Searching for the bright spots

by Loren Martell

Duluth Central/Administration Building. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Duluth Central/Administration Building. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

Board meeting, 6/20/17

There were eleven public speakers this evening, but I’m only going to highlight the topic discussed by eight of them. This topic wasn’t even on the meeting’s agenda, but has been a very hot issue in the schools as of late. The decision by administrative staff to move some principals around in the elementary schools caused a ruckus. Things quieted down on the eastern end of town, where everyone got what they wanted, The fact that a western school was left holding the short end of the stick, however, remains very contentious.

The subject was first broached by Bernie Burnham, Duluth teachers’ union president, who gave everyone a lecture about quieting down and getting in line. The next citizen to address the issue from the podium was Brad Bennett. Mr. Bennett is a popular local AM radio host, who used to serve on the Board. He informed everyone that this evening was the first time he’d stepped foot in the boardroom since his bygone days as a public representative. Like many other speakers, he’d shown up to lobby against the district’s decision to move a beloved Principal — Nathan Glockle — out of his long-held position at Laura MacArthur Elementary school.

“During a 12-year period, I had the pleasure--no! the honor!--of representing the west side of Duluth on this school board.” Mr. Bennett declared. He pointed out that all six of his children also “had the pleasure of going through Laura MacArthur elementary school…The school was much larger than it is now, but (the Principal) knew almost everybody by first name. He kept tight control over what was going on, there. During that 12-year period and since then, even today, the student makeup of MacArthur elementary is probably as diverse as any you have in the district. They have great needs, out there…”

Mr. Bennett pointed out that those needs nearly overwhelmed the school about four of five years ago. “It really had some issues. The school was performing very poorly. Under the direction of their current Principal — Mr. Glockle — they’ve turned around. The school is now achieving some very good numbers. And I don’t--for the life of me--know why you would change the course of the leadership in that school, now…I’ve talked to Mr. Glockle; he wants to stay. The majority of the parents want him to stay. He’s doing a very credible job…I felt it important enough to be here today, to say for the parents and children from the west side of town —give them a chance to achieve!…A lot of kids at Laura Mac are looking for the direction that Principal has been giving.”

I wish I had space to cover all the speakers on this subject, so I could give a full sampling of the mood. I can only quote one more person: Leonard Johnson, a parent with three children in Laura MacArthur.
Mr. Johnson told the Board he and his wife chose to send their kids to Laura Mac “specifically because of Nathan Glockle — his leadership, his guidance, and seeing how he’s so involved in all the children’s lives.” Mr. Johnson stated that the success of the school is not just tied to Mr. Glockle, “but he did build a team of teachers that support the system that he put in place…I’m here as a taxpayer and as a parent, and I believe in the education that is going on at Laura MacArthur.”

Mr. Johnson informed the Board that he’s made his livelihood as a businessman for 21 years. Viewing the matter from this vantage of experience, he said he had trouble deciphering the logic of moving this particular Principal. “If someone left a position over here, and someone said, ‘We’re just going to rip someone out (from where he is) and move him over there,’ I’d question that. I’m questioning it, now. It makes no sense to me. There seems to be other motivations I don’t know about. Mr. Superintendent, I ask that you keep our Principal there--at Laura MacArthur —and allow him to continue his great success.”

During the Business Committee report, board member Johnston expressed similar sentiments. He pointed out that a few meetings back, the Board discussion centered around “the possibility of moving three elementary school principals--from Lakewood school, Homecroft and Laura Mac. Then,” he added, “during the next discussion we had on this, the Superintendent announced the Homecroft and Lakewood (principals) were not going to be moved anymore. Only the Laura Mac (Principal) was going to be moved.” The original discussion resulted in “a firestorm,” he said. “It actually was a firestorm. Now, (by moving one Principal and not the others) we have an additional firestorm. We’ve heard from the people, the concerned parents (tonight.)”

“Excuse me — ” Chair Kirby interrupted, “can we--are you relating this to the budget (discussion)?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“I think it is really important to look at the reasons that were given for this move.” The generally unstoppable Mr. Johnston continued. “On the budget, the reason was to save money, apparently. That (concern) apparently went away. In addition to saving money, administration indicated that it was appropriate to move the Principal from Laura Mac--Mr. Glockle, who is very capable--to Stowe…Part of the plan was to (then) move the Principal from Homecroft to Laura Mac.” Member Johnston argued that “suddenly, a few weeks ago, that part of the plan (the transfer of a Principal from an eastern school, to a western school) was dropped.”

Johnston described Mr. Glockle as a “tried and true Principal” at Laura Mac Elementary. “I’ve talked to the Superintendent about this,” he told the audience, “and I feel it’s sad that Homecroft and Lakewood (parents) were listened to, and and Laura Mac parents were not. Laura Mac is one of my schools (in the 4th district,) and I look at this as a political move by the Superintendent, to again diminish (the concerns) of the western schools.” He pointed out that one of the public speakers on the issue was the president of Laura MacArthur’s PTA, “and she was also one of the people who recommended that we not renew the Superintendent’s contract.”

Further endearing himself to administrative staff, especially Superintendent G., member Johnston maintained that the welfare of students and parents of Laura Mac should be more important than “what appears to have happened, here.” He then concluded his remarks by echoing the crux of the complaint voiced in one fashion or other by most of the public speakers: “Lakewood and Homecroft elementary schools (in the east) can get their way, but Laura Mac (in the west) can’t. That’s just not right. Period.”

Many citizens in the central and western parts of the city believe the east end always gets special consideration. The perception is that district 709 only lowers the hammer and makes “tough” decisions when those decisions involve the less affluent and less powerful people in the central hillside and west. The decision to move a Principal solely from a western school was clearly going to be tainted with all this baggage. Just watching the ruckus made me question whether or not the move was worth pouring more salt into an old wound.

      
The union strikes a bargain

A good teacher gets a free pass into heaven, no questions asked. Teachers have a special gallery roped off beyond the pearly gates, where classes sit in straight rows, on cloud-cushioned desks. Every student is so smart and good, the now-canonized, saintly teachers get to hand out nothing but “A”s for all of eternity.

I would love to pay teachers as much as we pay doctors and much more than we pay lawyers. I wish I could mimic board member Harala and support, “very much and proudly,” the new teachers’ contract. I believe, however, in living within your means.
The bravest person in the boardroom this evening, by a long shot, was Harry Welty. Particularly considering the fact that he is facing reelection, board member Welty was a tower of courage. The DFL/Labor dynasty that dominates Duluth will have a target on Mr. Welty’s back for the stand he took this evening.

“It’s important to make a couple of points that we, as a community, need to understand.” The lone, brave truth-speaker began, during discussion of the new teachers’ contract: “I’m going to begin by reading a statement I was heartened by. It was referred to by a teacher, Ms. Nachbar, earlier (during the public comment period) about reaching the ‘whole child.’ Mr. Welty described the statement as “a student-centered advocacy that our teachers wish to have,” and told the audience the statement had been read by the teachers’ representative before negotiating the union/management agreement.

Transcribing the statement (and Mr. Welty’s comments in regard to it,) filled up four hand-written pages. I can only lay out a few highlights of this soaring rhetoric, and will have to paraphrase the rest:
The statement described ISD 709 as “a system (that values) providing the right tools and curriculum to maximize each child’s potential, which is key to helping each student be independent, life-long learners.” It praised our public school district as a place that values “safe, welcoming environments, where the uniqueness of each person is honored, respected and valued--recognizing that we all come from many different circumstances and cultures.” It asserted that Duluth public school teachers, “as a federation, agree that educating the ‘whole child’ requires a balance of academic and social-emotional growth for each student.”

The primary focus of the overall statement was on the “social-emotional” aspect of helping students achieve, which apparently is becoming a bigger challenge. “District staff,” member Welty continued reading to the audience, “working closest to students, are seeing an increase in the number and severity of student anxiety and mental health support needs. Recent reports of 15-20% chronic absenteeism can be aligned to students’ connectedness to their teachers, fellow students and school. Graduation rates and academic success is also impacted by the social-emotional learning needs of our students.”

The statement contained suggestions for dealing with this need, including the establishment of district-wide “benchmarks” in various grade levels for measuring progress for social-emotional learning. It also emphasized the need for school environments that engender “positive relationships and engagements that help children feel safe and minimize disruption.” The main point the teachers wanted to make was expressed this way: “To that end, the district and the federation (of teachers) are committed to promoting practices that support postitive relationships and strengthens school climate, minimizes interuptions to student learning, maintaining and increasing mental help providers--i.e., counselors, social workers, school psychologists--throughout the school district in all school buildings.” The audience was told, through member Welty’s narration, that doing this “must be a priority. Educating the ‘whole child’ requires the presence of a variety of skilled, licensed professionals…”

After reading this lengthy proclamation, Mr. Welty looked up and said with heartfelt enthusiasm: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you when I heard this statement, it made my heart soar! That is exactly what we need…and I believe that our teachers desperately want us to be able to offer children all of the things that this statement (outlines,) things that are required to take care of students the way we want to…”

This is where the bravest soul in the room got to his point. The agreement reached with the teachers’ union is actually two, two-year contracts. Member Welty pointed out that the first contract left the district “a little wriggle room in the first year, and maybe a little in the second, (but) the second two-year contract is a crap shoot…I know what our finances are likely to be…There is no question that I would like to pay our teachers more than we currently do because they are important to our community, but it my sense that the finances of our district are such that these (raises) will make doing the student-centered advocacy more difficult, because it will make it difficult--if not impossible--to hire additional staff…as our finances get strained in future years. I will respectfully vote against the contracts for that reason, if only to make the point that our finances are going to be tough.”

The actual cost-out of the two back-to-back teachers’ contracts approved 6-1 by the Board is projected to be a dollar increase of $530,700 in year 1; $745,700 in year 2; $868,200 in year 3; $903,600 in year 4. The projected cost of benefits for each year is: $16,139,187 in year 1; $16,696,948 in year 2; $17,315,385 in year 3; $17,965,907 in year 4. (Benefit costs may very well be higher than these estimates.)

The teachers’ contract is the base contract, which means all district union bargaining units will get comparable increases. I don’t yet have the full cost-out for the entire district, but for comparison, the full projected benefit cost for fiscal year ‘17 was $25,942,088.56. The last actual full salary cost I have (from 2016) was $59,606,000. Both obviously add up to over $85 million and will now increase.

These costs are unsustainable in a district that has lost nearly a quarter of its enrollment over the past decade and is still pulling millions out of its budget to pay for swimming pools. Once again, none of the increased funding from the State will make it into the classrooms. It will be impossible to hire all the “licensed, skilled professionals” the teachers want, and only one Board member had the courage to speak the truth.

 
Another protest vote; another resolution

The two other minority Board members appeared to be saving their strength to make other points during the meeting. Alanna Oswald cast the sole vote against the overall budget. She preceded her vote by saying she’d looked over her own campaign literature, earlier that day. She read some of what she’d written as a school board candidate, to the audience: “Our district must provide what families want. There is a lack of equal opportunity for all students from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, low income and special ed. Denfeld and Lincoln Park schools have low enrollment and less opportunity, while eastern schools are overcrowded.”

In a serious, soft-spoken tone, Member O. told the audience: “It’s almost two years now, that I’ve been on the Board, and this budget doesn’t support those objectives in the ways I had hoped. Equity is still far from a reality in our district.” She outlined in detail the under-funding of district facilities and departments. She said she’s still finding herself having to “talk about every single priority I ran my campaign on…and I don’t know how it’s getting any better. I don’t think this budget makes things a lot better. There’s not a lot of bright spots in it. We’re doing what we have to do, not what we want to do. And that’s why I’m going to vote against this budget, with full recognition…that there weren’t a lot of other choices to be made.”

Her vote was a protest gesture, Member O. clearly indicated. She said she wanted to make certain “these priorities of mine, and the voices that I bring to the table, are being recognized.” She added that her constituents “don’t believe in what we’re doing in this budget. And so, my vote is for them, because they’re my bosses.”

Member Johnston managed to get a resolution passed that offers some dim hope. Watered down with vague language to sway a majority vote, it directs administration to search for ways to put the brakes on withdrawing a projected $45 million more out of classrooms over the next 15 years, to pay for Red Plan construction.

The Red Plan left the school district’s finances a swamp, but just look at the bright spots. Our teachers will be paid well for another four years and we do have those nice, big chlorinated pools!