Stress Fracture

 Perhaps a sense of another brief Duluth summer slipping away kept my fellow citizens from the boardroom of ISD 709. On evenings like this you have to be kind of a geeky wonk to find much allure in the musty auditorium of Old Central. Attending a school board meeting at summer’s end is sort of like spending your last few hours of life getting a root canal. Only one person besides myself ventured to the public podium, and she wasn’t even from the area. She was visiting from Texas.
I couldn’t ascertain the spelling of her last name, but her first name was Cassandra. She was affiliated with the National Institute for Civility, which has indubitably heard of Duluth. It would be hard to exaggerate what a nice woman Cassandra appeared to be. She gave a very positive talk about public service. She earnestly encouraged civil behavior from all public officials, without once mentioning the real world stress test she’d observed, just preceding public comment.

Dream on, sweet Cassandra!

Everyone keeps lecturing the Board of Education about getting along. In reality the Board is split by a seemingly irreparable fracture. On one side of the ragged chasm, there is a ruling majority. Seated on the other side, there is a powerless (but feisty, and unvanquished) minority. The ruling majority marches in lockstep with administration and runs the show. The minority chafes under rules it considers to be unfair and undemocratic.
The minority occasionally picks up a third vote, but is usually just two--Harry Welty and Art Johnston. Members Welty and Johnston are forever bucking a system that makes it nearly impossible for them to have their concerns publicly heard and made part of the record. Every month they make motions to add amendments to resolutions and try (gamely) to add items to the agenda.
Approval of the agenda often starts meetings off on a discordant note. The Board frequently finds itself instantly in a heated skirmish--arguing about the merit of the item the minority is trying to add to the agenda, about whether the Board should be debating the item or not, about the whole agenda-setting process, about how far down this road they can go, month after month, before finally shocking the prim and proper civility folks by jumping up and strangling each other by the necks until they’re all purple-faced and dead…
Chair Miernicki’s ruddy complexion has flushed several times to within a few shades of purple, a sure sign of elevated blood pressure. If things keep up, strangulation may not be required.
Mr. Miernicki and the Board’s Clerk, Judy Seliga-Punkyo, are particularly intent on stifling any discussion of the Red Plan. Members Welty and Johnston are equally intent on bringing up some financial concerns about the huge Red Mess they believe the Board needs to acknowledge and address. So the first motion of this evening, made by member Welty, was like a rumbling along the San Andreas Fault.
The State Auditor’s Office recently found that Art Johnston’s claim about inflated Red Plan soft costs (expenses for non-construction parts of the project, like architectural design) was spot-on accurate. Tens of millions of dollars are not fully accounted for. In light of this fact, member Welty proposed adding the following resolution to the meeting’s agenda:
“Whereas the soft costs for the Long-Range Facilities (Red) Plan were (originally) priced at 16% of the overall costs; and, whereas, the recent abbreviated report by Minnesota’s auditor confirmed that 27% of the spending on the Long-Range Facilities Plan went to pay for soft costs; and, whereas, there has not been any detailed documentation yet presented to the school board for this public spending; and, whereas, the Duluth school board has a fiduciary responsibility to its taxpayers to ascertain that these 84 millions of (soft cost) dollars were spent for the benefit of Duluth public schools; and, whereas, the Duluth public schools community has been suffering reductions in programming, such as music, increased class sizes, diminished transportation and increased activities fees as a result of borrowing from the General Fund to pay for the LRFP (Red Plan) bonds; and, whereas, there have been calls for greater transparency by the community, including, recently, the editors of the Duluth News Tribune to ensure good governance, therefore, be it resolved that the Duluth school board demand that all entities who helped complete the Long-Range Facilities Plan and who had soft cost expenditures towards its completion be directed to give the Duluth School board full spreadsheet documentation of these payments as soon as practical.”

Seismic tremors rippled through Duluth’s solid bedrock!

Chair Miernicki reminded Mr. Welty that amending the agenda to add an item requires unanimous (aka: zero chance) Board approval. Mr. Miernicki then tried a rather transparent ploy to circumvent debate by proceeding straight to a vote on amending the agenda. His light flashing, Art Johnston tapped on the dais, trying to get the Chair’s attention. Member Welty finally stopped the vote by interjecting verbally, “Could we have some discussion on the motion for amendment?”
A debate about debate ensued. The Chair argued that he didn’t believe getting a second on a motion meant discussion was required under rules. He kept arguing that the only real decision before the Board was whether or not the agenda should be amended. Obviously, once the Board slammed the door shut with that vote (which at least four members were likely to do), the motion itself--according to the Chair’s reasoning--was moot.
Member Johnston raised a point of order: “If there’s been a motion made, and there’s been a second, there has to be discussion…The reason we have a discussion is so people can make an intelligent decision...”
Chair Miernicki resolutely clung to his argument that the only issue before the Board was amending the agenda. Eventually Welty got the floor: “I’ve made a motion. This is the question before us. And because it is a motion, I believe it’s entirely in order to discuss the merits of this resolution and the merits of adding it to the agenda.”
The debate about whether or not there should be a debate went on for several minutes, mushrooming into larger, well-worn complaints about the Board’s agenda-setting process. Member Welty pointed out that he, as a minority member, was in a “bit of a pickle.” The majority, in control of the agenda-setting process, rejects any agenda request it doesn’t want. No real possibility exists of getting a unanimous vote to amend the agenda. And now discussion of the resolution the minority members were trying to add to the agenda was being denied.

Mr. Welty described the whole process as “rigged.”

Chair Miernicki again tried to go straight to a vote on amending the agenda. Member Johnston turned his light on, tapped on the dais again and raised a point of order.
“Why did you call for a vote without a discussion? You’re doing an illegal procedure…”
Mr. Miernicki, looking flustered, responded, “No, no, no, no, no--please don’t do this!”
“Please don’t me do this?” Mr. Johnston responded with incredulity. He pointed out that he’d first asked for this particular item to be put on the agenda a month earlier, on July 23rd.
“I was told by the Superintendent it would not be on the agenda…This motion (adds) an item to the agenda that is very important…” Johnston reminded everyone in the room that the meeting with the State auditor had been “adjourned prematurely,” before some incidentals like $84 million worth of inflated soft costs were fully discussed.
This comment straightened the Chair’s back. Staring at the audience, he launched into a lengthy oration--first explaining, then beseechingly declaring: “…I swear…(Oh, God) I swear! There were no lights on! There were no lights on (when I abruptly ended that meeting)! I swear that’s true!”
Such a guileless expression, and he’s swearing!

“What I’m seeing happen is--” Board Clerk, Judy Seliga-Punyko, weighed in, “for seven years we have had people angry about our building plan…Things are good, except that there is still anger about it…A lot of the soft costs--I know--there were architects, there were a lot of things. There’s a whole list of what they were…We had overruns--or whatever it was--just because certain things, certain schools, we had to redo…architects and engineers had to put in extra time…the thing that’s lost here: people are thrilled with our new schools. It’s been a big difference for our city, too. It’s been really good.”

All good, if it wasn’t for those nasty naysayers!

True to form, Art Johnston started sketching some clouds across Judy Seliga-Punyko’s sunny sky. He pointed out the district’s falling district enrollment numbers, etc., then added: “The member talks about anger. A couple of months ago she was yelling at me--”
“This isn’t yelling.” Chair Miernicki interjected. “Nobody’s yelling…”
“Well, she talks about anger…all we’re talking about is having a discussion. I’ve been trying to get some of these items on the agenda for five years.”
This particular attempt to get one item added went on for a half hour, and, predictably, in the end, failed. Member Welty pluckily read another resolution he wanted added:
“In the event of an investigation by the Duluth school board of any member of the school board turns up no evidence of activity warranting removal from office, the Duluth school district shall pay all legal costs borne by that member in his or her defense.”
The five-member majority pushing an investigation of Art Johnston surprised no one by voting this one down.
We moved on to the Committee reports, which sailed along breezily, exactly what administration wishes for. Around me, I could sense tension releasing from the stressed bodies of administrators. It’s quite evident what side of the Board fracture most of them sit on. They’re weary of being party to a civil war and blame Art Johnston. Most of them don’t care what the charge is. Most would feel just fine if the Board majority strapped Mr. Johnston to a racist rocket and shot him off to the moon.
The Education Committee report had some high points. Board members particularly praised the cooperative spirit displayed between the two high schools, working with robotics. The only actionable item was a second reading and acceptance of the anti-bullying policy. A new harassment and violence policy received its second reading and was approved with the HR Committee report.
An interesting item came up during the Business Committee report. The ceiling truss system on the new $50.6 million Lincoln Park Middle School started failing under the weight of snow last winter. Media stories claimed all costs associated with the flawed design would be covered by the contractor, but there was one detail buried in the spreadsheets the hawk-eyed Art Johnston found. The district is covering the cost of “peer review--” an inspection of the work, after it’s redone. The district will pick up that cost--$8000.
$8000 doesn’t sound like much, especially to the Board’s big spenders, but $8000 here, $15,000 there, $84 million…it all adds up. Not one of the five trying to toss Art Johnston off the Board picked up on the detail.
After a rough start, this meeting ended on a relatively congenial note. Board members engaged in hopeful talk about the new school year, coming just around the corner. Chair Miernicki proudly reminisced about how a debate team from his alma mater--Denfeld--once won a national championship.
The fracture seemed almost bridgeable, but don’t be alarmed if the foundation of your house starts trembling a month from now. It’ll just be a signal another Board of Education meeting has commenced, and Welty and Johnston are stress testing fault lines with another ill-fated motion.

Loren Martell has been involved in Public School District issues for several years.
He wrote the Red Plan report for the State Auditor’s Office and ran for the School Board office.