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I attended the forum sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune and the Chamber of Commerce on 10/13/17. Answers by school board candidates to three of the forum’s questions are covered in this article, along with some editorializing and fact-checking. I also take a crack at a question or two myself, as a former candidate.
One further note: 1st district incumbent school board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp did not attend this forum.
As a school board member, who would you feel more obligated to represent: district residents or district administration’s recommendations?
Jill Lofald: “I think that my first responsibility is to advocate for our students, advocate for what they do in the classrooms…Our first job as a school board is to make sure all of our children succeed. So my focus is going to be as an advocate and make sure I’m speaking for the children…”
Art Johnston: “That’s an extremely easy question. We, the school board, are a conduit for the community, to the school district. That is our function…And I want to add one more thing: school board members do not represent the DFL. I represent west Duluth; that’s who elected me, not the DFL.”
Kurt Kuehn: “Like Jill said, primarily the students, but I think that’s best done by looking out for the best interests of my friends and neighbors, the taxpayers. They’re the ones whose money we’re spending, and it’s respectful of us to let them know where and how that money’s being spent. That’s not being done very well right now. The community is not really being respected very well by the Board, because you have a majority that is in lockstep with administration.”
Sally Trnka: “Working with district residents is absolutely a top priority of mine. I’ve been the last number of months door knocking and phone banking and talking to parents and families and engaging citizens in Duluth whether or not they have children in the district, to bring together our community in ways to allow them to feel they have a stake in the game, in ways that allow them to feel hopeful about contributions that they’re able to make, thanks to our Duluth public schools. Certainly the school board needs to work with administration, but I report to Boards professionally, and so I know what that balance looks like, but ultimately we really need to be working with our community members.”
Harry Welty: “Dana Krivogorsky mentioned the issue of trust (during a prior question.) That’s critical to getting anything accomplished. I am elected by the voters, and that is my responsibility. And while we want to help Administration, which is just as understaffed as our teachers are, I have to do my very best to satisfy the public that I’m overseeing management in an intelligent way.”
Josh Gorham: “Absolutely--the district residents, first and foremost. They’re the folks who elect you to office…Now, let me be very clear on that: if I were interviewing for a job in a management position where I’m supervising employees, I’m a servant leader…While my allegiance lies with the community and the needs of the community, we have to balance that with supporting Administration…We should be working with Administration, to understand their needs…”
Dana Krivogorsky: “This is an elected position, so absolutely my obligations lay with the voters. The job of the school board members--it may come as a surprise to some of you--there’s one job: you oversee the work of the Superintendent, and represent the community, your constituents, in that setting…I’m not obligated to any special interest groups, and will absolutely be representing my constituents first.”
This was a good question because the Red Plan actually created an atmosphere (still persistent) where the public’s interest often appears opposed to the interest of district administration, with the Board majority siding with administration. Subsequently we’ve often been left with, in effect, a public board at war with the public. One of the most freighted responses to the question was Art Johnston’s comment concerning the DFL. Candidate Johnston evidently wanted to make it crystal clear that he is not in the pocket of the DFL party/union machine. Whether or not the DFL-endorsed members should continue to dominate as the majority vote in the boardroom has become a very intense subtext debate of this campaign.
Mr. Gorham also caught my ear. The young Mr. Gorham knows next to nothing about what has transpired in this town, but I supposed we shouldn’t hold that against him. He was still in his early twenties when Keith Dixon first appeared in 2005. The Great Mastermind of the Red Plan used the same flowery phrase Mr. Gorham is using in every forum, to describe himself. In a 6/19/11 article, the News Tribune quotes Dixon calling himself a “servant leader.” If I were candidate Gorham, I wouldn’t want to be stumping around Duluth, mimicking Keith Dixon. When he comes to Mr. Dixon’s leadership qualities, I suspect some of my fellow citizens could come up with at least one descriptive adjective, other than “servant,” that starts with the letter “S.”
“Would you support selling the former Central High School and other empty district properties to any buyer, even other educational entities. In other words, do you support upholding the district’s policy on not selling to competitors?”
Art Johnston: “My position is very clear on this…We, as representatives of the community, should do what best serves the children, the future leaders of this town. If that’s to sell to Edison Charter, we should have done it. $14.2 million, we could have gotten.”
Kurt Kuehn: “I don’t think we have much choice, given the state of our finances. It’s unfortunate that the Board majority chose not to even consider almost $20 million for all the offers on vacant schools that we got last year. We need the money. As far as selling it to a developer or someone like that--every time that happens there are so many tax breaks that it never comes back off our property taxes. It’s disingenuous to suggest that that’s a good way for us to go…”
Jill Lofald: “I want to put a question to the business people who are sitting in our audience: say you own your own dentist’s shop, and you have a building, and you’re in your one dentist’s office, and you have space in your building that you’re looking to rent out--do you really rent that space to a competing dentist that then takes potential patients away from you?”
Harry Welty: “That policy was passed after we’d sold about 5 schools to competitors, about 24 years ago. I think that policy is counterproductive, and as a consequence, our school board passed up $14.2 million desperately needed, when it refused to sell Central. I would point out that, though I was one of the voters, I need to be in the majority…”
Josh Gorham: “I believe that when we’re considering selling to other educational entities, we also weigh that against who we might also be selling to. And, really, with our facilities here, there are opportunities to meet the greater needs of our community…The property can help meet the needs of people in our community who are struggling to find housing, and it can also grow our tax base…You have to consider not just the short-term outcomes of a sale…but how is that going to pay off in the future?”
Dana Krivogorsky: “As Harry said, ‘Sell it.’ We cannot afford to maintain it. As the head of a household, if you had a vacant property that you could not afford to maintain, you would try to sell it as soon as possible. We are a community, we are a family--it’s the same kind of approach, the same kind of commonsense goes for me. We cannot afford to wait for the golden opportunity, the golden buyer to offer us more than we were offered before. Right now, Central has windows broken out of it, so we absolutely need to move that property as soon as possible to the highest bidder.”
Sally Trnka: “This is a really controversial issue in our community, and as somebody who graduated from Central High School, I certainly am sad when I see boarded-up windows and broken-out windows, as well. I think we really need to think about this from the community’s standpoint: how do we as a school board, as a city council, with county commissioners, with citizen leaders like yourselves, with State leaders, to develop an economically viable solution.”
The three DFL-endorsed candidates who were present at this forum--Jill Lofald, Sally Trnka, Josh Gorham--will follow in the footsteps of their DFL-endorsed allies, who have held majority-control over the Board. Everything they said echoed exactly the arguments made by DFL-endorsed members for years. The one DFL-endorsed candidate who did not show up for the forum--Rosie Loeffler-Kemp--was one of the most aggressive Board members in opposition to the sale of Central. As for Mr. Gorham’s rhetorical question about a payoff in the future, the future is here. The property has been sitting vacant for six and a half years. By the district’s own conservative estimate our community has now thrown away well over a million dollars for utilities, maintenance, vandalism repair and insurance.
It was also very clear from the responses to this question that candidates Kurt Kuehn, Art Johnston, Dana Krivogorsky and Harry Welty would all move quickly to sell the property to the highest bidder.
This is a hot-button issue in the election and I especially want to take a crack at the spin-off question Ms. Lofald asked, at the end of this article.
“Why does it always seem there is fiscal instability in the school districts? What can be done and what is being done about it, here, in Duluth?”
Art Johnston: “I remember I was sitting here 8 years ago, and 4 years ago, and people were saying the Red Plan--we’re only going to have to pay for half of it. I was here; it was in this forum. People believed that. What happened? We’re now pulling $3.4 million a year out of the General Fund to pay for those debts. We are the only school district in Minnesota that robs from the General Fund to pay for our building debt…That is wrong; and we have to change it…It took years for the Superintendent to acknowledge it, and he has nothing to change it, yet…That’s why we have deficits year after year after year.”
Kurt Kuehn: “I have to agree with Art. It’s hard for Boards who don’t have a background in these things to fully understand the complexity of contracts and a budget…but we can’t continue to take money out of the General Fund, out of the classrooms, to pay for buildings. There has to be a better way to do this, and that starts with a new Board and new ideas.”
Jill Lofald: “Well, I can guarantee you that this is not my strength that I’m going to bring to the school board, but I’m hardworking and a smart woman…Fiscal responsibility I feel happens because our State and the Federal Government does not give education the dollars that it takes to educate our population…We need more support, more money.”
Sally Trnka: “Yeah--you’ve heard all of us talk about how fiscal responsibility is something we’ve pledged to work on, if elected or reelected to the Board. I think part of it comes down to that we don’t have clear financial metrics that are clearly communicated to constituents and to the district, and if elected that is something I will pledge to push for immediately. I’ve joked that if elected, I think we all need to lock ourselves in a cabin somewhere until we figure out our financial metrics and also figure out how to set and most effectively, transparently and honestly communicate it to members of the district.”
Harry Welty: “I think we have a pretty good handle on the fiscal problems that we face. Bear in mind that you cannot go anywhere in the State of Minnesota and find a school board that doesn’t believe that they need more money, but it’s different for Duluth. Even when I was on the Board 20 years ago, we complained that we needed more money--but, frankly, that was the ‘golden age,’ back then. We put $14 million of our locally raised dollars into the classrooms, into operations, 20 years ago, in 1997. Today, in 2017...even though our taxes have gone up, we now only spend $2.5 million in the classrooms, $11 million less.”
Josh Gorham: “I think a variety of factors are contributing to the fiscal instability. We did invest in new buildings in our community, and my understanding is…that we rolled the candlestick down the road for so long that we were left with no choice.” (I believe this sentence is accurately transcribed; I replayed the audio 6 times.) “I can’t speak to the process,” Gorham continued, “I wasn’t necessarily here for all of it, and it could have been better, but I think that’s where we’re hearing a lot of things. Here’s the reality, though, and I think it comes back to local leaders--we need to be honest and transparent with our community. Sometimes that’s telling the hard story, but we have to be honest, especially at this time of day. Over 80% of our school district budget is spent in the classroom and on student support, only 11% is spent on debt…”
Dana Krivogorsky: “I’m going to take a couple of seconds to counter: I don’t think it’s 80% spent in the classrooms, and I’d really like to see the data. It’s much less. But to the point: financial instability. I’d like to lock ourselves in a cabin, but we need to know what we’re looking for. Going back to transparency…This is a job that we’re going to do 100% in the public eye and the public should be involved and the public should know what’s going on. I think the instability comes from the distrust and the not knowing. When you don’t know, you’re kind of scared of that and you act accordingly. If we’re absolutely honest with the public--where we spend the money, where the decisions are coming from--that would help tremendously…”
Listening to the responses, I also questioned Josh Gorham’s data. He seemed to be trying to call out Mr. Welty, who was making a point about where levy money is going. To come up with his 80% figure, Mr. Gorham appeared to counting employee benefits and payroll expense as money going into classrooms--a disputable calculation, especially in an organization suffering from chronic deficits. The payroll and benefit increases recently handed out to the teachers’ union (over a million and half dollars, in the fourth year) will in fact likely force more classroom cuts.
I also didn’t understand Mr. Gorham’s verbal buildup to his statistics, all the talk about “reality” and “telling the hard story” and being “honest.” I assume he wasn’t suggesting classroom expenditure is a fat plum that needs more trimming, but it sounded that way.
As to Jill Lofald’s question about whether or not I’d rent out some extra space in my dental office to another dentist: of course I would. If some corporate hustler had scammed me into believing a big aquatics center (that was supposed to be half free from “savings”) added onto my office would lure more people with toothaches into my dentist chair, and the whole hare-brained scheme had gone south and left me broke--of course I would! I sure wouldn’t let my business hobble along broke for going on a decade, losing patients because I couldn’t afford enough novocaine. I’d take my competitor’s money, get back on my feet and drill so many teeth I’d drive him out of my place again.
Unless…we’d found we worked well together and had decided to form a lucrative partnership.