What a treat, this retreat

by Loren Martell

Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

Our school board is a wild fire, not quite put out. Hot spots are still buried in the ash heaps. Divisions remain in the boardroom and much of the public is suspicious and mistrustful. Controversy dogs the organization, making flare-ups of new flames a high risk. Even organizing a “retreat,” ostensibly meant to aid the Board on its road to self-renewal and more effective governing, managed to get fouled up with bad pr. 

At least one member was kept out of the loop when the venue for the school board’s 4/26/18 retreat was suddenly moved from Old Central, to the Water Room of the Great Lakes Aquarium. Questions swirled about what the Board’s motives were for “hiding out” in a back room on the upper floor of the aquarium building. Were they trying to discourage the public from attending a public event? Were Johnny and Jane Taxpayer going to have to pay to park and pay to get into a public meeting? How much was a three-hour rental of a fancy conference room going to cost a broke school district? 

The Board got the room free, due to the connections of civically-active member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, who is a member of the aquarium’s board as well. The retreat itself cost the taxpayers $950, to hire a facilitator from the Minnesota Schools Boards Association to run the show. Some marginal value did come out of the exercise--but, in reality, it was largely a waste of time and money that will produce minimal change in the boardroom. One good outcome for me, personally, was a free admission pass to the Great Lakes Aquarium, which normally costs $17.99. 

A rare dividend for writing this column!

Without this silver lining to the Board’s change of venue, I would have remained ignorant of many remarkable facts about aquatic species. I did not know female lake sturgeon can live as long as 150 years, or that jellyfish have no bones, brains or hearts and are made up almost entirely of water. I examined with great interest saltwater and freshwater exotics from around the world. The Moon Jelly is an exquisite pulsing membrane with a feathery, thread-like fringe and a flower-like center. The incredible Electric Eel, from the Amazon, has specialized cells in its body that can generate an electric charge up to 600 volts. The creature moves through the water like a powerful snake, a membranous fin along the entire length of its belly undulating to and fro. 

I invariably feel sorry for fish and birds and other animals locked into the restrictive confinement of captivity, but most of these fishes did look relatively content and I kept thinking about the quiet world they inhabit. They never have to listen to any noisy chatter, mercifully spared forever from the verbal extravaganzas of verbose school boards!

Back to the sweet retreat

Another question that swirled around the Board’s decision to hold a retreat was: why now? Why in the world wasn’t a retreat held a few years ago, when the organization needed emergency service to staunch the bleeding from a fight-to-the-finish civil war? Holding a retreat now was analogous to the United Nations holding a peace summit in Damascus after Assad and the Russians have blown every rebel stronghold into tiny bits of debris. The DFL-endorsed Club has not quite achieved its goal of gaining all seven seats and tossing every dissenting voice out of the boardroom, but it’s come close. After dominating a low-turnout election, it has a 6-1 lock on power. 

The Superintendent’s dream of being surrounded by a cheering booster club has come true; the anointed ones waltzed into the boardroom and grabbed every power position for themselves. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp still has a grip on the Quality Steering Committee with her union allies, for the fifth straight year. The agenda meetings are still being held in secret, nothing on the record, no transparency. The one outside member is kept out of the loop, but the rest are happy as clams. 

What did the majority members need a retreat for? So they could munch on snacks, look out the windows of the Water Room and give each other a group love-hug? 
Board member Loeffler-Kemp described the retreat as an “opportunity for us as a Board to get to know each other better, and to learn our strengths.” For a flat fee of $9.50 (considerably discounted from $950.00,) I could have identified the most valuable asset L-K and her fellow DFL-endorsed allies possess is in terms of strength, and tossed in the group’s most vulnerable weak spot for free. 

The DFLers most impressive strength: as a group, they are the world’s greatest cheerleading squad. 
The DFLers most debilitating weakness: as a group, they are the world’s greatest cheerleading squad. 
  
A seat at the retreat

Four members of the general public witnessed the event: myself and my colleague from the Reader, John Ramos, and two other citizens, one of them filming for PAC television. The mainstream media showed no interest in the proceedings, presumably because no official actions would be taken- no decisions, no votes. 

When the Board asked the MSBA facilitator about the fact that they were not getting “convincing coverage” from the media, she told them, in effect, to live with it - to learn to “embrace” the media. During this event, the four attendees did not feel embraced by the MSBA, either as members of the public or the media. 

The facilitator said the right things, but her actions belied her real feelings. When asked to provide us with copies of materials being passed around to the Board, she answered curtly that she was only “required to make one copy available to the public,” and very reluctantly did that. Every time she passed materials around, she ignored the four observing citizens until one of us got up and requested our copy. 

The meat of the retreat

The gathering in the Great Lakes Aquarium was billed as a “self-evaluation” retreat. It was roughly organized around a survey the Board filled out last fall, and again this past winter, rating how well members saw themselves in performing their duties. There were five “standards” of a “high-performing” school board. Under each standard, members were supposed to rate a number of questions by choosing one of five responses: the Board effectively performs this or that duty “always,” “most of the time,” “some of the time,” “never,” or “don’t know.” 

One thing that jumped out at me right away, looking at the results of this survey, was how many times one lone vote was cast for “always.” I counted a total of 34. The survey was anonymous, so I can’t be certain, but this one happy vote had a distinctly “rosie” feel to it. 
The MSBA facilitator pointed out that the reason for all the “don’t know” responses on the survey was probably linked to the fact that there are a lot new faces on the Board. “You probably have a well-oiled machine, here.” She reassured those new members about their organization. “Just give it time.” 

The facilitator’s name was Gail Gilman. Obviously Gail doesn’t visit Duluth often. 
“The community is lucky to have all of you.” Our upbeat facilitator pointed out, turning to the usual boilerplate rhetoric that laces any power-of-positive thinking seminar. She enthused that a Board made up of a bunch of smiley new faces is primed to set “a different tone, a fun tone!”
I don’t have the space to go over every question asked under the five standards, so I’m just going to lay out the points that jumped out at me during this presentation. 
Early on, Ms. Gilman requisitely stated: “You don’t always have to be a rubberstamp Board,” then proceeded to advocate for that very attitude from the members of Duluth’s school board. 
“You should be a cheerleader for your school district and for telling your story.” She instructed our squad of eager-beaver, cheerleader recruits. When addressing the public, “you should segue into positive things.”
Banish negativity, exude positivity. If Gail isn’t a DFLer, she has a home waiting for her with a big, happy family. 
“It is very important to support the vote of the majority.” Our frothy facilitator continued. When talking to the public, “put some spin on it, that majority rules. The Board’s voice doesn’t have to be unanimous, but it should be united…You should support your Superintendent and your Administration.”

Let me toss in a hypothetical or two: what if the Superintendent and his/her Administration decide to jam an ill-advised half billion dollar investment down everyone’s throat without a vote? What if the majority (with the Superintendent lurking in the shadows) decides to take a vote to toss a colleague off the Board? 

Is the full Board supposed to present a unified front to the public in defense of a blatantly stupid or undemocratic move? Is the member getting the boot, for example, expected to say: “We, as a Board, have taken this vote and I’m fully united with my colleagues behind it. Let’s all do our best to throw me off!”

Another communication tool Ms. Gilman gave our fledgling Board was a handy little deflector called “elevator speech.” She advised her pupils to “get their elevator speeches in order.” When approached by a member of the public who is annoyed about something (such as putting up with a dysfunctional school board for years and years,) and actually wants to engage on the subject, she told her students they should listen politely, and then say, “Thank you so much for sharing that information,” then dodge individual responsibility by adding, “I am part of a team.” She said all the school board members should get on the same page and use “the same elevator speech.” 

I assumed “elevator” was meant to describe speech that somehow lifted the conversation out of a potential confrontation, but I kept linking it to “elevator music”- saccharine and stripped of any real emotion. At any rate, the message given to our school board was to hide behind a united front and maintain rigid boundaries when interacting with the community. 

This part of the lecture was off-putting and disingenuous, if not outright insulting to the public. “Some of the people in my community find that (sort of language) offensive,” member Lofald objected, “not personal, sincere.” 
Member Sandstad thought using stock, noncommittal words may be appropriate if a Board member is being questioned about “some complaint or issue you don’t know anything about.” Member Oswald felt it was well within bounds for her, as an elected official, to give her opinion when questioned, “to show where I’m coming from.” 

A politician showing where he or she is coming from sounded like a good idea, even if (in this day-and-age) a bit radical and out of the mainstream. 
When Ms. Gilman asked about the Board’s procedures for reviewing and updating policies, Superintendent Gronseth informed her ISD 709 was “transitioning” all its policies to align with the MSBA’s model policies. He described the process as a “rough ride.” Member Oswald pointed out that she has several times advocated for the Board to set up its own Policy Committee, but Gail was dismissive of the idea.

“I don’t think it (revising policy) is Board work.” The facilitator lectured. “When the policy gets to you, it should almost be in its final form.” 
Ms. Gilman went on to recommend that the district review a third of its policies every year, a complete policy overhaul every three years. I failed to comprehend--if the Board is supposed to approve all these policy revisions, year after year, into perpetuity--why a committee to deal exclusively with policy was a bad idea. 

The next thing Ms. Gilman inquired about was the procedure for putting something on the agenda of Board meetings. When she discovered that only two Board members attend the agenda sessions along with the Superintendent’s team, she asked if the meetings were open. When she found out they were closed meetings, hidden from the public, she said, “That would be something to think about.”

How could anyone think for even a moment, without concluding the Board’s agenda meetings should not be held in secret? The meetings should be attended by all members and open to the public. Truly transparent government will never come into existence as long as the DFL and the current Superintendent run the show, however. Retreat or no retreat, they like things just the way they are, because control over information is power. 

“I feel left out.” The sole non-DFL-endorsed, non-insider player, member Oswald, said about the agenda process. “I feel not responded to.”
“Sometimes there is more power in not being in power.” Gail cooed assuredly, winning my award for most ridiculous comment of the day. “You can be the ‘big-picture’ person.”
Member O mentioned that she’s also been boxed out of all Board officer positions, and asked how it might appear to the public “that one member is left out.” 
“We need to get to know each other’s leadership styles.” Member Lofald lectured. “This (style) is going to weigh a lot…if we want to be leaders.” She said it was also important how Board members acted outside the boardroom, how they responded to the community in every venue, including social media. 
“We have to make sure we’re doing the things that make us strong leaders!” 
It was a bit astringent to listen to all this preaching about proving oneself from an inside player who waltzed into the room as a new Board member a few months ago and took over as Chair of a standing committee. 
Members Oswald and Lofald continued parrying about inclusion and exclusion during a five-minute break, (Lofald using the word “petty,”) while I walked up to Gail and said, “You might want to mention something about politicizing a nonpartisan elective office. We have one dominant political party in Duluth and it can be cliquish in the way it operates.” 

“Thank you for sharing that information, sir.” Gail said warmly. As I walked away, I felt quite certain I’d just gotten the shaft of elevator speech. 
So neat this retreat, we must repeat 
I admit it was great to get out of the castle of Old Central, where you can almost smell all the years of seamy intrigue behind the pomp of rulers elevated on the pedestal of power. 
Aside from a huge plume of black smoke billowing up from Superior, across the harbor, and the shock spurred by news stories from social media falsely informing us that a refinery had blown up with 20 fatalities--the room in Aquarium building, with its wide-angled view, was pleasant. 
Will this retreat turn our school board into a “highly-performing” organization? Forgive me if I express some doubt. Personally, given the money problems the Board is facing, I think a remedial course in accounting would have been more beneficial. Our Superintendent, however, loved the whole experience--especially, assumingly, the part that described him as the “lead person.” 

“I think this is really healthy and I hope that it continues.” Super G. said. 
Wrapping up the event, Ms. Gilman gushed: “You’ve got a lot of really good things going on, here. You’ve got a great Superintendent, and a great reputation in the community. You’ve got a very diverse Board. You’ve got strength in many, many ways.” 
Gail’s clearly got to visit Duluth more often, but I did appreciate the lesson in elevator speech, and want to thank her very much for sharing her information.