I made a mistake in my last article, and it bothered me so much I almost quit the Reader. To write, edit, proofread and fact check articles about our complex, continually morphing public school district in my “spare” time on a volunteer basis has been a challenge, and from time to time I make an error that drives me to distraction. The mistake pops into my head after the newspaper has gone to print and I can’t change it.

I couldn’t quit this column yet, though. Something was brought to my attention last week that compelled me to write again, but I have to correct my mistake before I go into this latest district news.
In my last article I calculated incorrectly how much our tax levy had gone up. The reason I made the mistake is because I had previously referred to the fact that the district’s tax levy had risen $20 million, since the start of the Red Plan. This figure is accurate. The levy rose from just under $13 million in 2005, the year Keith Dixon came to town, to just over $33 million last year.

The levy has dropped a bit this year, to just under $32 million, largely due to the district opting to refund one of the Red Plan bonds early. It is now about $19 million higher than it was in 2005. I was looking for a way to reference this lower figure without the appearance of a discrepancy, so I opted for percentages. $19 million is 60% of $32, so I wrote that the levy had risen 60%. But $32 million is in fact a 246% increase over $13 million.

Our tax levy from the district has risen by a whopping 246%, since the start of the Red Plan. Obviously, that’s an important difference, and I apologize for my error.
Speaking of errors, Superintendent Gronseth lectured Board member Johnston during the 6/19/12 school board meeting: “I believe the district was very open about how (the Red Plan) was being financed. And that the savings from closing multiple schools were going to help keep the tax impact down.”
Now for the news.

Many of you have heard this bit of news, by now. It was in the Duluth News Tribune and some of the other media. After recently (just last December) procuring a three-year contract from our public school district, Superintendent Gronseth surfaced as one of six applicants for a Superintendent position in district 728, which serves the Elk River, Minnesota area.

After watching the machinations of our school district for a decade, I thought I was beyond being surprised by anything, much less shocked. I suspected Mr. G. was going to leave, but--My, God!--I found this news stunning. And I don’t know which part of this news story upset me more: the fact that our Superintendent took a contract extension under false pretense, or the fact that our gullible, easily beguiled DFL-endorsed Board majority gave it to him.

Since Mr. Dixon came to town, the DFL-endorsed Board members (who have dominated the boardroom) have had a knee-jerk tendency to blindly rubberstamp everything Administration and the teachers’ union wants. They have consistently failed to look clear-eyed at the situation in front of them. The have consistently failed to exercise their proper check-and-balance role and protect the public’s interest.

As for Mr. G., I knew he was going to skip out, but I thought he would have the grace and restraint to wait at least one year, after lobbying for, and getting, a pay raise. Still, it was just a matter of time. Our Super was going to run. Last December, right before the four DFL-endorsed Club jammed through his contract extension, I wrote in the Reader:

“The Superintendent is telling everyone he likes it here now. His three attempts to land another job over the past two years, as he told the Duluth News Tribune, ‘showed me what I had in Duluth.’ Personally, I feel the way I would feel if I looked out my kitchen window and saw the guy renting part of my house out on the shoulder of the highway with a pack on his back and his thumb out. The guy waves frantically at every passing car, and failing to flag any down, finally comes back to my place with his hat in hand and declares, ‘Gee--I really do like it here!’

While he was trying to get out, just last spring, Mr. G. said: ‘It’s pretty clear that I have had some challenges, and perhaps a fresh start would be good for a lot of us.’
The Superintendent’s actions give me little confidence in his commitment, and I would not be inclined to give him a three-year extension on his contract. If I were forced into giving him a three-year contract, I would stipulate that he pay back any salary raise if he leaves sooner. Given the fact that he himself recently spoke about a ‘fresh start,’ the best I would offer him is a one-year contract without a raise.”

How could anyone not see our Superintendent was a flight risk?

If he doesn’t escape, he’ll try again.

I don’t think our Super is going to make the top cut in Elk River. The other five job applicants have “Dr.” in front of their names. Despite all the money Duluth taxpayers have forked over to help Mr. G. bolster his resume (and make him more marketable to get out,) he still hasn’t finished his dissertation. If I’m looking at a list of five “Drs.” and one “Mr.,” I’m disinclined to bet on the “Mr.”

Under the current Superintendent contract we’re still on the hook for Mr. G.’s education until he finishes up his doctorate, thanks to our fiscally-responsible DFL-endorsed Board majority, which put this line in his current contract: “Upon completion of a Doctoral Degree in Education, all unused reimbursements, up to a maximum of $5,000.00 per year, shall be added to the Superintendent’s annual salary for the year in which the Doctoral Degree is confirmed.” Mr. G.’s Board supporters made certain he came out a winner, but he’d better start cracking the books if he wants to get out.

And clearly, everyone (even the DLFers?) must see reality by now: HE WANTS TO GET OUT!
I actually hope Mr. G. does get this job, because his job search is going to be a continual distraction. It was announced last week (2/9/17) that he made the cut of three finalists for the Superintendent position in Elk River. He will head to Elk River this week to continue the interview process, which includes meetings with Board members, staff, students and community members. Meanwhile, of course, he isn’t in Duluth doing his current Superintendent job.

I keep wondering just how bad next year’s deficit is going to be, for the Duluth district. I think Mr. G. has a pretty good idea. I think the pending deficit is one of the reasons he has his running shoes laced up. Despite his public proclamations, I don’t think our district’s chief administrative officer sees a way out of the Red Mess, and he clearly has no intention of being the brave Captain going down with the ship. I think he plans on parking his life boat on the far distant shore, waving at us, and then running as fast as he can.

I believed at the time, and I repeat: it was completely irresponsible to give Superintendent Gronseth a three-year contract with a pay raise. Of course, it is the Superintendent himself who bears the brunt of the responsibility. I think most people, given a three-year deal with a pay hike, would feel obligated to stay. I know I would. After all the foolish decisions of the past decade, district 709 is in a very fragile state and needs a steady leader who is willing to stick it out.

This is our Super’s FOURTH escape attempt. Who, but Annie Harala, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and their DFL-endorsed Board allies would still try to argue that Mr. G. is fully committed to staying in Duluth? Three tries should have been a strong enough hint. Would a corporate Board have approved a contract extension (with a pay raise) to a CEO who’d tried three times to jump to another company?

How could the four DFL-endorsed members who shoved Mr. G.’s contract through have been completely unaware of what they were setting themselves up for?
If they were going to insist, as they did, on a three-year deal, some disincentives against leaving early should have been embedded in the contract. The contract was approved 4-3 by the Board on December 20th. Just six weeks later, the news broke that Mr. G. was making a play for another job. He must have sent his resume out within a few weeks of accepting a contract from Duluth. Just a few weeks after securing three years of job security, and accepting a pay raise from a district in deficit, our Super was out hunting for another job.

Playing fair.

The public of Duluth has not been treated fairly by the leadership of our school district for the past decade, but I want to play fair in regard to our Superintendent. Mr. Gronseth has some very good qualities, and he will likely be an excellent Superintendent in another district. He is an intelligent man and a hard worker. He doesn’t just sit in his office; he’s out in the schools often, and he seldom misses any relevant community event. Despite persistent problems (fiscal issues and falling enrollment,) he and his staff have made some positive strides in our schools.

Mr. G. is a very dedicated educator--just, apparently, not dedicated to Duluth.
In a quote read on a Channel 10 news broadcast, Mr. G. blamed the Board minority members’ lack of support for prompting him to start looking for another job, before the ink was dry on his contract. This is the statement read by the news anchor on behalf of Mr. Gronseth: “In view of the delays and less than positive support of a minority of the board during recent contract negotiations, I thought it would be prudent to explore other opportunities. I didn’t plan to consider other possibilities so soon, but in exploring available positions found them to be worth serious consideration.”

Mr. G.’s explanation is completely contradictory: “I thought it would be prudent to explore other opportunities, (but) I didn’t plan to consider other possibilities so soon.” I think “opportunities” and “possibilities” are synonyms in this context. Why would our Super be exploring other opportunities/possibilities if he wasn’t planning on considering them? He’s also clearly looking at multiple “positions,” and his explanation that he’s looking because of the minority Board members’ lack of enthusiasm over his contract is less than credible. He’d already tried to fly the coop THREE times, and his issues with some Board members is old news.

Mr. G.’s blame-game towards the minority Board members has more than one layer. On some level, Super G. clearly understands he can’t keep his DFL-endorsed booster club intact forever. If he loses one seat in the next election, he will no longer have a narrow Board majority looking at him with adoring eyes. I believe he lives in fear of that moment.

Superintendent Gronseth is a professional who performs many parts of his job well. Some members of our school board’s majority are mystified everyone doesn’t worship him the way they do. They write off the minority members’ opposition as nothing but vindictive obstruction. The lack of support by the Board minority towards Mr. G.’s three-year contract was not, however, the result of a one-way communication block. There are some personality conflicts clashing from both sides of the aisle, but Mr. G.’s inability to earn the full Board’s trust and support is not due to Board members’ character flaws; it is more due to his.

Superintendent Gronseth was not the best candidate, when the process started in 2011 to replace Keith Dixon. The best candidate was Stan Mack. Mr. Mack came to Duluth with a very deep knowledge of Minnesota public education. He’d been in the system for more than thirty years. Mack was clear-eyed and had no dog in the Red Plan fight. Unfettered by biases, he spoke out bluntly, calling the Red Plan’s financing structure “unprecedented in Minnesota…a most serious problem…major leakage from the General Fund, caused by school board action.”

You will never hear such frank talk from Bill Gronseth. Despite his evident passion for education, Mr. G. tends to lean on the district’s pr specialist when dealing with the public. Duluth has been a real headache for him, because he has trouble dealing forthrightly with sticky issues and is too vested in the problems caused by the Red Plan to cope with them. Mr. G. must realize this truth himself; otherwise, why would he keep trying to get out? Board member Oswald said on WDIO that we should encourage the Superintendent to move on, because he clearly wants to. A sensible Board majority would have seen what was going to happen and encouraged him harder to move on, before handing him a new contract.

Since Keith Dixon came to town, the majority board members dominating the show have been given to flights of fantasy. Anyone with any connection to reality should have no doubt about our Super’s intent by now, but my guess is some of the DFL-endorsed cheerleading squad will continue to remain in denial.

Most people, after publicly demonstrating confidence in someone, would reevaluate their support when that someone betrays their trust and makes them look foolish.
What’s in a promise?

The DFL-endorsed Board booster club have maintained since they first hired Mr. G. that he is best-equipped to lead district 709 because he is a Duluth native, raised in Morgan Park. Chair Harala brought up this argument again, when backing his contract extension. (The fact that he now lives in Hermantown is always just ignored.)

Others in the boardroom argued (as usual, to no avail) that we didn’t need a Duluth native who was clearly entrenched on one side of the Great Divide. What we needed to solve the problems of ISD 709 (and still need) is a tough, neutral negotiator. We need a seasoned diplomat, who will sit both sides down, listen carefully and attentively to everyone, and finally force some reasonable compromises.

We need someone who will turn off the spin machine and deal more forthrightly with the public, and that of course means coming clean about the real results of the Red Plan. And we need someone who, if he signs a three year contract, with an implicit promise of a three-year commitment, is going to KEEP his promise.

There have been so many broken promises from ISD 709, I’ve literally written hundreds of pages documenting all of them over the past few years. To err is human, but the long string of broken promises from our public school district has not stemmed solely from error (though there’ve been plenty.) On one point after another, we’ve been purposely misled.

I never believed Superintendent Gronseth would stay for three years. I did not think it was a good idea to give him a three-year deal. Now I just wish he’d quit pointing fingers and blaming other people, if he’s going to leave. The DFL Board majority that jammed his contract through should make themselves useful by helping him flood the job market with his resume.

Now that everyone (even the DFL?) should finally grasp that Mr. G. he has no intention to stay, we should make a leadership change quickly and get a steadier hand on the helm of the rickety ship.