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My heart quailed. I admit it. It’s been the better part of decade; the last four years have been particularly tough, and I faltered on this one.
I could barely make myself speak at the Special Meeting (supposedly) called to reevaluate Edison Charter’s offer on the Central school property. Actually…I’m not being accurate: the meeting was not called to reevaluate the offer; it was called (again, supposedly) to reconsider suspending Board policy, which would free the district to negotiate with Edison to see if an amicable and mutually beneficial deal could be reached.
I only spoke about a minute and bumbled those words a bit. As I walked up to the public podium, I knew I was throwing myself against the Red Wall again. I knew there was no way any of the four DFLers would have a change of heart and go against the teachers’ union. There was no way the Board majority was going to alter the pattern that has held the boardroom (seemingly forever) in an iron grip.
I’ve held onto a tiny flame of hope for a long time. In January of 2010, six and a half years ago, I said this in the boardroom, to a new Board, which had just been seated on its elevated dais: “Many people, especially around Central, are getting mad. And can you really blame them? Look at what’s happening to them and their kids. And look at their representation. They know they should have the majority of the Board, now, at least willing to listen to their concerns.
Tonight, with a new Board now seated, I call out for a new start. Blind adherence to an uncompromising path by a slim majority of this Board will not heal the deep and worsening divide in this city. I call out for a new era of real dialogue. People were told, ‘You don’t need a vote on the Red Plan. You get to vote for the Board and that’s good enough.’ Tonight, I call out to the Board to alleviate the mockery of that statement. There is still time for redemption in the eyes of many aggrieved people who feel let down.”
God, what a foolish fellow I can be.
First, they tried to highjack the agenda.
Why in the world would they do such a thing? Why would the majority and the superintendent try to highjack the agenda? It was sort of like wanting to have a few people over for a party, but your roommate owns the house and all the furniture. After much begging, the rich roommate with all the power finally relents and says, “Ok, you can have them over next Monday night, but you’re not going to do anything you want to do. It’ll be your party, but we’re going to do everything I want–listen to my music, eat and drink only what I like and, most importantly, you will only talk about what I want to talk about!”
The three minority members jumped through all the proper hoops and called a Special Meeting, and then the Board Chair and her co-conspirators threw out their agenda! The meeting started out with a squabble over who’s agenda we had all gathered to consider. Of course, it was another foolish public relations blunder. The Board’s senseless argument/fight went on for the nearly a half hour, while the public once again sat twitchingly in old creaky classroom desks and watched its polarized, relentlessly dysfunctional government in anti-action mode.
The minority Board members based their right to call a meeting on Minnesota Statute 123B.09, Subdivision 6, which states: “Special meetings may be called by the chair or clerk or any three members upon notice mailed to each member at least three days prior thereto.”
There isn’t a whole lot of ambiguity in that sentence, and it stands to reason other rights are implied. No one’s going to call a meeting unless (in this case, they) have a reason for calling one, and the reason for calling the meeting would obviously be outlined in the meeting’s agenda. Why call a meeting, if you can’t focus the meeting on the very purpose you’re calling it for?
Time and again, the decisions made by the DFL majority controlling our school board have made about sense as a circular firing squad.
Member Welty, arguing the point, said torpedoing the agenda “violated the spirit of transparency and the spirit of the law…I fail to see how such a brutal and high-handed dismissal of the rights of the minority to call a meeting under State statute in any way improves the condition of the school board or our reputation as a whole. I would implore the majority members of the Board to allow the minority to operate as the spirit of the Statute indicates we should and allow our agenda…”
“This is unprecedented.” Member Johnston declared, picking up the argument. “I see no reason for it–other than power-tripping. And it shows very much bad faith on her part–on the Chair’s part–to do such a thing. If the majority is confident that the Board will not change its mind given the new information we want to present today, all the Board majority has to do is vote 4-3 and it will be adopted, or not–depending on what motion we’re going to have. For the Chair to go through a power trip–an unfortunate power trip–it certainly shows extreme bad faith. And I think this will unfortunately continue the angst that this Board has given to this community. And for this reason I certainly hope the majority will adopt our agenda–our call–which was properly submitted.”
The central purpose of the minority’s agenda was discussion and a vote on resolution B-5-16-3364, which would have directed the school district to enter into a negotiation with Tischer Creek Building Company (the nonprofit entity which leases facilities to Edison Charter) over a purchase agreement on the Central school property, and suspension of policies 3195 and 8120 (which ban the sale of district property to an educational competitor.)
Five weeks earlier, the Board’s DFL majority had put the kibosh on any such negotiation, by refusing to suspend policy, and none of them emitted a sense of joy about revisiting the issue.
“I, for one, don’t really care which agenda we use,” Member Sandstad proclaimed, looking less than thrilled to be in the room. “We’re here for certain members who want to point out some new information and for the public to be heard–again–in an open and transparent forum. So however we go forward here–that’s what I’m counting on–people to be able to be heard and for us to reach a final decision.”
Her tone and body language left little doubt what that final decree would be. It also gave member Welty serious doubt about knocking even a tiny chip out of the majority’s long-standing, impregnable Red Wall of Resistance: “I judge by member Sandstad’s comments that we will not get the good faith vote, or very likely will not get the good faith vote that would allow our original call (for a meeting) to stand.”
After wrangling for close to a half hour, the majority finally let the resolution onto the agenda, but it was evident The Wall itself remained fixed and unassailable. From the public podium, the Iron Lady herself, Judy Seliga-Punkyo, forcefully directed her DFL comrades: “Stick to your guns! Hold tight!”
The public tried, again.
Several people made the journey to Old Central, in the long-shot hope that representative government could work.
The majority of citizens who spoke during Public Comment wanted the sale. For years, however, what the majority of our city wants has not matched the majority opinion of the Board. A common theme of the argument favoring the sale was that property sales were promised by the Red Plan promoters for tax relief; several concerns were also voiced about the environmental damage and harm to Nordic skiing at the Snowflake site if Edison builds a school there; desires were expressed to use a school that taxpayers had paid for (Central) as a school and not let it get torn down and hauled off to a landfill; worries were voiced that the district was giving up a golden opportunity to cope with its budget problems and bring improvements to what is being offered in the classrooms.
The handful of people who spoke in favor of the sale expressed dislike for charter schools, maintaining that it would add insult to injury to let a charter school on the Central site–in other words: if we can’t have, they shouldn’t either; they claimed that the valuable Central property was being wasted and was too good for a school; they worried that the district was handing Edison a valuable package at a too-low price and that the whole deal would, in the long term, come back to put the final nail in the traditional public school system. One person claimed the property was worth $60 million.
It’s possible this slightly over-inflated figure was based on another currency. By the time the fallout from the Red Plan completely plays out, Duluth will likely be using the drachma, along with the Greeks.
The Board’s majority members nodded affirmatively at each other, as they proclaimed they were hearing no new information, the ostensible reason for the meeting. Minority members had invited some real estate operators to show up, so everyone could get a current assessment of the Central property’s market value, but these experts backed out at the last moment. Commenting on this absence, Chair Harala said: “It seems that (people backing out) has been a recurring thing.” It has. No one wants to get publicly involved in the train wreck called the Red Plan. Nearly every person who passes me information does so off the record.
It was inaccurate to claim no new information was presented, however. One document recently discovered, and revealed at the meeting, was a property assessment done by a company called Ramsland and Vigen in 2006. Since Edison’s offer on Central high school became public, Board minority members Welty, Johnston and Oswald have been calling for a professional valuation of the property, but district administration has refused to cooperate with their request. Property values were at a peak across the country in 2006 (two years before the crash of 08,) so a 2006 assessment is still a viable barometer.
In 2006 the assessed value of the Central property, without the buildings, was found to be $8 million. School buildings generally have little value except as schools. Last year, a developer had a purchase agreement in hand for $10 million. He passed on the deal, because of the “extraordinary development costs,” including demolishing Central and the STC buildings, in order to use the land.
Another valuable piece of new information revealed during the meeting was that a study commissioned by DEDA found that large swaths of the 77 acres should not be developed because the forests are critical for erosion protection.
Majority members showed no concern about any objection voiced against their stance. They repeated that they had some “new marketing strategies” and again projected (their trademark front) of absolute, unflappable confidence. But, to quote Bernie Sanders, the risk they are running is HUGE. Real estate deals of this magnitude do not move quickly and it is very unlikely they will net anywhere near $14.2 million, if they do find a buyer.
In the meantime, the district is broke and cutting operations. The number of lost students could very well jump from 115 this year to a 150 next. Starting the following year (fiscal year ‘18,) 100-150 more students will be added to that loss annually for four years in a row, to Edison. On top of that, the Board’s DFL majority has managed to again alienate public support. The levy comes up for renewal in two years. The district narrowly eked out passage of the levy in 2013. The following remarks made by one citizen from the public podium should have had the majority shaking in its boots:
“It seems like you ignore the community’s responses to these issues–not only in the past, when you were executing parts of the Red Plan–but since you have tried to execute the final part of the plan: the selling and disposing of unneeded buildings and property. To ignore an offer of $14.2 million, to treat it so poorly, is irrational, and it also ignores the ongoing expenses of upkeep on Central…I hope you listen (tonight,) because if you come to the taxpayers--most of the people in this room–with a levy request in the future, I, for one, won’t vote for it, for the first time in my life, ever, that I’ve done that. And I hope that everyone keeps track of what you do and what you don’t do, because you’re not doing the right thing right now.”
The evening’s sincerest voice.
Board member Oswald’s been struggling with a medical condition, but bravely made it to this meeting. Her voice, never loud, has soft edges, but also a firm core–a sense that her words form from something deep. I don’t know if it was the fever that bestowed on her the dimension of a sage, but there was barely a movement in the room while she softly spoke:
“I hear the people that don’t want to sell to Edison. I hear it. I acknowledge a lot of their reasons. I want to make sure it’s understood that I know–that I’m scared, too. We all don’t know what the future holds. But we do know that there are more high schools popping up every day. Our own Woodland Hills is going to become a charter. That says something about our district; that even something that’s part of the district wants to become something on its own. I keep coming back to something I learned at the Minnesota School Board Association. They mentioned a book called, ‘The Wisdom of Crowds.’ by James Surowieki. I have a synopsis of the book: it’s (based on) the idea that large groups of people are smarter than an elite few.”
The evening’s most strident voice.
Once again, the Iron Lady of the Red Wall–Judy Seliga-Punkyo–did not flinch or give an inch :
“First of all…I’m confused how three of the minority can force a vote on a resolution that’s already been voted on…I think that’s actually illegal…Also, when we are talking about Edison, I’d be really curious: where’s the money coming from? Who is Tischer Creek? Where’s that money coming from? Where’s the transparency in that? No one got a chance to vote for it. They built another school and no one voted for it. They’re building a high school: none of us voted for it. I just want to say, it’d be really interesting if our school board was able to put teachers and parents that were supportive of ISD 709 on their Board and run the district. I think you would see a big difference in support of the school district. I would love to have that kind of Board…Sitting where you’re sitting, I saw a lot of people coming in here and speaking–it’s a lot of the same people from Let Duluth Vote…the bullying that’s happening right now has been really vicious. Just what we put up with, from the same people, for the most part…Stick to your guns! Hold tight! You shouldn’t even have to vote on this!”
I wish I had the space to pick this diatribe apart, piece by piece. I’ll just say that it was jaw-dropping to hear the most aggressive pusher of the Red Plan--a half billion dollar educational fiasco jammed down our throats without a vote–complain that she didn’t have a vote on Edison’s school.
The wisest words of the evening were: “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few.” As this vote has now twice proved, the general public of Duluth was smarter than Judy S.-P. and her elite bunch from day one.