I attended the city council meeting concerning an evidentiary hearing on Polymet’s permit to mine copper and nickel. I guess I have to stop complaining about the length of school board meetings. The meeting in city hall lasted just shy of four-and-a-half hours, making a school board meeting just shy of three-and-a-half hours a cakewalk. No one can accuse our public officials of not putting in their required time, and then some.

School Board meeting, 9/20/16

This month’s Community Award was given to Katie Oliver and John Nachtsheim, for their work in helping secure a $50,000 grant to aid the district’s “Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project.” As the name suggests, the project will help facilitate more direct connections between teachers and the home-life of students, especially parents. The goal is to foster better relationships between the public school system and members of the community currently struggling with gaps in educational achievement. These types of philanthropic initiatives--all the time and effort donated by citizen volunteers to help further the opportunity for our city’s children--reflect the angelic side of Duluth.
People like Ms. Oliver and Mr. Nachtsheim remind me a bit of the seraphic “White Helmets” Syrian Civil Defense Brigade, steadfastly rushing in to help the kids of Aleppo, amid barrel bombs still dropping from the Red War.
Actually, the ceasefire has been holding fairly well these days, but don’t be fooled into thinking we have a united city. There is still a baseline fracture in the boardroom, which comes down to: the DFL-endorsed, inside players and their Administration allies on one side, and everyone else--who are relegated to a lesser caste status and forever destined to lose every vote (and be kept in the dark)--on the other side. If Art Johnston had spent seven years playing baseball, instead of board-ball, his batting average would be somewhere in the range of .0000000000025.
If anyone ever deserved his paycheck just for trying, however, it’s the plucky Lone Ranger. He keeps stepping up to the plate and swinging his bat for all he’s worth!
They promised to come back, and did

Skipping my three minutes at the podium, which likely made minimal impression on the Board, there were three public speakers at this meeting. The first was Sharon Witherspoon, who last month vowed the Board “will see me at every school board meeting, and I won’t be doing the status quo.” Ms. Witherspoon and the other two speakers were in the boardroom to advocate for some improvement in the educational gap between minority students and whites.
Ms. Witherspoon began by challenging the district’s Curriculum Director about the fact that her grandchildren are “still studying the same things my children did,” then adopted a more conciliatory tone. She expressed gratitude that the Principal from Denfeld High had recently contacted her about how to intervene with one of her grandchildren who is lagging behind where he should be with reading. “This is the first time in all these years I received a call and some intervention is being done,” she pointed out appreciatively, but also added that this is an obvious solution that should be applied more consistently. “We know the problem.” She said. “The question is, what do we need to do? How are we going to intervene? That’s what I want you (the Board) to be respectful of and think about. I’m not here to bash anyone. I’m coming here on a positive note, in a spirit of peace and harmony…Let us come together. Let us reason together. And let us make a dent in the achievement gap! I’m just tired of reading that African-American students have the lowest proficiency in reading and the lowest proficiency in math, and are the ones that drop out.”
The next speaker, Karen Perry, told us it was her birthday, “but I’m here because this is very important to me.” (Obviously Ms. Perry had not, in any way, shape or manner, treated herself to a gift of a nice night out.) “At the last school board meeting,” Ms. Perry, who has been attending regularly, informed us, “I heard school board (Chair) Harala mention a child who was struggling in school because he was hungry…but I beg to differ that poverty is the reason our kids can’t learn. Even though I know that these things are factors, one thing I know for sure is that even if a child comes from an impoverished home, school can be a salvation and a sanctity…We have some ideas that would work; we just need you to implement them.”
The last speaker, Dr. Rogier Gregoire, pointed out that “every child is designed by nature to be a learning person. Learning is inherently a human capacity. What, and how they learn depends on the environment in which they’re put. This environment (ISD 709) is toxic. You’re killing our children. And you’re killing black children first, because they’re the least capable of protecting themselves…”
Needless to say, these words had a sobering effect. The Board sat motionless and stared.
The root of this problem (and so many of ISD 709’s problems) is in some ways very basic: a decade of misplaced priorities and a wild spending spree on swimming pools, etc., has left our public school district almost impotent to deal with real academic challenges. The Board’s reaction to this particular problem is reflective of the split in the room. The dissenters often empathetically echo the citizens voicing these complaints and advocate for faster change, while the people who control the room continually beg everyone to just have patience and faith: “Believe us! We’re on track, now! Just give us another ten years or so!”
Our leaders take the lead

This evening’s Business Committee Report was moved up on the agenda, so the committee’s Chair, Nora Sandstad, could leave early, but I’m going to cover it last, where it normally falls in the order.
The bulk of the Education Committee concerned another release of test results from district 709. Member Welty started off with some questions about the ACT test results and the general readiness of students for college. He also queried staff about a related issue: the district’s CITS (College in the Schools) courses. Especially at Denfeld High, opportunity to take these courses have at times been limited, because a smaller student body sometimes allows only one section to be offered.
Member Welty asked if one possible solution would be layering: letting some students take a class on a high school level, and others at a college level. The answer: it was an excellent idea, but at least 50% of students would still have to be take it at the higher level, or it won’t qualify for college credit. Superintendent Gronseth said one of the strategies being used to get more students into CITS classes was encouraging what he termed “stretch learning”--pushing and supporting more students to take the plunge into higher-level courses.
Member Johnston pointed out that the overall student performance on the ACT tests again exhibited the district’s entrenched achievement gap: “Whites scored 22%; Blacks 15.5%--a pretty big gap, hammering home what the three speakers said at the beginning of the meeting.”
Next up on the table were the MMR results. MMR stands for Multiple Measurement Ratings, and is used to measure individual school performance. In the high schools, four different components of educational achievement are graded up to 25 points, for a total possible score of 100 points; in middle school, three components can earn a maximum score of 75.
Member Johnston pointed out that this year’s MMR scores “bounce around everywhere.” He wondered about the statistical significance of the changes between last year’s and this year’s results. He directed a few questions to Tawnyea Lake, the district’s Director of Assessment, Evaluation and Performance. “The variance (between these numbers) is so large, is this actually measuring something, or is this just the natural variation of the data? If that’s the case, what are we doing this for?”
“Yeah--” Dr. Lake agreed, “you point out something that is noticed by a lot of people. I think that’s one of the critiques out there about MMR, and about it’s focus rating. And I think that’s something they’re exploring…”
“Yeah--” Member Johnston agreed to agree, “when you look at this data, the standard deviation--” (pausing a moment, chuckling with disbelief,) “must be about 50--and that means the change is insignificant.”
The difference jumps out from the chart. This year’s scores range from 26.2 points higher, to 25.59 points lower than last year’s--more than 50 points, a spread so broad the results seem to be of questionable value.
Rest assured, however, that our bureaucrats are on the job, “exploring” the problem.
The Resources that are Human

A new one-year contract with the district’s PARA professional bargaining unit was up for a Board vote during the HR report. Member Oswald said she had no problem with the raise the PARAs were “deservedly” getting, but expressed her “disappointment again that we were unable to do that for our lowest paid hourly and substitute workers.” (Last month the Board rejected a 25 cent/hr. increase for employees at the bottom of the district’s pay pyramid.)
The PARA contract was given the stamp of Board approval with five members voting “Aye,” member Johnston abstaining and member Sandstad absent.
The Board was given some information about the district’s Integration Specialists’ attempts to unionize. The Bureau of Mediation Services has apparently become involved, and updates will be forthcoming. Another personnel issue bound to engender future Board discussion is the Superintendent’s contract. The Board has to let Mr. Gronseth know by November whether or not it intends to offer him one.
Secret Business

As always, I wish I had more word-space to fully inform the public about another monster meeting, but I’m going to focus on only one item from the Business Report: the biggest news of the night.
Another educational organization has made some offers to purchase district property vacated (and sitting empty now, for several years) from the Red Plan. Over the past five months, Many Rivers Montessori has made offers on three separate properties. On 4/1/16, the organization offered $3,500,000 for STC (the closed technical education facility--only two decades old--on the Central campus.) On 6/8/16, the district next received an offer of $920,000 for the vacant (and beautiful) Rockridge School. On 8/23/16, another offer of $370,000 was made for Nettleton Elementary, currently being vandalized in central Duluth. All offers were very close to the district’s asking price for the properties.
The full Board became aware of these offers only recently, on 9/20/16, through a letter sent to it by Many Rivers’ Head of School and Board Chair, requesting “the courtesy of a meeting to discuss with you the merits of Many Rivers purchasing one of your surplus properties.”
Several minutes ticked away as the lower-caste Board members strenuously questioned why they hadn’t been paid the courtesy of even being told about the offers.
This evening’s audience was treated to another example of why the caste system is not conducive to functional representative government. Information accessed exclusively by privileged players is a lingering legacy of the Red Plan’s corporate takeover of our town. I’m going to veer away from this particular meeting for a few paragraphs, to give Duluthians a sense of the way business has gone on:
On May 22, 2008, school district 709 signed the Program Management Agreement for the Red Plan with Johnson Controls. The public’s representatives--the Board, as a whole--never approved the contract. On June 25, 2009, a change order for real estate services, including a 10% markup for Johnson Controls, was secretly signed by the Board Chair. The full Board was not informed. On November 30, 2009, the fees for the corporate behemoth were jumped by another $836,639. The increase was signed off in secret by the Board Chair. The full Board, again, was not informed. On January 13, 2012, another Program Management Agreement change order increased Johnson Controls’ fees by a whopping $8,746,939. Again, the change order was secretly signed by the Chair of the Board. The full Board did not vote to approve this change order, nor was it informed.
If readers are still not convinced the Red Plan warped our government, consider one more specific, very egregious example:
On June 27th, 2011, three days before he slipped out the door, Keith Dixon called a last-minute meeting. The Board’s lower-caste members at the time (Gary Glass and Art Johnston,) assumed the Red Plan’s progenitor was just going to sing his swan song and preen about all his wonderful accomplishments. After about an hour of listening to the Great Obfuscator toss about his patented brand of bs, Art Johnston’s patience with remaining in the dark about the real purpose of the meeting began to grow thin.
“This appears to be a long, involved meeting; we’re going to be making a lot of decisions.” The intrepid Lone Ranger observed. “Why weren’t we given this stuff ahead of time?”
Dixon responded: “Because it’s taken us to today to finish up all this information.”
“We’re supposed to get information before the meeting. We’re supposed to get it three days before the meeting.”
“That’s correct,” Mr. D. conceded, “but I wanted the information as accurate as I could before I gave it to you, tonight.”
Mr. Johnston asked a declarative question: “My understanding is that we’re going to be passing resolutions, tonight?”
“I’ve got a resolution on this base stuff--yes, I do.”
“Can we get this stuff? We’re supposed to have it before the meeting. The meeting’s started, and we still don’t have it. Can we get all this information, now?”
“I’m trying to give you all the information (verbally.)”
“I’d like to have hard copies of this information;” Mr. Johnston shot back, “this is supposed to be given to us before the meeting, not one minute before we’re supposed to vote on it.”
Two resolutions eventually materialized out of thin air, potentially adding $34 million more to the Red Plan; yet an hour into the meeting some Board members remained completely in the dark.
The Red Plan’s villain was Johnson Controls, but the plan was enabled by an upper-caste group which for years has tended to view the boardroom as a private clubhouse, where it is VIP. Last March, Chair Harala described the Board’s supposed new approach to doing business this way: “This Board has learned a lot in the past about making sure we have an open and transparent process, and the need for that,” but the discovery of more information kept from the full Board felt like business as usual.
ISD 709’s Board of Education is the local poster child for the most corrosive problem in our country: loss of trust between government and the governed.
Six days after this school board meeting, a meeting in the city council chamber ran smoothly for four-and-a-half hours. The council chamber was packed, standing room only. Many citizens spoke with passion, yet remained calm and reasoned. I told the council’s President, Zack Filipovich, that the public’s reaction is largely dependent on the level of fairness and openness it perceives from its leaders.
That was my take-away from watching two meetings conducted by my government in the span of less than a week, for a total of eight more hours.