Don’t shoot the messenger!

by Loren Martell

Photo Credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo Credit: Ted Heinonen

If you calculate in all the ongoing expenses, our broke school district suffered a net loss of over $20 million from the Board’s refusal to sell vacant property. The DFL-endorsed board members cast the four votes not to sell, and I openly admit I think it would be good for the district if they lost their long-held grip on the majority. I’ve caught a bit of heat for this stance, but I don’t hate the DFL. 

As long as I’ve broached the subject, I don’t hate labor unions, either. One of the most courageous fights ever waged in this country was the fight for the right to organize labor. At the moment, however, the powerful union/DFL machine is not serving the public’s interest in the boardroom. Union contracts remain out-of-line with reality and the teachers’ union wielded a lot of power in the DFL’s decision not to sell property. All four DFL-endorsed school board candidates are strong union people, which makes me uneasy about where their loyalties would truly lie in the boardroom. 

The incumbent DFLer in the 4th district, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, is a very intense union activist. She is seeking endorsements from AFSME, the Duluth Central Labor Body, the Duluth teachers’ union, NEALC--an organization that describes itself as a “privately held” labor advocacy company, with Alan Netland, the President of AFL-CIO, serving as company president, and Education Minnesota--the umbrella organization of two national trade unions: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. 

How much outside money will flow into a local Duluth school board election? 
All three of the other DFL-endorsed candidates described themselves as union advocates in their screening applications for endorsement. Sally Trnka said her family is “very much a union-supporting family” and promised to set up meetings with district union bargaining units to “actively listen, hear their concerns and issues and celebrate victories.” Josh Gorham said he would be “seeking endorsements from unions,” and would “support union-represented members of the Duluth public schools.” Jill Lofald said she “grew up in a union household,” adding, (as though there is a distinction without a difference,) “the DFL is in my blood.” 

For years we’ve had a publicly elected school board at war with the public, and I believe one of the root causes of that conflict is the DFL’s alliance with the unions. 
   
Onto the business at hand

The school district is ultimately about education, but all the underlying problems are business-related. If you’ve got four hours to spare, you should watch the Board’s 6/12/17 HR/Business Committee meetings on youTube, because I’m only going to be able to skim the tops of the waves. The big-money discussion items were the budget and the teachers’ contract, both which will be voted on by the Board during the June meeting. The teachers’ contract is part of human resources, but I consider it business. 

The tentative teachers’ contract includes the following pay raises: 1% in the first year, 1.5% in the second year, 2% in each of the next two years. These pay raises would not be out-of-line in a healthy district, but district 709 is very unhealthy, fiscally. There were no concessions gained from the union in health care or other benefits. The full cost of teacher contract benefits next year will be $16,139,187, an unsustainable expense. 

Some increases in State aid will help bail things out for the moment, but financial worries often lead to discord. All kinds of issues still came up during the business meeting about money and resource allocation. 
Nearly right out of the starting gate, we were back in the rubber room of rubber mulch. The bottom line is that the Board will approve a bid to replace rubber mulch with wood chips in all district playgrounds this summer. The new price is still more than a million dollars ($1,041,264,) exactly $158,736 lower than the initial bid of $1.2 million. The biggest difference between this bid and the prior bid (which seemed to placate most of the Board) is that the entire project will now be completed in one year rather than three. 

The Board had been hoping to see a sizeable discount from the initial bid, because a way had been devised to switch out all the mulch without removing and reinstalling the playground equipment. Apparently, however, the money projected to be “saved” was largely offset by the fact that our hapless leaders once again found themselves in a jam with no maneuvering room. By the time everything came together on the new plan, it was too late to find many contractors willing and able to do the work this year, and subsequently impossible to negotiate a more favorable price. 

The sky-high price of a million dollars to replace the rubber mulch on district playgrounds sparked an exchange between Chair Kirby and member Johnston. 
“I think the price is way out-of-line.” The ever-vigilant Johnston remarked, “I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from people, including from people who want to get rid of this (the rubber mulch,) that the price is really out-of-line. And I’m not sure if I’m going to vote for this or not, come next Tuesday. It’s very unfortunate. We got a 15% reduction in price, but the price was way, way over-inflated in the first place. The price is not a good deal. Getting rid of the rubber mulch is, but the price certainly is not.”

“I’m not sure why the price is out-of-line.” Kirby responded. “It’s more than I’d like, but--” looking straight across the table at Johnston, “it is what it is. As far as I know, we can’t coerce people to do it for less than they’re willing to do it for.” 
Mr. Kirby was correct. The Board, because of bureaucratic dithering and foot-dragging--wasting time getting bids on multiple-year contracts when it really wanted a one-year deal--was in no position to bargain, meaning another million dollars coming out of taxpayers’ pockets now is what it is. 
Kirby and Johnston engaged in more than one verbal exchange during this meeting. The next flash point occurred during the Board’s discussion of another drama scene that recently rose up in ISD 709: the proposed shuffling of some Principal assignments in the elementary schools for the upcoming year. 
The whole hullabaloo was sparked when the Stowe elementary school Principal resigned. Adjusting to this sudden, unexpected resignation, Superintendent Gronseth and his staff came up with a plan: they decided to move Nathan Glockle, a popular Principal at Laura MacArthur elementary, to Stowe, then move Amy Worden, a popular Principal at Homecroft elementary to Laura MacArthur, and then move Darren Sheldon, a popular Principal at Lakewood elementary to Homecroft. They planned to post the Principal position at Lakewood (only half-time, because of the school’s low enrollment) for new applicants. 

Mr. G. was hoping he could pull off this game of musical chairs with Principal positions before the music stopped, but didn’t quite make it.   
 
What’s a Board for?

A lot of people were unhappy in ISD 709, not a new phenomenon. Families from a couple of schools, upset about severing ties with their principals, started signing petitions. Board members were contacted by disgruntled constituents and got pulled into the maelstrom. Some of Superintendent’s ardent Board supporters believed noses were stuck in where noses didn’t belong. Chair Kirby lectured some of his colleagues, during this meeting:

“One of the missions and goals of this Board is to support reducing the achievement gap and give students support.” The Chair sermonized. “And it takes leadership and making very tough decisions to do this. The difficulty is: when a tough decision is made and you don’t like it, then it’s bad leadership. And I think we have to give our administration the latitude and the support and the ability to make these decisions, specifically, at this point, about our principals, and not get involved in micromanaging. I mean, if we (sitting on this Board) want to be superintendents, then we should get our superintendent’s license. I think we should be involved in policy and give them (administrative staff) our support. They had access to much more information, (making this decision.) They talked to many more people than we did, and so I support the decision they’re making.” 

Obviously this philosophy of genuflection and blind support, followed religiously for years by the Board’s majority, worked out very well with the Red Plan. 
“First of all,” the Board’s Lone Ranger of Independent Identity, member Johnston, responded to this scolding, “we’re talking about principals, not micromanagement. This (a discussion about principals) is exactly what we’re here for. I don’t ask the Superintendent what time he comes in, in the morning…Don’t call us out for having an opinion on principals, as micromanaging. It’s not micromanaging. That’s belittling to a concern that our citizens have, that our parents have, and that we, as a Board, have. And I would appreciate it if you do not use that term, because that’s a derogatory term.” 

The Chair quickly switched on his microphone. “I didn’t belittle anybody!” He responded defensively. “I’m just giving my opinion.” 
“I think you did.” The Lone Ranger replied in a level, matter-of-fact tone, before continuing on with his primary point: “We know how the process works. Lakewood and Homecroft (schools in the eastern half of town) get their wishes, but Laura Mac (in the west) doesn’t. That’s apparently how the process works, and I think it’s a very unfair process. That’s why we brought this (issue about principals) up, because it’s an unfair process. Laura Mac is the only school unhappy, now. (The school’s longtime Principal) Nathan Glockle is a fantastic Principal, and I’m sure he’ll do well (if transferred) to Stowe elementary, but he’s also been doing well at Laura Mac. Imagine this: if you decided to move the Congdon (elementary) Principal to Ordean East (middle school.) I think there’d be a lot of people micro-managing that decision…I see it as being an insult that Lakewood and Homecroft got their wishes, but we out in West Duluth didn’t.” 

The East did get everything it wanted. Both Homecroft and Lakewood will retain their respective principals. The only difference in the East is that the Lakewood Principal position is now technically full-time. Astonishingly, the East has so much power in this town that a petition circulated by Homecroft elementary parents to keep their Principal only garnered 45 signatures, while a petition from the Laura Mac families (as of last count) collected 355 signatures, and the western school still losing out. 

Board members got drawn into the tug and pull of this Principal positioning, and member Oswald defended their involvement: “Member Kirby: I don’t believe voicing the concerns of our constituents is micromanaging, because that’s what (we) do, as elected representatives. Whether it agrees with the Superintendent’s decision or not is not for me to say…I’m obligated to bring concerns forward, because they (my constituents) are my bosses, and that’s the way I view my job.” 

The tension around the issue was exasperated by the fact that an election is just around the corner. When Superintendent Gronseth singled out Rosie Loeffler-Kemp for the work she’d done with the Homecroft PTA and all her “conversations with others as well,” the non-DFL-endorsed felt he was trying to give her credit for leading the parade because Homecroft elementary is in her district. On his blog, member Welty posted: “The Superintendent gave all the credit to Rosie, for having made the parents happy. No such thing occurred, but Rosie is his gal.” In an email sent to my computer, member Oswald exclaimed: “You have NO idea how much I invested in helping the Homecroft parents. I talked to 90% of the teachers there. I talked to at least 30 parents.”

It’s an open secret that Mr. G. favors the DFL-endorsed in the election, because for years DFL has stood for “Does Follow Leader” in the boardroom, but the non-DFL-endorsed seemed to be protesting that he should at least publicly feign neutrality.   

More money and “Smart” decisions. 

Art Johnston again brought up all the money being drawn out of the General Fund to pay Red Plan debt, passionately advocating for the Board to search for ways out of the arrangement, prompting even Chair Kirby to say (without any droll or snidely tone I could detect): “I’d like to acknowledge member Johnston’s tenacity on this issue.” 

Most people in Duluth--including all of the ruling majority of the Board--don’t even realize just how (to put it bluntly) staggeringly stupid the funding scheme was, and how the financing around this huge capital investment is linked to the district’s fiscal woes. On top of appropriating money every year out of its budget to pay for buildings, for a while the district was also paying down part of the tax levy through an annual Board resolution. At one point (fiscal year ‘12,) district 709 actually withdrew a total of $7,518,527 from its General operating Fund to pay debt on Red Plan bonds. 

All of the levied debt has now been transferred to the backs of Duluth taxpayers, smashing the Red Plan’s tax promises to the tune of about $82 million over the remaining duration of bond payment, (the largest heist I’ve ever witnessed first hand.) The appropriated monies, however, are not levied. The three bonds still being paid out of the General Fund are installment-lease contracts. If they were levied bonds, Duluth taxpayers would have already been hammered by more than $3 million a year, because the money projected to be transferred from the General Fund to pay Red Plan debt next year ($3,371,085) obviously remains a big contributor to the deficit problem plaguing the district. 

During this meeting, administration finally went on the record with an admittance that $45 million more will be withdrawn from the General Fund over the next 15 years to pay Red Plan debt. 
One revenue idea (Business Chair Harala’s brainstorm) will now apparently be implemented: sending buses out to places like Cloquet and Knife River to try to gather up more students for our public schools. After the district’s transportation manager did an excellent, meticulous job of laying out all the costs of this venture, I went up and thanked him for his presentation. I figured it wasn’t his fault the Board had directed him on another wild goose chase. 

It was also revealed during this meeting that the district intends to start trashing SmartBoards from our schools. 
A few years ago, I laid out an observation on this subject: “I hope whoever came up with the clever, gimmicky tag word, ‘SmartBoards,’ got a big sales commission. Some educational benefit does exist around these technological tools, but this investment (sold as part of the Red Plan,) was an over-hyped sales job that cost us $8 million. Several people more knowledgeable about technology than I am have told me SmartBoards are old technology, already obsolete. It’s quite possible they’ll all be in garbage dumpsters within a decade.”

“SmartBoards were a hot item” during the Red Plan sales job, member Johnston pointed out. “There were lots of comments about how we needed SmartBoards…I think we spent $8 million as part of the long-range facilities plan on SmartBoards. It was questioned at the time about whether or not that was a wise investment…We invested in cutting edge technology, and now we don’t need it anymore?”

The Director of Curriculum and Instruction replied: “Someone told me a couple of months ago that SmartBoards were a new technology in 1996. That’s when they came online; maybe a little before. So we’re talking about twenty-year-old technology, which in the sphere of technology, is ancient.” 
Those of us who opposed the Red Plan dubbed this huge technological investment “not-so-SmartBoards” being hustled to a “not-so-Smart Board.” 
With another election on the horizon, I advise everyone in Duluth to finally take a close look at which power clique has been making all the not-so-smart decisions, and when you do--please don’t shoot the messenger!