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The few people who attended the two back-to-back school board meetings held on 2/28/17 gained some insight into why Bill Gronseth has turned his Superintendent gig into a remake of “Escape from Alcatraz.”
The first episode was a Committee of the Whole meeting, called to look at the preliminary figures for next year’s budget. The figures are loose yet, nothing was set in stone, but next year’s budget is going to be at least a million in the red, with several caveats. As I told one of the administrators, I know I’ve been hanging around ISD 709 too long, when being a million dollars in the hole doesn’t sound too bad. But, again, there are caveats, those additional troublesome details.
The teachers’ contract is up this year and the category for this almost-certain increase in expenditures was listed in next year’s budget as To Be Determined. Also, this mere million dollar deficit hinges on State aid coming through as projected in the Governor’s budget, but the Republicans control both houses of State government. Other parts of the budget, such as a State pension reimbursement and insurance costs, and the loss of State aid due enrollment loss may not turn out the way the district is currently estimating, either.
The district’s deficit is likely going to be considerably more than a measly million, but just how much further in the red the school board will find itself next year is still To Be Determined.
Even more worrisome about the budget projection handed to the Board was its look ahead at the year after next, fiscal year ‘19. The district is currently projecting a deficit of $5,647,419 for 2019, and that’s assuming the unlikely probability that all the caveats will fall into a favorable pattern. A $8,094,000 deficit is predicted, if things don’t break favorably.
$4,083,572 of extra savings dollars were supposed to be available for the classrooms next year, a promise that evaporated like dew in the morning sun. This Red Plan roller coaster ride our venerable leaders made us buy a ticket for certainly keeps thrilling us with steep, stomach-churning plummets.
The budget meeting began at 5:00, and ran to about 6:15. It was just a little primer for the evening.
The real fun: school board meeting, 2/28/17
This meeting lasted for four hours, six minutes. It started with an unusually large audience and a long (18) list of speakers. By the time the meeting concluded, two secretaries and four administrators were the only district employees left, and two citizens remained--myself and one woman. We were both sitting on the floor. If the Board had made it (which began to look quite possible) to eleven p.m., I think the odds are pretty good we would have both been fully stretched out on the floor.
As I have in the past, with these marathon meetings, I will group the citizens who spoke from the public podium together by subject.
Duluth Federation of Teachers’ President, Bernie Burnham, again brought some of her colleagues into this meeting to show everyone what the whole exercise is ultimately about: teachers and students. Third grade teacher, Emily Glomski, charmed the room with one of her students, Hunter. Hunter was one of the third graders who lobbied State Senator Erik Simonson about the importance of seat belts in school buses. I saw coverage of this meeting on the news, and the kids were effective ambassadors for their cause. The problem, as always, is money. The cost of installing seat belts is estimated to be about $7000-$11,000 per bus, and the upgrade is difficult to do incrementally. No district wants to be in a situation where some kids are riding around in school buses with seat belts and some aren’t. Unless the Feds or the State cough up a big chunk of money, no kids in ISD 709 buses will be wearing seat belts any time soon.
We have to sympathize with our poor Board members. They’re sort of like parents in bankruptcy listening to the needs and wants of their children month after month. East High aerospace physics teacher Hamilton Smith spoke about his volunteer work with a clay pigeon trap-shooting league and listed his reasons why this activity would be worthy of being incorporated into our public school district as a bona fide sport: “The kids are there, the need is there, and whatever we can do to get assistance from you guys...”
The chance of squeezing any pennies out of our penny-pinched Board for this need is zero, unless of course those pennies are made out of clay.
Shawna Mullen and Melissa Meyer spoke about the district’s Wellness Policy, encouraging, as Ms. Mullen put it, “nonfood rewards and incentives” in the classrooms. “Because kids spend more time in school than anywhere else,” Ms. Mullen said, “what they eat and do really sets the stage for choices they make in life.”
We can all only hope ISD 709’s fiscal lessons don’t seep in.
Inequity in our public education system is a topic that emerges repeatedly in the boardroom and did again this evening. Anne Skwira-Brown pointed out that her daughter was unable to take Spanish One, “a pretty entry-level course,” at Lincoln Park middle school. She told the Board she and other parents have been meeting to “take a look at some of the differences that exist.” She confessed that “it’s been tempting to look at (the differences) as East versus West,” but that they were trying to gather data and look at the problem more objectively through an “equity lens.”
Our hapless Board, meanwhile, has to look at all these problems through an insolvency lens.
Lest anyone thinks only the west end of town has problems, Scott Pilate pointed out that as a parent of kids attending Congdon Elementary, he’s “concerned about equity.” He told the Board that Lowell Elementary, which receives Federal Title One money, has a full-time reading interventionist, a full-time math interventionist, a full-time school social worker and a full-time integration specialist. Despite its image as an ideal eastern school, Congdon has just as much need for these services, Mr. Pilate maintained, and “also has very high class sizes.” Mr. Pilate advocated that the Board take advantage of a Minnesota Dept. of Education program which gives matching money to support specialized instructive services in all the schools. He told the Board it had 21 days to apply for the MDE matching money, but the same old problem undermines the district: poor financial decisions for a decade has left it in chronic deficit mode. In order to get matching money, you have to have money to match.
ISD 709 appears likely to lose a $450,000 grant because it can’t spare $450,000 to invest in a program that would unquestionably help with the persistently unsolvable achievement gap.
Every speaker from the public podium is passionate about his or her issue. The subject most citizens showed up to address this evening has been hotly debated in district 709 for years, especially around budget-time. ISD 709 dropped from a 7-period day to 6 periods in its high schools in 2004; in 2012, the district was forced by budget problems to do the same in its middle schools. Everybody knows that this situation is detrimental to education and it has been one of the most negative factors keeping ISD 709 from being competitive in the educational marketplace, despite all the Red Plan’s fancy, expensive buildings.
Because so many spoke on this issue, I’m only going to quote one--Nyasha Spears--who delineated very articulately why she and some of her friends had taken time to attend a meeting and speak in front of the Board: “We’re here as a group to encourage you, as a Board, to consider reinstatement of the 7-period day in the middle schools. Our concern is primarily due to the loss of elective time. After the reduction, in 2012, of education time from 7 periods to 6 periods, the loss of elective time has (had) significant consequences for all Duluth students. For example, in the middle schools, students must choose between music and a language in the eighth grade. Students who need enrichment in math and reading often are limited for electives. There is very clear educational data which shows a correlation between engagement in electives and academic success overall…”
Ms. Spears acknowledged that the Board is “in a difficult position about money,” but appealed to all seven members to “make the return of the 7th hour and the exposure of elective time a budget priority.”
The difficult position
All the evening’s action came down during the Education Committee and Business Committee Reports.
The education debate centered around the same concern Ms. Spears and several other citizens addressed from the podium: returning a seven-period day to our public schools. Board member Oswald got things going by praising how “great” some of the CTE courses, like robotics, are. “But it’s my personal opinion that we’ve maxed out in capacity as to who can take these programs. I think there’s not a lot of wriggle room in schedules anymore. I think the classes are filled, because of their popularity, and so I hope we consider…adding another period to our day, to allow another elective credit.”
Business Committee Chair Annie Harala immediately pushed back. She and her majority allies and administration are absolutely certain--not withstanding the fact that the district experienced its only deficit-free year in nearly a decade when Harala was first elected, and now is back in deficit--that they have everything going in the right direction, if Duluth’s citizens are just patient.
“The first summer (after she was elected,)” member Harala said, “we looked at revamping the entire administration. That’s a big change at how we look, at how we’re systematically addressing our students. And then, for those changes, we’ve been realigning our curriculum to ensure that we’re on track with State standards, and ensuring that students are connected. And then, also, (we’re) tightening up our MTSS system, adding professional learning communities. I feel like I’m jumping with a bunch of buzz words. (Acronyms and wonk speak invariably produce a buzz.) But what I want to say is: that we are now at a point in the district where our administration is taking the next step to ensure that we are able to offer additional opportunities for our students…”
The district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction echoed these sentiments, describing the changes administration has been orchestrating as “gigantic…huge changes for an educational organization to make. And so…considering all of the ramifications is very important…and we want to make sure that we’re not discluding voices as we move forward in considering potential scheduling options…We want to make sure we’re very thoughtful about that before we take any action steps.”
“I would like to whole-heartedly agree with what you just said.” Member Oswald responded in regard to these cautionary words concerning process and inclusiveness. “(But) all the buzz words in the world aren’t going to address why we don’t have seven periods right now. It’s because of the budget; it was cut because of the budget. And it’s time we stop the temporariness of this, and bring it (a seven-period day) back. Even while we include ‘moving forward’ with these other discussions…I think this is an investment we, as a Board, should make. Everyone else seems to have vested interest in what’s in the budget, yet the Board never sets a priority…So I would like to make a motion that we, as a Board, set it as a priority that we implement a seven-period day at some level, with or without WIN or Zero Hour, for the next school year.”
Zero hour is an optional hour at the beginning of the high school day; WIN (which stands for: What I Need,) is a thirty minute period of free time currently used for several purposes, and from all appearances--not always productively.
I didn’t record the elapsed time of this discussion, but suffice it to say the wind-storm of words went on at length. Member Johnston reminded his colleagues that the district made the decision to drop from seven periods to six “with no community involvement at all…This is not such a huge change (going back to seven periods,) that we can’t do it. Looking at this process, it looks very bureaucratic.”
“Our focus is always on what’s best for the kids.” Superintendent Gronseth countered. He said the process was meant to “really look at all the alternatives (a broke school district has) of adding extra opportunities for our students…Our intent is also to find a (cheaper) alternative that doesn’t cost $2.6 million.”
Member Welty offered an amendment to member Oswald’s motion, in an effort to focus more money solely on the suffering western schools “to move to a seven period day or an equivalent alternative,” but only he voted for it. Member O.’s motion also failed: 4-3.
The Legacy of a Lawyer
The debate that dominated the Business Committee Report centered around one of the law firms district administration recommended the Board approve doing business with in the upcoming year: Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, P.A. Kevin Rupp has worked with the district on legal matters for several years. He’s never been well-liked or trusted by the Board’s minority members. From their perspective, Rupp’s reputation became even more tarnished during the nasty Board fight over Art Johnston’s possible expulsion from his fourth district seat--a seat he’d won twice through an election.
Board member Sandstad engendered some sniggers from administration by quipping, as the debate seemed to continue interminably: “This group certainly knows how to beat a conversation to death.”
One of the reasons these meetings go on for four hours, however, is because a powerless minority has to try to budge a big, immoveable rock--the majority--with its words. With considerable passion, Board member Welty described the “many, many different ways that Mr. Rupp has not been a (legal) representative for the school board as a whole, but (only for) a select group of the Board and perhaps some administrators.” He argued that, “under Mr. Rupp’s legal advice… the school board had wasted more than $200,000 (during the Johnston battle,) and, more importantly, the attention of the Board on the affairs of the school district.”
Member Welty pointed out that the Board should hire an attorney all members trust, adding that he wouldn’t “trust Mr. Rupp any further than I could throw him.” He added that his experiences had led him to the conclusion that “this particular attorney was the Superintendent’s attorney--”
“Point of order! Point of order!” Committee Chair Harala cut him off. “Stop the disparaging remarks!”
Acknowledging Welty had some reason for “frustration,” Harala lectured about the Board “moving forward,” but “forward” is a very hard sell without addressing the deep-seated feelings of colleagues.
Member Loeffler-Kemp also condemned what she called “disparaging remarks about individuals,” prompting member Johnston to say: “Despairing remarks? This Board?” He pointed out that “despairing remarks” had consumed the Board for two years.
As the clock ticked closer to 10:30 p.m., “despairing” and “disparaging” had become interchangeable, synonymous words for everyone left in the room. More words that were tossed about: “Continuing the battle;” “The aggressive and threatening language of some of my colleagues;” “I know I’m going to get attacked, as I’ve been a number of times;” “We’ve all suffered;” “After everything this Board did; you did--you’ve got to be kidding!” Eventually the continuation of the Rupp firm’s role as one of the district’s legal consultants was approved by the usual 4-3 vote, prompting member Welty to rustle his paperwork and shake his head with open disgust.
When the meeting was finally adjourned, at 10:36 p.m., it was pretty evident why Mr. G. has been trying to engineer a jail break. Our Super must be thinking there’s got to be a school district with a little less drama out there somewhere.