Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

The school board is supposed to be the public’s advocate in the arena, not a rubberstamping machine for Administration’s wishes.

School Board Business Committee meeting: 4/9/18

Sitting through meetings over the past few years, I’ve often questioned how much attention Board members are paying to what Administration is handing them, as it “revises” every policy in the book--deleting scores of them, drastically altering others. During last month’s Business Committee, only Alanna Oswald picked up language that required the district to publish minutes of meetings in the local paper.

Board policy 108--the new data practice policy--is on the way to becoming the law of the land, and member O. has been asking several relevant questions about this policy as well. Last month she pointed out that parts of it were contradictory, and raised several other concerns about its alignment with the State of Minnesota Data Practices Act.

During this meeting, district CFO Doug Hasler told the Board that the new policy “represents, effectively, the model language suggested by the Minnesota Dept. of Administration, which oversees, on a Statewide basis, the government Data Practices Act,” including just a few “edits” on his part.
To assert that the Dept. of Administration oversees data practice across the State isn’t quite accurate. The department’s Data Practice Office (formerly known as IPAD, or the Information Policy Analysis Division) issues advisory opinions and functions more as a mediator of disputes.
The department did intercede on my behalf a few months ago, after I had waited five months with no response to a data request. I, and a number of other citizens who had been waiting for similar lengths of time, miraculously started receiving responses.

Unfortunately that incident also seems to have spurred the policy’s placement on Administration’s “revision” list. The Superintendent’s words during this meeting best expressed Administration’s motives in regard to this issue:
“There is a lot of conversation around the State and all around the country about data requests. The data requests are increasing in frequency and in size.” (Mr. G. measured out the enormous amount of data that’s being requested by holding up and spreading his hands wide, as though describing a trophy trout he’d caught in the big lake.)

“And so there’s been discussions of--” Our Super continued, exhibiting the typical syntax convulsions the public has had to wade through in the boardroom for years--hard to listen to, hard to transcribe, hard to read: “you know, what point is reasonable, as well, for expecting an organization to--I don’t know--to develop, really. We’ve--most of our data information requests have been very reasonable: reports that we have that are either already on the website, or that we have readily available. And we have requests that--ummmmm--require us to spend a year, that involve tens of thousands of pages.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I was waiting for Mr. G. to rise to his feet and extend his hand as high as he could, to give us a visual sense of the enormous stacks of paper involved in these alleged requests, but he just continued on:
“And so, I think a lot of people are struggling with--you know--how much is ok to ask for? Some people (who are not fans of nosy journalists and the public-at-large nagging us with so many questions) would like to see some restrictions put on--you know--that you could, say, be looking for a certain word or looking for certain phrases or certain topics, rather than just large, general things: I want every email from the district from the last three years, all of which would have to be redacted.”

Mr. G. verbally swayed back and forth, telling us on the one hand that “very large data requests” were an inordinate burden, yet on the other hand, most requests were “very reasonable.”
The public has a right to ask for more than a “certain word” or “certain phrases.” The law is called the DATA Practices Act, and stipulates that “all information in any form (written, computerized, on recording tape, microfilm, etc.) collected, created, received, maintained, or disseminated by government (with some exemptions for the State legislature and judiciary)” is public, and that all government data “must be kept in an arrangement and condition that makes them conveniently accessible.”

The trick is getting government organizations (or corporate behemoths like Johnson Controls) to cooperate with the law. The district’s new data practice policy will not help the situation. It is burdensome and restrictive, and will make it tougher to get an information response from ISD 709.
Things weren’t exactly rosy under the old policy. Some citizens, even Board members, were blacklisted and ignored. Leaving an information request languish in the bureaucratic ether for months and months without contacting the citizen AT ALL is not following the law.
Finally, as far as the increasing frequency and size of requests, can anyone guess why that might be happening, in the case of ISD 709? The place is a fiscal train wreck, and of course citizens want to know what the heck is going on. And they have a RIGHT to know. The district’s levy spiked $20 million in a dozen years. The organization has been blowing our money by the millions and is still so broke it had to cut millions more from operations just to keep from sliding into statutory operating debt status.

Mr. G. is unhappy about public information requests, most of which have apparently been “very reasonable?” He should be grateful the citizens of Duluth don’t have the power to appoint a special prosecutor who could direct the FBI to raid Old Central with a search warrant and a fistful of subpoenas.
The district’s reserve fund was $30,610,883 when Mr. G.’s mentor, Mr. D., stepped into town. Over the course of Dixon’s raucous, six-year reign, the fund dropped to $6,799,777. Now, six years later, the organization has no reserve AT ALL, and none of those millions went into the classrooms.
At the minimum, over the past dozen years, there has been a gross mishandling of public funds, and everyone should be submitting lengthy information requests.

Governing our government

The ongoing review and revision of Board policy, with so much responsibility in Administration’s hands, is a flawed process. Many alterations to policy were on the table at this meeting, some watered down to a ludicrous degree. Chair Kirby roused a big laugh in the boardroom by pointing out the phrase that outlines the Chair’s duties under Officer Responsibilities: in his role as top officer, the Chair “performs all duties the Chair usually performs.”

How’s that for vague brevity? Administration was obviously assuming we’ll never end up with a Chair who moonlights as a hangman.

Policy 8095, “Procedures During Meetings,” was also one of the policies on the chopping block. Chair Kirby pointed out that the following line was being deleted: “When questions arise, procedures (during meetings) shall be in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Member Lofald roused another laugh around the table with a remark made off-microphone, picked up on the recording: “Who thought policy wouldn’t be a sizzling part of our discussions, right?”

Turning on her microphone, Lofald asked a follow-up question: “Robert’s Rules is somewhere else (in our policies,) isn’t it?”

“It’s from (policy) 8095 that it’s struck.” The Chair responded.
Unaware, apparently, that Administration was recommending the erasure of language ensconcing Robert’s Rules as an ever-present backup for procedural disputes, Lofald asked: “We’re deleting it?” Chair Kirby confirmed that was the case and she added with a dawning tone of understanding: “Ahhhhhhhhhh…ok.”

Using the word “sizzling” to describe these conversations around Board policy actually is pretty funny in a pathetic sort of way.

Out of the sizzling, into the scorching

Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that Rockridge Elementary was one of the unsold Red Plan properties hanging like an albatross around the district’s neck for a number of years. The DFL Board majority refused to sell the school to Many Rivers Montessori, and instead opted to remodel the building and lease it to Woodland Hills Academy, which used to own district 709’s long-vacated Cobb school.

The Hills, as the organization is now called, turned around and sold Cobb school to Many Rivers Montessori, while our savvy Board raided district 709’s budget, as well as its maintenance fund, to fix up Rockridge. (It should be noted that this project is often referred to as a renovation, but it is more a remodel. Major of parts of the facility are still going to need repair or replacement in the near future.)

While doing the remodeling on Rockridge, district 709 ran out of money--a familiar problem for an organization with the fiscal wherewithal of a vagabond. The Hills agreed to cover the upgrade of the building’s water sprinkling system in return for a break on the lease arrangement.
“Ultimately,” CFO Hasler told the Board, “given our limitations under this project (having already raided millions from every conceivable part of our budget,) the Hills offered to pay for (new sprinkler heads.) So we are needing to incorporate that (expense) into the overall lease document…and address that cost over the life of the lease.”

A financial deal where ISD 709 comes out on the plus side is as rare as red diamond.
Mr. Hasler also informed the Board that the district’s health insurance cost would jump 4.5% next year. “In the big picture,” Mr. H. added, following boardroom form and trying to put some shiny lacquer on this news, “that’s not too bad.” He explained that insurance costs are skyrocketing everywhere--a bit of spin the Business Committee Chair, Sally Trnka, echoed:

“I will happily take 4.5%, which is way below industry standards! Especially in this day-and-age, with the skyrocketing cost of this stuff--that’s great!”
As usual, it was Board member Oswald who inquired what this increase represented in real dollars. She asked Mr. H. to “remind” her how much the district had budgeted in next year’s finances for increased healthcare costs.
“I believe the original projection I provided to you in January was tracking at about a $760,000 increase--so this is not that large.” The district’s top authority on all things money-related responded. “But the exact number that corresponds to the 4.5% increase isn’t coming back to me at the moment, but it’s going to be less than the $760,000 that was originally projected.”

Maybe in the big picture that expense is not too bad, but in the small picture it’s not too good for a broke school district that has been cutting millions from operations, with no backup reserve fund.
“Along those lines,” Chair Trnka said, piggybacking on member O’s question, “when can we expect to see some budget documents?”
I think it’s safe to assume the district’s top financial officer, CFO Hasler, did not have an exact gauge of the mess he was jumping into when you came here.
In response to Ms. Trnka’s question, he exhaled long and audibly, then asked: “What do you have in mind?” Almost immediately, apparently contrite for his impatience, he added: “I’m sorry.”
“As we’re moving along the budget discussion road (gripping our seats on every steep and perilous curve,) between now and June,” Chair Trnka replied, her tone a bit more timorous, “I’m just curious if you could give us some general updates.”
“I’d be happy to give you general updates.” Mr. Hasler managed to reply, his nose lengthening a bit from the fib. He explained that Administration was busy putting together staffing allocation sheets and getting all the school principals onboard, and this activity would put them on a “trajectory to finalize the final budget that will be brought to the Board (all gift-wrapped) in June.”

I got the sense that this might be the only budget “update,” general or otherwise, but we’ll see as we bump along the road.
The Facilities Manger, Dave Spooner, took the stage for a while and informed the Board that the roof project on Lakewood Elementary school “will be starting in early May, and that’s a good project to get done. It’s been deferred for a couple of years now, and that roof is in tough shape.”
The last estimate for the roof was $1.2 million, and everyone should be steamed that our school district is on the hook for this expense, after running up a half billion dollar bill on a “long-range” facilities project that was supposed to leave all of our schools “new or like-new.” As one of my readers observed in an email, however, passive Duluth is filled with “sheeple.”

The gym floor of Ordean East middle school will also be sanded down through what Mr. Spooner estimated to be about twenty-five coats of wax.
“It will be sanded down to raw wood and re-sanded, so it will look like new.” Mr. Spooner informed us. “There will be new gym curtains with East’s new logo, and the bleachers will be tuned up. It will be a nice gym when it’s done.”
We’re paying off Half a BILLION. Ordean East cost $29,915,312.08. Shouldn’t someone ask: why isn’t the gym already done?
Superintendent Gronseth next took the floor, to explain the strategy that will be employed to get the public to cough up more money in the near future. The first step is to get the Red Plan’s marketing firm to do some polling to see “how much (more) we are willing to invest in as a community.” The company will pass this information on to the Board, who will, in turn, announce its “ask” for a tax levy.

Super G. called the period between May and the election in November a time of “information-sharing,” with the community.

In regard to the Board’s legislative agenda with the State, Mr. G. pointed out that the “omnibus bill, in the House, was vetoed, so they still have some work to do,” prompting member Lofald to ask what “omnibus” means.
Hearing this question, I wanted to appoint myself the Board’s official Terminology Consultant, so I could dutifully inform the newly-elected fourth district representative that the prefix “omni” is short for “omnipotent,” and that an “omnibus” is one of the public transportation vehicles the gods ride around the universe.

Our Superintendent took the floor once more, to point out that he was hustling the State and County as hard as he could, to find “added resources to address the challenges” of selling the Central campus.
“We gotta sell those suckers!” Committee Chair Trnka exclaimed about the vacant buildings.
Just as aptly, she could have exclaimed: “We gotta sell more spin to the suckers!”