An Alternative View of School Board Machinations

When I first moved to Duluth, 22 years ago, I gasped when I saw Old Central. “This used to be the high school?” I remember asking someone. Within a week or so, I was already inside the building, snooping around. A custodian spotted me and asked what I was up to. 22 years ago, a nosy stranger aroused a lower level of suspicion, but this loyal employee was still was guarding the fort. I explained to him that I loved old buildings and was eager to learn something about the local history of my newly adopted town. He was on his lunch break and generously offered to give me a tour. I was especially interested in the clock tower. As we climbed the dusty stairs of the tower, I felt that skin-prickling, we’re-all-essentially-ghosts-in-a-procession sensation common around ancient mausoleums. Noting initials left by people of yesteryear along the stairway banister, I didn’t have the slightest inkling I would eventually come to know, better than most, where all the bodies were inurned in this particular mausoleum…
The people of Duluth have just elected three new live ones to the Board of Education. Before shining a revealing light on the first public meeting presided over by this Committee of Captains, let me introduce the complete cast: (1) Art Johnston is a retired engineer who still freelances as one of those dangling, tower-inspecting daredevils. Fresh from a landslide reelection victory, where he smashed the town’s political machine and poked the paper of record in the eye, Mr. Johnston is back for four more years of trying to leverage a “second” on one of his motions. (2) Judy Seliga-Punkyo is a Mary Kay Cosmetics saleswoman. Not so secretly, Judy S.-P. was rooting for the political machine to bring her Mr. Johnston’s head in a basket. (3 and 4) The District’s two inside men are Mike Miernicki and Bill Westholm. Mr. Miernicki (recently crowned Board Chair) is a former District Athletic Director. Mr. Westholm is a former Principal. The three remaining cast members are the newbies: (5) Annie Harala is a twenty-nine-year-old trained in public relations. She works for the school district, encouraging “healthy living choices” for students. (6) Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has done so many social good works she was even endorsed in the last campaign by the Boy Scout Gay Orientation Committee (or was it the Feral Cat Rescue Committee?) And finally, (7) there’s the incomparable Harry Welty, a former Board Member returning for another tour of duty. Genteel, with an interesting writing style, Mr. Welty is a good man, seen by some as a tad bit eccentric.
The boardroom of Old Central was once the school’s auditorium. The high ceiling is crisscrossed with beautiful wood beams and there is an ornate upper balcony it may not be safe to walk out on. Two wings were added to the floor plan to create a more closed-in space around the School Board dais. The wood slat floor is warped here and there and hasn’t been re-varnished for at least half a century. The furniture--desks and lunch tables--are all old and creaky. A custodian recently told me the District has blown thousands on new furniture in the building, but nothing for the boardroom. He speculated that District Brass purposely keep the room looking dismally shabby, to engender pity from the public. The insight of custodians is very overlooked in our society…

6:30 P.M., 1/21/14, and we were off. After the Pledge of Allegiance and other rote business, Public Comment came up on the Agenda. Some PARA professionals walked up to the podium to complain that the district, with little notice, extended their three-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend to five, two extra days off without pay. As one of them put it, “It isn’t fair to balance the budget on the backs of the lowest paid workers.” She felt the District should find the money somewhere to right this wrong, but there’s a better chance of the Devil making it back into heaven. The next speaker, Richard Paulson, is a former Board Member and retired banker who often shows up at meetings and tries to get the Board to look at reality. He requested the Board keep its promise to put the levy money granted by the taxpayers into the classrooms, rather than putting $4.9 million into the Reserve. He also urged the Board to request a State Audit, in lieu of the annual CPA audit. Bylaw 3215 states explicitly that a State audit is supposed to be requested by the Board every 5 years, something not done since 1994. This draught ending anytime soon is again about as likely as…well, I won’t torture my Jesus-and-the-Devil metaphor any further. The last citizen speaker was myself, Loren Martell. For purposes of this column, my words will often be disregarded, as they’re generally disregarded in the boardroom.
Which brings us to the Standing Committee Reports and a couple of general observations. This is the usually the most stable time in the District’s calendar year. This year, after jamming two forced taxes and successfully pleading another voluntary tax out of the public, District Brass have an exceptionally contented look. They remind me a bit of feudal lords who have spent years fearing ruination, but are now anticipating many a satisfying meal from barns filled from the peasants’ bountiful crops. None of the Committee meetings had any major actionable items. It was a room of intentional happiness. The words “exciting,” “positive” and “optimistic” were thrown around liberally.
Straight from their election victories, the three newcomers ascended into the three Chairs of the three Standing Committees. Art Johnston was again boxed out by the majority and shown no respect. Annie Harala is now Chair of the Education Committee. Usually the Education Committee report, ironically enough, is the shortest segment of the meeting, but the discussion went on for over an hour. Several good questions were asked on subjects ranging from random drug testing in schools to the cost of field trips. Judy S.-P. wistfully stated her desire to return Middle School days back to seven periods (from the current six). She also astutely pointed out that foreign languages should be offered in elementary classes where “students can learn a language much, much easier.”  Of course, this is not likely to happen, either. If we could only somehow excavate the Red Plan swimming pools and sell them on E-bay!
For a number of years now, the reading of next Committee report, Human Resources, has been a gloomy listing of loss: x number of non-certified teachers axed, x number of certified teachers axed, x number of retiring teachers not to be replaced. But no major personal crises were revealed and Committee Chair Welty soon announced in his mellow, mellifluous voice: “I move that we accept these minutes from HR .”
Which brought us to the last report, usually good for at least one flash of bitter contention, in a District floundering financially: The Business Committee.  Rosie Loeffler-Kemp is now Chair of this all-important post. Immediately elevated to the position of Chair, by a Board majority clearly impressed by the fact that she couldn’t answer a single query about the District’s budget during the election campaign, Rosie L.-K.’s primary contribution to the Business Committee discussion was a hearty thank you to the Facilities Manager for “excellent work in snow shoveling.” A spark was generated, however, when Mr. Johnston brought up the WADM numbers. Education acronyms usually befuddle the public, but WADM stands for Weighted Average Daily Membership. It’s the way the State counts student enrollment numbers for aid calculations. Mr. Johnston pointed out that actual enrollment in Duluth Public Schools has been steadily dropping. The Superintendent took exception, claiming at length that student enrollment loss is “nearly a statewide trend. Most every district in the State is facing declining enrollments because of generational differences…there just isn’t as many kids in Duluth as there once was.”
Mr. Johnston requested the floor further into the discussion and made “some minor corrections” to these claims, in his deep, bass voice: “Overall, State student population has seen very little reduction. There has been some reduction in rural areas, but I don’t consider Duluth a rural area. Unfortunately, we do have to look at these things. For example, in twenty-five years we’ve gone from being the 3rd largest school district in the State, to, the last time I looked, I think we’re 22nd.”
At the beginning of the evening, Chair Miernicki made it clear he wanted a “nice, positive meeting.” A robust man, with a florid face, Mr. Miernicki’s voice is as deep as Mr. Johnston’s, but a bit more raspy. It’s the kind of voice that, if raised, would have been handy as an Athletic Director, getting rowdy jocks to stand up straight and pay attention. “I would like to express some optimism.” He said, countering any and all hints of negativity. “It’s not all doom-and-gloom. I’m hoping we’re going to see this turn around.”
I’ve noticed a steady drumbeat for “optimism” from all of city leadership lately. Enthusiasm can be infectious and good will can create more good will. Making people happy is the keystone of public relations. On the other hand: Optimism can also be nothing more than an empty-headed denial of reality.
We’ll roast marshmallows around this happy little campfire again.

Martell has religiously attended school board meetings for years, studying the Districts issues and finances exhaustively; and is perhaps ISD 709’s most vocal critic. Martell was once handcuffed and removed from a District meeting, simply for attempting to quote then Board Chair Tim Grover’s previous comments. Martell unsuccessfully ran for School Board last election cycle.