Debate about how to erase inequities and create equal-opportunity playing fields stretched another school board meeting–with actual business that should have taken less than an hour--into an infinite three: School Board meeting, 8/16/16.
Shoving off, into the churning waters

Whenever I find the parking lot near Old Central filled with cars, and several rows of creaky desks occupied in the boardroom, I wonder what’s up. Often, the spike in community attendance turns out to be a group of students and education supporters who have shown up for another Community Recognition Award. Tonight’s recipients were members of the Denfeld High Robotics team. I always miss former Board member Mike Miernicki’s presence during these award ceremonies. Nobody ever beamed broader or glad-handed with more sincere happiness over celebrating something positive in education.
Even subtracting the substantial loss of Mr. Miernicki’s presence, there was still a lot of positivity in the room. The Robotics Team has been on a roll. Last March Denfeld took 1st place in the Lake Superior regional competition: 14 matches undefeated. The following month, in the group’s first appearance at the International World Robotics Championship, it made the semi-finals. Last May, Denfeld’s team took second place at the Minnesota High School League State Robotics Championship, where it received an award for outstanding engineering and design. Just last month, keeping their winning streak going, the robotics whizzes from Denfeld took both first and second place in another regional competition, where they also received a “Helping Hands” award, for exhibiting “gracious professionalism,” a trait learned, undoubtedly, from watching school board meetings.
Speaking for the group from the public podium, Brianna Williams thanked the Board for the recognition given and said “our team could not have done it (won so many competitions) without the support of ISD 709 and the support of our community.” She came across as a very gracious young professional and got another round of applause from the room.
(At the risk of throwing a wet blanket over this well-deserved recognition: the amazing inventiveness taking place in the realm of robotics/artificial intelligence will also leave a lot of displacement in its wake. Corporations love machines. Machines never strike for an easier workload and more pay, and don’t require workers’ comp. insurance.)

I bring out this point because even positive things at times seem to be lining up to produce fissures in the social climate of the future. In this meeting three gaps became the focus of the discussion:

(1) The achievement gap between white and minority students,

(2) the educational gap stemming from the tragic east/west inequity created by the foolish Red Plan, and

(3) the gap between the haves and the have-nots, manifested by the poor people (often literally) at the bottom of ISD 709’s pay scale.
The public wants the gaps addressed.

Two more speakers stepped up to the podium this evening. The first was Karen Perry. Ms. Perry had actually attended the Education Committee Meeting the prior week. A primary topic of the meeting was the recently-released results of the latest state comprehensive assessment exams.
After listening to the discussion, Ms. Perry said she “was mortified at the disparities between the east and the west (of Duluth), at the scores for students of color and the low-income students. I realize that you guys (members of the Board) don’t interact with us when we’re up here speaking,” She added, looking up and trying to communicate her concern with her eyes, “but I would like to know: what exactly did ‘Think Kids’ accomplish in helping with the achievement gap?”
(Nothing has managed to accomplish much, including a multi-million dollar plan that was supposed to produce “equitable education across the city.”)
“What are your processes going forward, to address these issues?” Ms. Perry asked the Board.
The next speaker, Sharon Witherspoon, was a bit more forceful, as she voiced similar concerns: “I’m here to address the overall culture of this district. I’ve been coming (to meetings) for years, and frankly I’m going to take the Rosa Parks stand, starting now…I’m here to say that you will see me at every school board meeting, and I won’t be doing the status quo. I want and desire to see some changes. The data shows where our students are failing in math. The proficiency rating is 25% for African-American students. Reading is 28%. The graduation rate is 45% and the dropout rate is 35%. We know the data. We understand the data. So, I want to know what you, you, you, you, you and you (pointing at each Board member present) are going to do. And the staff--” (Ms. Witherspoon added, turning from the podium and including administration with a sweep of her arm.) She described herself as “distraught…because a couple of my grandkids are in that dropout rate.”
Just a few notes on the MCA scores: African American students scored 35.3 proficiency and Native American students 44.8, compared to 67.8 for whites in reading. In math proficiency, African American students scored 30.5 and Native Americans 35.9, compared to an average score of 64.4 for whites. Some of the east/west scores were also mortifying: Denfeld High scored the lowest in math, with a 29.4 score, while its counterpart in the east scored 48.9. The western middle school scored 45.1, while its eastern counterpart scored 67. Some of the differences between elementary schools were enough to stop the hearts of western parents: Piedmont Elementary scored 48 in math, while Congdon Elementary, tucked away in blueblood land, scored 83.8.
You, you, you, you, you and you (know who) speak.

The hottest topic during the Education Committee Report was the MCA tests. Member Oswald earmarked this topic, and began the discussion: “We did have a very robust discussion (on this topic) during the committee meeting. I think it’s important that I speak to some of my observations about this. I’m not trying to paint the district in a negative light. I just see this as very much a reality. If you look at all of our accountability tests for all students in all grade levels in reading, our bottom six schools within Duluth are all the elementary schools on the western side that feed into Lincoln Park (middle school,) and that feeds into Denfeld. These are all Title 1 schools, with the exception of Lowell, and this is exactly what people talk about when they point to an east/west divide. Our education is not equal on one side of town versus the other…
It’s very sad,” Member Oswald continued, “and we have a lot of work to do--and it’s really hard to know what to do from a school board member’s perspective, when we’re not on the ground, doing the fight. What I do know is: Title 1 funding is supposed to--its main purpose--is to help alleviate and conquer the barriers that poverty brings to schools, to create a level playing field in learning environments. And this (the result of the tests) is clear (evidence) that that’s not happening. I don’t know if it’s because we’re not using our money correctly--or, if we didn’t have that money, if our test scores would be even worse. I don’t even want to think about that, but we need to do things differently. We need to apply money in different ways, because money can change things, but--” she added, “it’s not the end-all, be-all, either…”
Reality being a complex subject, Member Oswald told the audience that the “MCA test scores are just a very small way to measure our schools’ performance, because it’s just one common thread that every school is evaluated by--but we’re not doing well. We can say that. And if you add that into our graduation rate and our achievement gap--they (all these measurements) seem to be telling the same story. So, even if we say: ‘This (the scores on MCA) isn’t the whole story; don’t worry about it--’ then you can move on, to the next subject of graduation rates, and you can say, ‘Yeah, well, these aren’t all that great,’ but let’s go on, and then (say): ‘Oh, look, the achievement gap. Oops! Yeah, that’s not all that good, either…’”
Member O. encouraged her colleagues to roll up their sleeves. She said they all had to get together and “identify the systemic issues that we, as a Board, can tackle.”
The best tackling technique is to hit low and wrap your arms.

Needless to say, time became as consumable as gas in a Humvee, as these observations engendered more than a few responses from other Board members, the Superintendent and staff.
Measured in accumulative time served, member Welty is the Board’s senior member. He had his first go-around 20 years ago. He is a first-rate citizen and an excellent public servant, but is generally not renowned for brevity. On this evening of verbosity, however, Mr. Welty was mercifully succinct: “I don’t want to add a lot of words to this. I just want the community to know that I recognize this (the gap in test scores) is a problem we’ve been vexed with for a long time…and it’s troubling.”
Next with his light on was you-know-who. Echoing member Oswald, member Johnston began his comments by making it clear that he did not intend to be negative, but he pointed out that the “goals set out by the district” were outlined in the Continuous Improvement Plan, and “we haven’t met one of these goals yet. We have many great programs in our schools, (but)…to me, as a school board, this (the gap in test scores) is the biggest issue that we have to face…And,” he added, “we can deal with this. I feel, as a school board, we have to deal with this. As some of the speakers (at the public podium) said, and I agree with, the school board is responsible to fix this and the school board, I think, has to hold administration accountable to fix this as well. I want to encourage everybody for what they’ve done…but it isn’t enough just to care about this, we have to show results…”
(The goal of the Continuous Improvement Plan is to reduce the achievement gap by 50% in 2016-17, the next round of MCA tests. It’s definitely going to take more than a saccharine attitude to make that happen. In fact, the current trajectory gives Duluth better odds of communicating with Proxima b, the new earth-like planet recently discovered by NASA, only 4.22 light-years--25 trillion miles--away.)
Next, our Chair stepped into the discussion and gave everyone a lecture about how the Board’s new procedures would cure the problem: “I’ve been thinking a lot about the test scores and about how we talk about the achievement gap. It’s really easy to kind of just throw it around as a token word and not actually do anything about it. And that’s not ok…What we’ve added this year in accountability is having our assistant superintendent do a monthly report and talk about the Professional Learning Communities, talking about the positive behavior--PBIS systems. Those are things that we strategically added this year as part of the school board’s agenda, to ensure that…when we decide to make our evidence-based decisions district-wide--that the Board hears about, that we understand the framework behind it, and then we can talk about that with the community…”
“As educators,” Superintendent Gronseth chimed in with some wonk-speak of his own, “we look at these numbers as one moment in time. One measurement. And our teachers are working to have formative assessments--many, many ways of measuring the success of their students. I’m not saying that there’re not gaps, because there are. I’m not saying we can’t do better, because I sure hope we can, but…the gap is more than the achievement gap in school. We’re talking about gaps in housing, gaps in food access in this community, gaps in medical access, mental health access…”
For those readers experiencing a gap in interest, Clerk Loeffler-Kemp is up next, so a tonic of happy talk is on the way.
Member L.-K. told us she’d attended a MSBA workshop on race and equity, the previous week. “One of the things a speaker said that just stuck out for me was: ‘we need to move from admiring the problem, to doing something with implementation…’ And it made me feel pretty proud, frankly, about some of the things were are doing in our district around the achievement gap, around race, around equity…We need to move from just admiring the problem. It doesn’t mean you stop talking about it. You talk about race over and over again, with all the players. But we need to also give the implementation and the interventions that we’re working on a chance to work, and refine them, and move from them…I tend to come from a ‘strengths’ perspective and want to celebrate what we are doing and move from that strength.”
Member Johnston flicked his light back on, to let everyone know he was not an admirer of our Clerk’s word choice: “‘Admiring’ the problem?” He repeated L.-K’s profound phrase in the form a question, an acerbic note rolling about in his gravelly voice. “We have a problem. Nobody’s admiring it. We’re trying to fix it.”
Speaking of problems, I just can’t move on from ‘admiring’ Big RED, which was supposed to “provide district-wide efficiencies, resulting in more dollars to designate towards programming to support efforts to reduce and ultimately close the achievement gap.”
Can you spare a quarter?

The people who work part-time positions (10-14 hours a week,) performing tasks like monitoring playgrounds or filling in as substitutes for full-time workers in food service, get paid minimum wage by ISD 709.
The three dissenting Board members--Mr. Welty, Mr. Johnston and Ms Oswald--wanted to make a gesture of support to the district’s poorest workers by adding another fifty cents to the latest State-mandated increase, bringing their pay up to an even $10/hr., which administration estimated would cost $51,000 annually. Getting push-back against this increase, member Oswald tried to amend the resolution to a 25-cent increase.
“We approve change orders many times a year,” member O. argued, “that are vastly higher than $25,000. Just this month we’re being asked to approve $55,000 worth of window issues to be resolved at Myers-Wilkins. This is also something (still approving lingering Red Plan change orders) that we have to stop doing, if we want to argue that this increase in wages is not in our budget…We’ve already approved another administrative position that will be paid $102,000 a year. That’s only one employee. This quarter/hr. affects many, many more employees…”
The debate about fairness and gaps was off and running again. In the end, the people on the low end of the pay totem pole lost two-bits/hr. The vote was a 3-3 tie. In the boardroom a tie is a loss for those trying to pass something. For readers counting the “yous,” there were only six Board members present. Member Sandstad had been granted another “excused” absence, though I’d bet a quarter she would have been another ‘nay’ vote with her DFL-endorsed comrades.
Superintendent Gronseth weighed in on the debate, pointing out that “minimum wage in Wisconsin is still at $7.35/hr.” On the subject of gaps: at seven bucks an hour, it would take three people working nonstop 24/7, 365 days to equal the Superintendent’s annual compensation.
The man at the top of pay pyramid did graciously agree to keep a quarter tip jar on his desk, just in case some poor, minimum-wage bloke from Wisconsin should wander over the Bong bridge.
Three of us from the general public were left in the boardroom to witness the vote. As important as the evening’s debate was, the three-hour spectacle was not quite ready for the Olympics spotlight. In fact, when we finally got to the end, I did my very best imitation of Usain Bolt.