The school board met on 4/26/17 to discuss whether of not to proceed with more consultant work from a demographics firm, RSP & Associates. The district has already run up a bill of $13,000 for a recently completed demographics study, and the Board was meeting to decide whether or not it should move forward with two more options: a district boundary analysis, and also having the company facilitate a process to change boundaries. 

 Starting off on a good note 

There seemed to be some amiability--almost a sense of camaraderie--in the boardroom right from the start. A box of chocolates had been left on the dais for our elected officials, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended as a political bribe. 
Fairly soon into the meeting I discovered I apparently possess some natural aptitude as a demographer, because my predictions about what might transpire were inaccurate. I’d misread the reactions of some of the DFL-endorsed during the previous week’s committee meeting. Generally the four of them vote as a block with Administration’s recommendations, and I got the sense they would likely do so again. Board member Loeffler-Kemp seemed especially eager to push ahead after RSP’s presentation, but this evening she was restrained. As she expressed it, she “came into this meeting today, not sure, in my mind, where I wanted to move forward.” 

What really signaled something unusual was afoot, however, was a strong expression of doubt by member Sandstad, who questioned Administration’s recommendation to forge ahead with RSP’s proposal: 
“There’s a lot of different elements to this.” She said to her colleagues. “Starting with the big picture: I think we’ve got a number of challenges we’re working on as a district that I would like us to continue to put attention towards and investment in. I’m not sure that starting a large, public process, in terms of the specificity of enrollment and boundaries, isolated, would be a good investment of our resources and energy right now. We’re working on equity issues with regard to Denfeld. We should be working on our communication, our reputation within the community. I would like to see us put some investment towards that. I think there was a lack of discussion…regarding pre-K planning (by RSP,) which I would like to see increasing each year, and that’s a space discussion, as well. There also wasn’t any mention of the (language) immersion programs, which have grown in Lowell Elementary from 3 kindergarten classes last year, to 5 this year and potentially 6 next. So, that gets to the benefit (or not) of an outside (company) like RSP. They’re lacking the information that I think is essential to look at enrollment and projections going forward, in terms of what’s actually going on in the district.” Continuing to express her “hesitations,” she said it “didn’t seem like (RSP) had complete information, from my perspective. So I would view this (proposal,) generally speaking, as something that might be nice to have, but that falls more into a ‘want’ than a ‘need,’ particularly given our current budget situation.” 

Personally, after listening to Ms. Sandstad, I was ready for the Board to trash the idea--vote down RSP’s proposal, adjourn the meeting and go home. I thought she’d pretty much nailed most of the relevant points, but I knew I was going to have to log some more time on a hard desk seat. 
Much of the discussion was worth listening to though, as these remarks from member Oswald also illustrate: 
“I’ve been really hung up on the price tag that goes along with the public facilitation part of this contract. $31,000 plus other additional expenses is a lot of money to pay…It was disturbing to me, the off-hand remark the RSP presenters made during our committee meeting about the bad publicity they’re getting (from another consultant job) in Cedar Rapids. I looked up Cedar Rapids and saw it. Truly, it wasn’t very pleasant, and it reminded me exactly of the ugliness accomplished with Johnson Controls at the helm of our building plan ten years ago…This firm, in Cedar Rapids, is making just as many waves as we have in the past.” She asked, “How fictional is this (claim of) ‘excess capacity’? We were sold the same (claim) to build new buildings by Johnson Controls.”

Member O. pointed out that “we already paid somebody, with Johnson Controls, to go through a process, and we ended up with an unhappy community that doesn’t trust us.” She pointed out that two years ago, RSP “said our kindergarten numbers would be stable, with enrollment numbers around 700 for the foreseeable future. Only two years later, it now says we’re lucky to maintain 550 students in our kindergartens…it makes me wonder what their best guess will be in two more years…It’s my job to spend our money wisely, and I don’t see this as a wise move. And I think this is part of building trust. I want to look at this as an opportunity to build that trust, to be open and transparent…We’re nothing if we don’t have trust, and we have to make sure we’re operating in a manner that helps us get to that. By hiring this company, at an overall charge of up to $50,000, I don’t think we accomplish any amount of trust with the community.” 

Still pretty good 

In the past I’ve criticized the DFL-endorsed majority members for turning the Board into an adjunct PTA, just being a rubberstamping cheerleading squad. I’ve been especially hard on the two senior members of the DFL team, Annie Harala and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp. One point is irrefutable, however: these two women are passionate about what member Harala called this evening, “our beloved schools.” The reason they march so loyally in line is because they truly believe in the leadership abilities of Superintendent Gronseth and his administrative staff, and are convinced ISD 709 is basically on the right path. 

Both displayed a bit of rare hesitation this evening towards an action recommended from Administration, but it seemed evident both would eventually, as usual, go along with Administration’s wishes. Member Loeffler-Kemp downplayed concerns about the money: “Though it may seem like a lot right now, while we’re juggling a lot of dollars with our proposed budget--really, for a consultant, it’s not that much. It’s pretty typical, in terms of the cost.”

Member L.-K. favored tabling the resolution, “to allow us time to think it through,” while simultaneously sending out clear signals of being on board. “I certainly believe in the community engagement piece of this.” She said with some enthusiasm. “We’re seeing a lot of new people getting involved in school district issues, and that gets me excited about involving the larger community, right now, just because of the challenges that we have in the district.” She expressed worries about trying to put the burden of figuring out new boundary configurations on district staff, if the Board doesn’t hire RSP. “As member Sandstad said, our staff is involved with a lot right I don’t want to add to (their) work.” She again stated that she supported a community-engagement process and that she believed hiring an “outside facilitator” would be “very important with being objective.” 

Then she swung back the other way to some degree and repeated: “I would like to table it, and let us think it through--”
Member Welty asked, off-mic: “Is that a motion?”
“No, it’s not a motion; I’m just stating my opinion at this point. I see (tabling it) as valuable if people still feel like they have some questions. That’s what I’m hearing; I’m not hearing only from a few people (the usual troublemakers,) a strong opinion about not doing it, (or) just needing to think it through.” 

Member Harala expressed a similar hesitation, while also signaling her normal inclination to shy away from criticism, be a team player with Administration and look for positives. A suggestion from members Oswald and Johnston that the Board only approve the less expensive option # 1 of RSP’s proposal--a boundary analysis--didn’t appeal to her. She seemed inclined to support the full package: 

“I appreciate hearing what other people have been thinking. One of the areas I was surprised wasn’t involved (in RSP’s initial analysis,) and kind of thought it would be, was the vision moving forward with our district: where early childhood programming is; making sure all schools have after-school programming and availability for community space and community gathering. I don’t see that (vision) reflected in this piece of the contract. And so heading forward with just the boundary analysis doesn’t really cut it, for me. I see that we need to have a larger discussion on (what) we’ve had. We’ve gone through a process of building; we’ve been in the buildings for a number of years, now (actually three years, for some of them;) there are demographic shifts that are happening, community-wide.” 

Clearly our first demographer goofed; so let’s hire another. 
Member Harala tried to give a softer spin to some comments member Welty had previously made, comparing RSP’s community-engagement process with the district’s Think Kids meetings: “We’ve had Think Kids processes. I hear what you’re saying, member Welty, that there has been a dwindling” in attendance. She argued that there was “a potential for re-engagement” and a chance to “push for that” engagement with the RSP process. In fact, she said the district could catch a wave: “There are significant numbers of parents that have been coming out for the last five months that are very engaged--parents who are new to the district and parents who have been around for a long time.” She said these people are already “having discussions on what the vision is for their public schools…” 

Notwithstanding the Think Kids meetings, member Harala, speaking at length, told her colleagues she sees an increasingly engaged public in Duluth: “I see our public show up. We’ve seen them at our meetings every single month…” She talked about all the district issues that should be addressed, while maintaining that ISD 709 is on the upswing, and the time was right for community engagement: “There are still families coming back to the district after some loss due to the long-range facilities plan…We do have to take that big picture look at all of our different schools. I don’t think we can only look at boundaries; it has to be part of a comprehensive process. So, I don’t necessarily know if (RSP) facilitating (that process) is the way to go…but I want to move forward with this discussion today.” 

The Board’s resident philosopher, Harry Welty, weighed in with some of the most sagacious remarks of the evening. Agreeing an outside organization can bring some “objectivity to a tough decision,” he pointed out that consultants can also act “as a cushion for the people who are the decision-makers. In fact,” he added, “I think that’s one of the reasons consultants have become so widespread.” He argued that the district only had an urgent need to address the boundaries of one school, Congdon Elementary, “which is on the verge of over-spilling its capacity.” Otherwise, Mr. Welty argued that what the school board really needed to do “is to try to figure out what incentives we need to bridge the east/west split,” a problem caused when another outside consultant “helped divide the city up for the Red Plan…What I sense,” he later added, “and I am grateful for--in the conversation we’ve had-- is a certain caution that somebody can’t come in here for $35,000 and solve all our problems, and maybe we have to think through where we need to go, because there are some larger issues at stake. I welcome that conversation and the sense I’m picking up from the mood…” 

   Good mood; could be a tad better

The Board decided to table the contract until the May meeting. I’d assumed approval during this meeting would be a slam-dunk--minimally, the usual 4-3 rubberstamp--and was pleasantly surprised by a real discussion, but nearly all the Board’s skepticism was applied to the process. Other than member Oswald, no one seemed to look closely enough at RSP.

The most detailed-oriented Board member, Art Johnston, was out of commission this evening. He’d been out-of-town for a job and had missed the previous week’s meeting. Administration apparently had no more paper copies of RSP’s current analysis. The digital copy Johnston was given had figures so tiny and fuzzy, he told me he found them virtually illegible. 

During RSP’s presentation to the Board the prior week, it was revealed, as member Oswald pointed out, that the company had completely misjudged the trends for ISD 709’s kindergarten enrollment. The fact that RSP also had to readjust its overall five-year enrollment projection from just two years ago by 515 students was not even mentioned by any Board member. 

After what we’ve been through in Duluth, our school board should be on consultant RED alert, very vigilant. The Red Plan’s demographic analysis was pathetically poor, riddled with several claims now proved to have been astonishingly inaccurate: 

(1) “enrollment will continue to decline until 2013,” then “increase modestly,” and “stabilize around 9,600.”

(2) “all evidence indicates traditional nonpublic schools will not contribute to the future decline in the Duluth Public School District’s enrollment. The long-range plan’s investment in new and remodeled buildings, along with enhanced programming partially funded from the plan’s savings, are key strategies that will support this enrollment trend.”

(3) “home schooling also has not significantly contributed to the decline in enrollment. Although the percentage of home-schooled children is likely to increase both in Duluth and across Minnesota, the shear number is not material for long-range planning

(4) “there is no evidence to support that enrollment has been significantly impacted by local industry growth or decline.”

(5) “the good news is that the end of the decline is in sight…you can see that kindergarten classes are larger than the older elementary grades.”

(6) “the district will experience its sharpest decline in student enrollment at the high school level. Some elementary schools are actually starting to grow in enrollment, and the building construction plans need to be sized for these future enrollments.”

(7) “a geographic information systems specialist…was brought to the planning team to assist with drawing new attendance boundaries and locating schools where the students live. If you extend a line along 14th Avenue East to the northern border of the district, you find that half of the students live west of that line with the remaining half living to the east of it. More detailed use of this tool…was also invaluable in redrawing boundaries and understanding the impact on school size and demographic makeup.” 

Only the statement about nonpublic schools has any validity on the ground today, but even this claim is not entirely true. Marshall has added another grade; Lakeview Christian Academy is booming in the old Lowell school; the Catholic schools are consolidating, with the intent of building a high school. The Red Plan’s key strategy of enhancing programming in our public schools from savings is obviously not working. Debt payment for the plan is, in fact, robbing from the district’s budget. 

As member Welty pointed out, consultants are often used as cover by officials who don’t want to shoulder full responsibility for their decisions. In recent years, an industry of consultants has sprung up that hustles and sells “expertise” to school boards, and the Red Plan exposed the school board as the weakest link in our system of local government. 

The spokesperson for RSP repeated several times that his company “only works with school districts,” as though the statement was reassuring, but for me it only raised another RED flag.