Pretty Quiet and Probably Boring

Loren Martell

I was surprised to find several vehicles parked in the lot near Old Central when I arrived for the school board meeting held on the evening of 5/17/16. The last few meetings have had big showings, but after the school board had quashed the public’s will over the sale of Central to Edison, I figured the numbers would drop off. Why would anyone want to spend any more hours in a musty old room, listening to the most verbose, discredited politicians in town, when spring had finally arrived in Duluth?
One explanation for the steady stream of citizens to the public podium is the desire of Bernie Burnham, President of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, to promote all the good work her union members are doing in the classroom. Ms. Burnham has been shepherding teachers into the boardroom, meeting after meeting, and it has been pretty effective pr. Listening to Myers-Wilkins’ teacher, Jebeh Edmunds, describe her “darling first graders,” was simply delightful. Everyone could feel that Ms. Edmunds genuinely loved her job. Lincoln Park 8th grade social studies teacher Rhett McDonald (and two of his students) talked about a class project they built around a book entitled, “A Long Walk to Water.” Both students spoke very articulately about the insight and empathy they’d gained from the book and from a long walk they’d taken through Duluth.
What a pity ISD 709 is the local poster child for wasteful government spending. It would be so nice not to have to worry about the money, like most of the people who control the Board. If all the money blown by our public school district over the past decade had actually gone into education, I wouldn’t even be complaining (too much) about a TWENTY MILLION dollar tax hike.
This meeting started out with students front and center, as they should be. The first order of business was recognition of nine students from ISD 709’s vocational/technical program for success in mastering skills ranging from auto engine repair, to culinary craft, to healthcare. The kids were given medals, roundly applauded and had their pictures taken, a good boost to their self-esteem before they wing out into the world.
More students stepped up to the podium to address the Board, but they had to adjust their speeches a bit. Before they spoke, Chair Harala announced the biggest news of the evening: the district had backed off on its plan to eliminate much of the academic content of “zero-hour,” the optional hour that begins the class day at both high schools. When I saw all the cars in the parking lot, I’d assumed pending cuts to zero-hour had zeroed more bad attention on the Board of ISD 709.
The big brouhaha over Edison Charter’s offer (rejected by the Board’s DFL majority) to purchase the vacant Central property for $14.2 million has overshadowed some of the skirmishes surrounding the district’s unpleasant task of cutting operations to offset a $3.3 million deficit. One of the cuts that got immediate pushback was administration’s idea of narrowing zero-hour’s offerings only to music instruction, which would have trimmed $96,000 from the budget.
District 709 started offering zero-hour some years ago, after budgetary problems forced the high school schedule to be cut from a seven period day to six. There is no bus service and students have to find their own transportation. Superintendent Gronseth ruffled quite a few feathers during the discussion when he justified cutting zero-hour, because the lack of transportation makes it inequitable for all students.
 
The young say, “Thank you,” and more.

Students are good medicine in the boardroom. Often, by the time they’ve finished speaking, I’m left with the impression that they were born precocious, or have first-rate parenting, or ISD 709, despite all its screw-ups, is still getting something done with education in the classrooms. Listening to them often puts me at ease that the future might be in pretty good hands, after all. Former Board student representative Jude Goosens, and some of his fellow East High classmates are particularly impressive.
Young Mr. Goosens said this from the podium: “I want to start by thanking the school board and administration for their positive response toward community support for keeping zero-hour next year. It is an incredibly valuable asset for many students…but I still want to address what appears to be a very dangerous mentality by administration regarding equity (with) zero-hour…Using equity as a justification for cutting opportunities like zero-hour is very dangerous for all students. Yes, we do have an achievement gap problem, and yes, we do need to work towards eliminating it, but cutting opportunities for so many successful students does far more harm than good. It only makes these students appear more equal, but if that opportunity comes at the cost of stripping hundreds of students of their opportunity to excel in school, that defeats the entire purpose of closing the achievement gap. We would be closing the achievement gap by eliminating student achievement. Instead of pulling everyone down to the lowest common denominator, we should be raising everyone up to the highest…”
I apologize if the next two speakers’ names are spelled incorrectly. I went to the administration office and spent several minutes with the secretary, trying to decipher signup sheets. My sympathy to any teacher still trying to grade handwritten papers.
No problem with the spoken word, though. This is what Henri LahBerte (the “B” was capitalized) had to say: “I’d like to thank you for taking zero-hour off the table, as it’s caused a lot of acrimony among the student body. But what I’d like to address is…the budgeting mentality this school board takes towards this district.”
Expressing relief that the decision to drop zero-hour cutbacks had averted harm to the curricula this time, the precocious Mr. LahBerte elaborated: “The failure to follow through on the Red Plan…will at some point in the future hurt the quality of education that we as students in the public school system would seek. I think that when you decide not to take $14 million for a property--when you know a charter school is going to be built anyway--it seems daft to believe that not selling the property (is) going to keep more people in the public school system. And I believe that when you look at the budget shortfalls, year in and year out, and you turn down money like $14 million…it’s disrespectful to students who believe that you’re here to be serving our needs and doing things that are best for education…Where does the buck stop, and education start?”
The next speaker, Solveis Rellnan, is also a student from East High, and was also very articulate: “I understand that your job as elected officials of our school district is to make the hard cuts that best serve the interests of our community, and I have the utmost respect for you all in your undertaking of this difficult task. However, I sincerely believe that the cutting of…zero-hour would have been the wrong choice and detrimental to the students of school district 709...I agree that everyone should have an equal opportunity to learn.”
Ms. Rellnan argued, however, that erasing zero-hour wasn’t the solution, but rather finding a way to make the opportunity equal--funding transportation for zero-hour or reestablishing seven periods in the schools. “Putting everyone at an equal disadvantage does nothing but hurt our students...We are extremely grateful that you listened to us--the students--heard our issues, and found a solution. However, that is not always the case. Lack of mental health resources in our district is deplorable. The fact that after all the work we’ve done this year as a student body…that mental health resources will still possibly be cut (because of the deficit) is really disappointing. On June 8th, the Duluth East High School class of 2016 will graduate, but there are two members of our class who won’t be on the stage with us, due to suicide. As elected school board officials, the safety and well-being of your students should be your first priority…”
One of the most admirable things about the students who showed up for the meeting was the fact that many were seniors. They were in the room fighting for the kids coming up behind them. What they displayed was not just the ‘you-rah-rah’ school spirit of football games. After the tragic loss of two of their fellow students to suicide, Jude Goosens and his friends took it upon themselves to address mental health issues in their school. By the time they were done speaking at this meeting, I was ready to pack up and go home.
Why waste time with the Board’s “adults?”
Speaking of the adults, Marcia Stromgren used some of her three minutes at the public podium to point out that former Board Chair Judy Seliga-Punkyo attacked everyone who disagreed with her position on the sale of Central to Edison as “bullies.” (Judy S.-P., well known for her astute ear-for/response-to public sentiment, was of course adamantly opposed to the sale.) Judy’s exact words to the Board were: “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…”
Art Johnston and Harry Welty, two of the founding members of Let Duluth Vote, both expressed surprise at how many people they’d never before seen or heard from sent emails and showed up in the boardroom to advocate for the Central sale. Former Let Duluth Vote members were actually a very small percentage of the constituency.
Once again, remaining true to her impeccable public record, Judy S.-P.’s statement was factually inaccurate.
Two advocates for Native American Education, Dani Dunphy and Janelle Zueck, also appeared at the podium, advocating against a budget cut that would hurt Native American students, already suffering from the lowest achievement level in our public schools.
 
Time to let the Board have its say.

During discussion of the Education Committee Report. Member Welty remarked about a presentation that had been given to the Board about the district’s Families in Transition program: “It was a sobering (revelation) that in all likelihood by the end of this year we will have had 550 students who during some portion of the school year found themselves homeless--perhaps for a night, perhaps for a much, much longer time. Out of a student population of roughly 8000, that equates to not quite one in ten kids…If anyone has doubt about the future needs of ISD 709, they can look at these figures, which I have to say are extraordinary. I would like to compare (these numbers) to the kinds of numbers that existed 20 years ago, when I was first elected to the school board…The thought that almost one in ten children in our school district would find themselves homeless, find themselves being moved around, just lost…This is a huge responsibility for us, and I’m very grateful to our students, especially those at East High School, who’ve been talking about our mental health professionals and looking after (other) students, two of which should have been graduating with East’s graduating class.”
“Following up on what member Welty said,” Duluth East Student Representative Spencer Frederickson, choking on a bit of emotion, added, “I remember the day we lost one of our students. I’ve been a proud Greyhound (East’s mascot) my entire high school career, but that day was hard. And it is the responsibility of this school board to take action on these suicides. Having two kids not in the chairs at graduation is unacceptable…”
The next discussion item might just help. It was about a $100,000 grant application to the Duluth/Superior Area Community Foundation, to support a parent/teacher home visit program. Member Oswald pulled this item for special consideration. (For those wondering, Alanna is back in a wait-and-see mode on an impending operation. Following the old adage: if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger, she keeps trying to use school board meetings as a tonic for what ails her.)
“I think this program is an amazing opportunity,” she observed with warm enthusiasm. “Building relationships is so important, especially for pre-teens and teenagers. “I’m excited to see how this could change the culture within a school…there is nothing better than getting to know each other, as human beings…”
Just look at our Board!
One of the most intractable problems in ISD 709 has been the district’s inability to deal effectively with the achievement gap. The next discussion item referred back to comments made by the Native American Education advocates at the beginning of the meeting. Board member Johnston encouraged more Board discussion about the issue, this evening centered around a report of “Concurrence and Non-concurrence” submitted to the MDE on behalf of the Duluth Public Schools American Indian Education Programs Parent Advisory Committee, and the fact that a struggling program is looking at a $50,000 cut.
“I am concerned about this $50,000 cut in the budget.” Johnston, a long-time advocate for minority equality in the schools, lamented. “The Native American population does have the lowest graduation rate in our schools. This year it was something like 38%, which is obviously horrible.”
The last item discussed was Policy 532: “Use of Peace Officers and Crisis Teams to Remove Students with IEP’s from School Grounds.” Explanations were delineated by administration about “nonviolent crisis intervention” and “restrictive procedure” and “the different rules” for students with IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans) and other students, and how intervention can sometimes lead to “eligibility for referral” into special education. What this long discussion most impressed upon me was: what a legal muddle our public school systems have become.
The Human Resources Department is slow this time of year. The highlight of this Committee’s report was a sad “goodbye” to a few more retirees.
The Business Committee is invariably the meatiest part of the meeting, but I only have room to highlight two discussion points. Member Johnston, as he often does, brought up the WADM report. ISD 709 lost another 37 students this month. Enrollment has dropped to 8190. The last demographic study, done two years ago, predicted enrollment for this year to be 8341. Obviously, we’ve already missed the mark by 151 students, with another month to go.
Two things should be taken away from these numbers: the Red Plan is still nose-diving and demographic studies are about as reliable as spitting into the wind.
The other very important item of business was next year’s budget, which has to be finalized by next month. One part of the budget, in particular, engendered a fair amount of discussion. “I just want the public to know…” Member Johnston said, “Insurance is costing us $625,000 in premium increases next year, plus a HRA increase of $145,000. That’s $870,000. That’s a significant portion of the deficit.”
In subsequent emails to the Board and administration, Mr. Johnston further refined those numbers to a premium increase of $815,862 and a HRA increase of $152,000--a combined increase of nearly a million dollars. According to member Johnston’s figures, the total of just these two parts of the union’s healthcare package will cost the district over $15 million next year. Toss in a few other items, like dental insurance and retiree costs, and the district is looking at a healthcare bill of $28 million…
This is the other major fiscal issue, besides the Red Plan, that has been festering in the district for years: the Board, controlled by the DFL party, has been giving away unsustainable increases in salary and benefits to the teachers’ union. Erase this huge increase in healthcare and the salary increases given out in the last contract talks, and ISD 709 would have no deficit.
This meeting was actually pretty quiet and probably boring to the casual observer. As usual, most of the people in the room cleared out--even the teachers--after the Public Comment period was over. It was affirming to see the Board back away from cutting zero-hour. Cutting a popular program that amounted to only 2.9% of a $3.3 million deficit would have been another act of self-sabotage, but it will be hard to find $96,000 somewhere else.
We’ll find out next month where it’s robbed from.