who spoke (at the meeting) said, ‘No, don’t sell.’”
What Mr. Hill discovered at Lincoln Park was the dichotomous nature of our school district. The pro/con speakers were actually fairly close in number at the meeting, but nearly every speaker who said, “Don’t sell,” were inside players: teachers, union people and three past Board majority DFL allies--Mike Miernicki, Judy Seliga-Punkyo and Bill Westholm. It was a classic ISD 709 insider/outsider split. No one will ever accuse me of being biased towards the News Tribune (or vice-versa) but the paper wasn’t censoring letters. If you want to find the views against selling to Edison expressed in written form, look at the Teachers’ Union Newsletter.
The divisive debate over the Central sale isn’t in danger of turning into something comparable to the Red Plan; it IS the Red Plan!
Duluth citizen Lori Frisk used her three minutes at the podium to make a passionate plea to the Board to “reconsider the decision you made last month in the preliminary budget to reduce the high school zero hour.” I wish I had space to run Ms. Frisk’s remarks, because they exemplify the bind the Board is in. Instead of adding a seventh period, which everyone knows is necessary to be competitive in the marketplace, a multi-million dollar deficit is forcing the Board to cut the quasi-seventh, zero hour. This move will make it even harder to stave off the flight to a new Edison high school, set to open a year from next August.
Several other concerns and issues were brought up and there were more rounds of applause for charming children. The public comment period lasted for a full hour.
But we had to let the leaders talk!

Member Johnston pulled item 1.D.1.--the district’s 2015 graduation data--for discussion during the Education Committee Report, prompting Chair Harala to exclaim: “It’s great, member Johnston, that you want to discuss item 1.D.1., because I want to discuss that item as well! I really appreciated the presentation our staff gave us…I feel we are batting with full strength with our administrative staff, and I’m really proud of the presentation we received.” She continued praising staff and how they are “working to change the culture of the schools, to really thinking about putting students first…”
If I had to hand out an award for top Board booster, I would be hard-pressed to pick between Chair Harala and Clerk Loeffler-Kemp, but the undisputed King of the Board critics is you-know-who. The Lone Ranger has actually been trying pretty hard in this go-around to give the boosters a little credit, whenever he can.
“Yeah,” member Johnson agreed equivocally, “the presentation was very good, (BUT)--they’re some not-good numbers in this. I’ve said this to the school board, here, before--a few months ago…I’m particularly concerned about Denfeld’s graduation numbers. This year I believe Denfeld graduated the lowest number of students since it was built in 1926...these numbers concern me a lot, particularly because I’m the west end of Duluth representative.”
Member Johnston started laying out, more specifically, what he was concerned about: “Denfeld (currently) has a graduation rate of 75%; East is about 94%--about a 20% difference between Denfeld and East. Interestingly, if you go back to 2006, there is a 6% spread between the two high schools; now (looking at 2015 graduation rates) there’s about a 20% spread--19%, actually.”
Keith Dixon’s tenure started 7/1/05, the first day of fiscal year 2006.
“The Native American student graduation rate at Denfeld is 30%; African-American 64%; White is 78%…we have an obligation to address this (disparity) as much as we can. Not only as much as we can, we have to address it, Period!” Mr. Johnston declared. “Another thing that is concerning to me in this year’s disparity--is looking at the male graduation rate between Denfeld and East: 71% of males graduated from Denfeld and 95% at East--a 24% gap. If you go back three years (2011-12,) that gap is only 5%…the graduation rate for females--generally better students than males--at Denfeld (last year) was 80%, versus 93% at East--a 13% differential. If we go back three years, we see the differential is only 7%…This is not just a blip in the data. There’s something going on at Denfeld that has to be addressed.”
Administration got involved in the discussion, pointing out some caveats in the numbers. Assistant superintendent Starzecki said the raw numbers are a bit skewed by the fact “that not all of our students--including our Special Education students--are considered on-time graduates…they go on to transition services beyond twelve grade.” She elaborated that some of the district’s State-based programs are based at Denfeld, making nearly 25% of the school’s enrollment Special Education, “that may not graduate in four years, but before age 21.”
“It seems like I’m hearing that this disparity between (East and West) graduation is attributed to higher levels of Special Education in Denfeld?” Mr. Johnston asked.
“It isn’t the only reason…” Jason Crane, Director of Special Education Services answered.
Disparity between the high schools is one of the knottiest problems besetting ISD 709. During a lengthy discussion, Administration wavered between trying to emphasize its own work ethic and admitting the problem was a real stickler: “We’re doing a lot of work on our graduation initiatives, but we have a lot of work to do--” is the way Ms. Starzecki put it. Her Boss--Superintendent Gronseth--outlined some of his administration’s strategies for addressing the problem and pointed out that poverty in Duluth is an underlying factor. He also added, a bit defensively, that solving the problem “is more than just pointing out that there’s an issue, because we know that there’s a issue.”
“I sometimes feel as though I have to apologize for pointing out the data, or some of the negative things the data is saying.” The school board’s perennial outlier, Mr. Johnston, lamented.
A few more hotspots.

HR Committee Chair, David Kirby, touched another nerve during his committee report by “mentioning a few things” from the Board’s Code of Ethics. He told the audience he thought it was “important for the public to know that these are things that we, as school board members, agreed to abide by.” Some of the items Mr. Kirby listed were: that school board members are required to listen to the opinions and views of others, and vote their conscience after informed discussion; school board members are obligated to uphold the decision of the Board even if their own decision concerning the issue was different than the majority decision; school board members must strive to uphold their responsibility and accountability to the taxpayers of the district.
I could write a full page about these points of the code in relation to the Board’s decision not to sell the Central property to Edison. Member Johnston brought up the point about individual members upholding the majority decision of the school board. The Board’s legal squabble in Federal Court last year, he said, made it “quite clear…that school board members have a right to free speech.”
Mr. Johnston read out loud a phrase the district’s attorney slipped into the code that he found particularly offensive: ‘Subject to applicable law, violation of this policy constitutes grounds for censure, removal from internal school board positions and/or removal from the school board.’ “I think this is unconstitutional,” member Johnston maintained, “legally flawed…”
“Yes--,“ Board member Welty echoed, “whatever we do as a school board is the majority’s decision, but that does not, as member Johnston indicated, require Board members to keep his or her mouth shut, and not state objections to majority decisions.”
Clerk Loeffler-Kemp started talking about a Minnesota School Board workshop she’d recently attended about “Building high-performance school boards.” (Duluth board members were of course cordially invited to the workshop and given a front row seat as Exhibit A of everything NOT to do.)
“I certainly agree with high performance school boards,” the Board’s chief critic agreed, his bass voice layered with more than one meaning, “but this Board put in that if you don’t adhere to this code, we will remove you, you are liable to be removed from the Board. That doesn’t lead to good Board relationships…I have voted against this before, and am going to do so again, because this so outrageous.”
As the code is written, if the Board majority makes a decision (for example) not to accept an offer for MORE than the asking price on a piece of property that’s been a dog on the market for five years, and minority members publicly object that it was a bone-headed decision, they could be subjected to disciplinary action up to, and including, removal from the Board.
Also, if you look really close at the code, some super-fine print stipulates that the complainers’ property will be confiscated and they will be shipped off to a Siberian gulag.
“Everyone has a right to their opinion, this is a free country, you have a right to express those opinions,” member Johnston reiterated during discussion of the Business Committee Report. In the same breath, however, he lamented about the unseemly mud-slinging some public school teachers engaged in against their charter school rivals during the Central school debate, “but it does concern me when I see this kind of vitriol coming from some of our employees…”
The raucous ride continues. We all climbed onto one of the wildest roller coasters ever invented a decade ago, and the carnival operators still can’t seem to figure out how to turn the Red Monster off.
Special note: Board member Alanna Oswald was unable to make this meeting. She’s been battling a medical condition and is currently scheduled for surgery May 17th. I’ll take it upon myself, on behalf of Duluth, to wish her our best and a speedy recovery.