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The DFL Positivity Posse takes over the school board with a super-majority in January. One more Board meeting, right before Christmas, will deal with reality. The district’s annual audit will be reviewed during that meeting and we’ll all supposedly learn how the last two million dollars in ISD 709’s once-overflowing $30 million rainy-day fund vanished.
This article covers the meeting that dealt with some reality in November.
School Board meeting, 11/21/17
I find myself in such a predicament these days. I’ve worked in union shops and I generally support unions. Unions lifted this country out of a gritty, dark period where workers were valued less than the machinery used by the great captains of industry. Chicago was one of the hotbeds of labor unrest. On Memorial Day, 1937, hundreds of union sympathizers gathered at the Chicago headquarters of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.
As the crowd began to move towards the Republic Steel mill, a line of policeman blocked its path. Arguments flared, and the police fired into the crowd. Ten people were killed; nine more permanently disabled. At least twenty-eight had grievous head injuries from being viciously clubbed. Dorothy Day, who was present, recorded the incident this way: “On Memorial Day, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. 50 people were shot, of which 10 later died. 100 others were beaten with clubs.” The Press called it a “Red Riot.” The union hall of the United Steelworkers now sits on the site, as well as a memorial to the ten who died.
What those working-class people did, eighty years ago, took pure courage. Jimmy Hoffa and other unsavory labor histories aside, I will always have respect for unions. During the decade-long, anti-RED riot in Duluth, I was marked as unfriendly towards the unions, but I don’t hate the unions or (for that matter) the unions’ lovely bride: the DFL.
Whenever I step into the Old Central administration building and find the president of the Area Labor Federation, Alan Netland, hanging around the boardroom these days, however, I get nervous. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, as the DFL has taken over our town, the unions have also gotten more and more aggressive about asserting political pressure.
In a comment posted to the blog, A patient cycle, Claire Kirch, wife of City Council President, Joel Sipress, complained about all the “firepower summoned by the kingmakers,” during the last election, the union “power brokers,” like CLB and NEALC and AFSCME.
Mr. Netland was present to support the paraprofessional staff employed by district 709, who are represented by AFSCME Council 5, Local 66. A number of the paras were present as well, all dressed in bright green shirts that stood out quite distinctly in the front row of the audience. They were in attendance to show the Board that they want more compensation and respect for their work. My problem with their demands is the same problem I have with all the demands being put on the federal government: our debt meter is spinning so fast, it’s a blur. We’re BROKE!
Nobody in the entire power establishment of Duluth wants to deal with the reality of ISD 709’s budget. After the last election our watchdog paper, the Duluth News Tribune, praised the fact that the DFL power clique, which has presided as Board majority over this fiscal slide, now will have a super-majority: “voters picked a positive fresh start for the Duluth School Board, rejecting doomsday trumpeting,” and making certain, with this paper’s help, that Happy Talk continues to reign!
Let me trumpet a reality: our school district’s reserve fund is gone! It’s plummeted from $30,151,202 when Dixon came to town twelve years ago, to an estimated $111,000 today — a staggering erosion of the district’s fiscal stability. From enough money to cover three months of operations, the reserve has evaporated to less than a day’s worth.
The firm that conducts the annual audit has repeatedly warned the Board that 8% of General Fund unrestricted expenditures — about a month’s worth — is considered minimally adequate as a backup to operations. Board policy 3017 requires a minimal reserve balance of 10% of General Fund expenditures--which the auditor calculated last year as $9,456,451.
Rosie Loeffler-Kemp is currently Chair of the Education Committee. Often, when she gives her report, I plug my ears. I’ve found that, even with my ears plugged, I can still hear every word she speaks. The transmitting power of member L.-K.’s halting, alto voice is absolutely amazing. I think I could pick it up through a 3-foot thick wall. It pierces through my fingertips like the persistent “ping-ping” of a black box buried a mile under the ocean. Come January, Loeffler-Kemp’s voice will dominate the boardroom, overflowing it with her own patented brand of aggressive happy-talk.
The ship has disappeared under the waves of the ocean, but the “ping-ping” of DFL happy-talk keeps bubbling up to the surface. Can’t we somehow just skip December? I can’t wait to get to January! Over the past four years, I’ve tried to count how many times Rosie L.-K. has thanked administration and visiting consultant experts and told them how “appreciative” she was during meetings.
I’ve lost count every time.
“It’s always exciting to hear the many different things that are going on…” She started out her report this evening with a sampling of the kind of booster talk we’re going to hear a lot of, come January: “I’ve had the opportunity to get out to a lot of events, and just appreciate the talent that we have across our district. So, I was appreciative…” and, furthermore, “I just want to really thank the staff that are meeting to put together throughout the year this record of continuous improvement…”
Being appreciative is a good thing, of course. As our paper of record (which has dispensed so much wisdom for so many years now) informed us: it’s those nasty doomsday trumpeters (so unappreciative of the wondrous RED vision the Trib heavily promoted,) who have been the dead weight dragging the ship down. For eight years, now — tenaciously, relentlessly — Art Johnston, aka, the Lone Ranger, has been one of the most vocal purveyors of doom and gloom (more accurately referred to as: reality.)
The Lone Ranger and his fellow doomsday trumpeters, as they have so often over the years, brought a few sticky subjects to the fore during the HR and Business Committee Reports, but no discussion followed the Education Committee Report during this meeting. Chair Loeffler-Kemp’s report passed 7-0 and all her happy talk rested unmolested.
The primary discussion point around the HR report amounted to a very interesting reversal of roles. Usually, the DFL-endorsed majority members are eager to wield the rubberstamp, authorizing more expenditure of taxpayer money, and the non-DFL-endorsed minority members are trying to put the brakes on.
One of the reasons I’ve been so focused on our public school district all these years is because I’ve found the organization and its lack of oversight to be a microcosm of everything plaguing our country: divided, special-interest politics and bumbling government officials, reckless spending, undue corporate influence and systemic failures of check-and-balance — including an increasingly ineffective mainstream media-model.
Add to that list: the gap between CEOs at the top of the wealth pyramids and the rest of us, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. It would take twelve full-time minimum wage workers to bring home the gross pay Superintendent Gronseth and his spouse (also a district employee) draw annually from ISD 709. (That is not counting a gold-plated benefit package and all the money paid by taxpayers so that Mr. Gronseth can put a DR. in front of his name and make himself more valuable in the educational marketplace.)
The Red Plan was supposed to save Administrative costs. Just shy of a million dollars — $938,000, revised upward in 2008 and inflated at 3% — was supposed to be saved annually in Principal/Assistant Principal positions alone. Administrative positions were not, however, cut back as much as originally projected. In January/2015, district CFO, Bill Hanson, explained the situation this way: “Now, in some cases, as a result of budget discussions, we have added back (administrative) positions…either an Assistant Principal or a Dean of Students or other people like that.”
Staff requirements calculated for the buildings constructed under the Red Plan, in other words, were inaccurate. Administrators soon began to realize they needed more help to maintain the big, unruly schools they’d created. Administrative costs across the board have not dropped, despite all the Red Plan’s disruption and expense. Total actual administrative payroll expense for all Administrative departments jumped from $2,952,361 in 2006, the year Dixon came to town, to $5,000,728 in 2015, a 41% increase, not including benefits. The nine top district administrators drew $1,179,418 from ISD 709 in fiscal year 2015. That figure, which has almost certainly increased, equates to about 60 minimum-wage earners working full-time.
“What I care about,” Board member Oswald told her colleagues during discussion of the plight of minimum wage workers in ISD 709, “is that these employees…such as playground monitors and parent-involvement coordinators and other vitally important people in the district — (who) for years remain in those jobs because they love them--deserve a yearly raise, just like every other employee.”
Member O. proposed a motion, “and the motion is to provide a raise equal to the (percentage) raise given teachers each year, for all hourly non-substitute employees remaining in the same hourly position they held the prior year.”
Interestingly, Superintendent Gronseth, who has personally drawn well over a million dollars of gross pay out of ISD 709 during his tenure, calculated out this raise to amount to about 19 cents an hour, which he added up-- based on about an average of 14 hours a week--to be about $267 a year.
The DFL-endorsed majority hung tough and said the “timing” wasn’t right for this extravagant largess (It’s Christmastime, and Johnson Controls’ CEO is due his bonus, after all.)
“We’ve been hearing for four years that the timing is not right.” The Lone Ranger complained.
Our school district’s wasteful ways has made me a fiscal hawk, but the Board just approved more than a million and a half dollars a year for pay and benefit increases in the teachers’ contract. No trickle-down? In the end, member Sandstad agreed with the Board’s minority members to continue the discussion next month, and a motion to table it passed: 4-3.
Oblivious to the fact that he will shortly be ungraciously removed from his Board seat, member Johnston dove into the district’s business again during this meeting, first bringing up, as he has nearly every monthly meeting for 8 years — or about the ninetieth time — the district’s APU (enrollment) number:
“It’s good that we’ve had a slight increase in our overall enrollment number, but there are some trends that I continue to see as disturbing — particularly for West Duluth. The increase in enrollment has predominantly occurred in the eastern schools…My concern of course, as the West Duluth representative, is that — though we’ve had some increases in our schools overall — some western schools have not seen that…”
The western schools remain uncompetitive in the educational marketplace, but come January you will no longer hear another word about it.
The Lone Ranger also brought up some changes made to the district’s data practices policies. He said he was hopeful the district had turned over a new leaf with the hire of a new CEO, Doug Hasler. He pointed out that the first public information he and member Welty put in back in March was responded to within two days. “And I was very thankful that information was provided,” he said, before pointing out that all his other requests “have never been responded to…I don’t get answers from anybody. The Minnesota Data Practices Act is Minnesota Law, applicable law everybody follows…except this school district.”
“I don’t know what I find more disturbing,” member Oswald observed, “the fact that Freedom of Information requests are going unanswered, or the fact that a school board member has to put a request in, in the first place.”
I have witnessed many disturbing things in the boardroom of ISD 709. At least the place was tipped right-side up again, when all four DFL-endorsed majority members voted to approve a monetary increase in compensation due to another expert consultant, and all three non-DFL-endorsed minority members voted “no.” Member Sandstad was the only DFLer, as usual, to show any reservation about wielding the rubberstamp: “I am going to vote for this tonight, but with hesitation, and that is based on the fact that it (the project) did take longer than anticipated…but given the fact that there was extra work put into the efforts based on unknown circumstances, I am going to vote in support of this change order — but…we learn from our mistakes.”
The hardest lesson from this Board’s mistakes has been repeatedly learned by the taxpayers.
Board member Welty voiced the minority objection this way: “I may, in a very small way, be able to help the difficult work of the new school board, which will face considerable financial difficulties. This is not something we have to pay. I think the Duluth school district has an opportunity to chop off an unnecessary expense.”
No chopping occurred, but the taxpayers were nicked another $12,475 for a project of nearly a million dollars, to remove rubber mulch from district playgrounds--an expense they had absolutely no obligation to pay the company under contract.
The Board also, during this meeting, voted to run up more debt with two more bond sales, totaling $4,255,000.
The taxpayers will have to pay a higher interest rate because the district’s bond rating was just downgraded below sub-prime, “which, in general vernacular, is considered junk bond,” the Lone Ranger informed everyone in the boardroom, before listing all the reasons for the downgrade: “
(1) declining enrollment
(2) budget deficits
(3) reduced reserve
(4) debts paid by annual appropriation from the General Fund
(5) lack of near-term plans to improve our financial position.”
The tragic result of all this fiscal mismanagement is that so little of our tax money is making its way into actual education. At the start of the meeting, a teacher from Myers-Wilkins Elementary stepped up to the podium and said: “We are drowning in the needs of our students. Our kids’ classrooms need more trained grownups, more teachers or paras, more therapists, more social workers. Without this, this district is choosing to burn out amazing teachers…”
Hold on, don’t despair! The Positive Posse is on the way! All these needs, all these problems, all this reality will disappear with one wave of the magic happy-talk wand in January.