Tragic, Strange and Absurd

I don’t know how to broach this one. I’ll just say that it all started out so happily. The auditorium of old Central was not roiling with a malcontented throng ready to critically engage its government. Several people were present to accept awards for contributing to a measurable bit of progress made in the district’s pernicious achievement gap. There were lots of smiles (none bigger than Chair Miernicki’s) and pictures taken. Then a mother stepped up to the public podium with her cute little son and brought out more big smiles by thanking the staff at Laura MacArthur school for doing such a good job teaching the child how to read.
Board members began the evening’s business fairly low-key and restrained. There was no opening tussle over the agenda. Committee chairperson Annie Harala, hopeful for a good, productive meeting, kept the ball rolling by infusing every sentence of her Education Committee Report with her usual enthusiasm. If we could only figure out some way to bottle Ms. Harala’s special brand of positivity and hand out the resulting elixir free on street corners. Before long, every troublesome, slack-jawed contrarian in this town would be rolling up his sleeves and pitching in, whistling merrily.
By the time Harala was done squeezing every ounce of happiness from her report, administration looked as content as bureaucrats on vacation. The creaky ship of ISD 709 felt like a luxury cruise liner drifting through the silky waters of some sweet and exotic port, where icy lake winds never blow. The ship’s captain, Chair Miernicki, relishes these rare moments when his vessel turns into the love boat. The chair is a big fan of all positivity, but especially adores Ms. Harala’s brand. He never fails to praise her enthusiasm. Tonight, he gave her special recognition because she had managed to be so upbeat despite apparently feeling a bit under the weather.
“Sick, but full of spirit,” he remarked with warm admiration.
The education report had one item requiring Board action: an innocuous resolution to accept some grant money. Needless to say, it passed unanimously, 6-0. (Board member Seliga-Punyko was absent from this meeting.)
Everything kept floating along quite nicely. Board members pulled some items for discussion from the report and respectfully asked administration a number of astute questions relevant to education. Tawnyea Lake, the district’s director of assessment, was particularly queried about the MMR (Multiple Measurement Results). MMR is the new academic achievement measuring system the state of Minnesota conjured up after it was granted a federal waiver on No Child Left Behind.
Member Johnston then broached an item that had been included in the report mostly for the public’s benefit. The school district is launching an anti-bullying initiative. A series of public forums will be held on the subject, with a video presentation and discussion. The whole thing was put together by Tawnyea Lake’s husband, Ron Lake, who is also a district employee with the interesting job title of climate coordinator. The climate Mr. Lake ostensibly coordinates is the social climate in the schools. It was a bit ironic that discussion of his project dramatically altered the climate of the meeting.
That woman is not your spouse!
Mr. Johnston, as he has on a number of occasions recently, pointed out that anti-bullying efforts should extend to all human interaction in the district, not just among the students. He charged that his longtime partner, Jane Bushey, a LPN nurse employed by the district, has been bullied by administration. While he spoke, he referred to Ms. Bushey as his “spouse,” as he usually does. It has been widely reported, including in the Reader, that the couple is not legally married.
While Mr. Johnston spoke, Tim Sworsky, the district’s human resources manager, began shifting uncomfortably on his chair. For months now, Mr. Sworsky has been finding it difficult to restrain himself from displaying displeasure whenever Mr. Johnston speaks at meetings. He grumbles under his breath, makes snide comments to people around him, or hisses whispery sounds—zzzzzzzz—through his teeth. Board member Johnston clearly gets under his skin.
On this night, he decided to speak up. He got to his feet and strode briskly to the public podium. Member Johnston, noting this unusual behavior, observed, “It looks like Mr. Sworsky is going to contest what I just said.”
Without raising a point of order or asking for the floor from Chair Miernicki, Sworsky blurted out with considerable sarcasm, “First off, Mr. Johnston, I’d like to congratulate you on your wedding! Your spouse—is that correct? Wife? Spouse?”
Mr. Sworsky’s voice registers high on the male scale, with a bit of a twang. It actually has a pleasant, folksy appeal in normal conversation, but it cuts sharply, piercingly, on high volume. The effect was like someone suddenly throwing all the old auditorium’s windows open and letting a brisk, chilly breeze from Lake Superior sweep through the place.
“Aaaaaah—” Johnston, surprised, searched for words. “What’s your point?”
“I don’t believe it is your spouse! If you look up the definition of spouse, that woman is not your spouse! Or your wife!”
“Well, thank you, sir,” Johnston responded, clearly still surprised by the attack.
I have trouble inserting this scene into city hall. I can’t imagine an administrator striding up to the podium during a city council meeting, leaning forward, glaring, and in a loud, sarcastic voice, ignoring all protocol, publicly ridiculing the marital status of a councilor.
Notwithstanding the way it was done, the district’s HR manager may have had legitimate footing to question whether or not Board member Johnston had the legal status he was asserting. Mr. Johnston was discussing a personnel matter and data practice issues were involved. Raising the point in a public venue, however, also exposed Ms. Bushey’s marital status, and marital status is one piece of information considered private in a public employee’s file. It could be reasonably argued that Mr. Sworsky was the one in violation of data practice.
Government officials are thin-skinned in the boardroom of ISD 709. The public is constantly being lectured about civility and warned about engaging in personal attack.
The microphone was shut off at the podium not long ago because the words “artful dodge” were used to describe an administrator’s circuitous response to a question. (For the record, the dodge was a masterful work of art, worthy of display in any fine gallery of distinguished bureaucratic doublespeak.)
Chair Miernicki was lax in upholding the same civility standard for staff. He did not respond with due haste to this very personal attack. Belatedly, he asked, “Is there a point of order?”
Mr. Sworsky made some points about privacy laws, still looking tense, his voice still loud. He said there was more to the story than was being disclosed. “If we can’t tell the whole story, don’t just use some sort of shield to tell your side.” When he was done, Mr. Johnston took the floor and pointed out the inappropriateness of the whole diatribe: “It was kind of odd to see this high-ranking school district administrator attacking me about my marital status… extremely rude behavior on his part.” Chair Miernicki looked grateful for some help from Board member Welty, who suggested the matter was more appropriate for a different venue: “…we should have these conversations, honestly, [but] not be burdening the public with them.”
“I appreciate your comment, Mr. Welty.”

Spiraling down.

We lurched forward, through icy waters, to the HR Committee Report. The Board engaged in a discussion about the superintendent’s annual job performance evaluation. Board member Johnston said he felt the process should include an examination of the district’s “continuous improvement plan, and how much progress we’ve made” on the plan’s lofty goals. Member Westholm, seldom critical of district procedure, also favored making the review process more rigorous and specific. “More focused” are the words he used.
After a lengthy and well-considered debate, the Board did what boards do best: punted any changes to next year.
Mr. Johnston then brought up another district goodwill initiative called Norms, put together by the climate regulator, Ron Lake. The goals of the project sounded almost like parody, given the tenor of the boardroom. A sampling: (1) We will communicate as professionals. (2) We will value one another and respect his/her opinions. (3) We will establish a positive culture of working together, to achieve common goals. (4) We will see conflict as an opportunity to continuously improve. (5) If we make a [Red] mess, we will clean it up.
Our creaky, leaky ship, now christened Norms, chugged into a slip along the Business Committee Report. If anyone was hoping this was going to be a pleasant port of call, Board member Johnston disavowed all of that idea. He again demonstrated the hallmark of his character, a trait even his detractors have to admire: sheer tenacity. Nothing stops the man. Administration could hang him upside down in shackles on the back wall and he’d still bring up the WADM numbers.
“We’ve lost 1,400 students since I’ve been onboard [or, on the Board]… We went up ten this year, the first year we’ve had a stable student population… It’s good that we stopped going down, but we have to go up…”
The student enrollment low point, according to the Red Plan’s demographic study, was supposed to be between 8,998 and 9,329 students. District numbers show that the actual low point recorded so far (in June of last year) was 8,460. The auspicious Red Plan study further predicts that long-term enrollment will stabilize around 9,600 students in 2022. That means the district, boasting a gain of ten students this year, will have to gain about 150 students a year from this point. The study also predicts that within the next seven years, every Duluth public school graduate will go on to Harvard and win a Nobel prize, all Duluth streets will be paved in gold, and the Catholic pope will exchange marriage vows with a gay lover on the steps of St. Michael’s Church.
A small extra charge to a gypsy woman for some additional fortunetelling was picked up by taxpayers under “reimbursables,” but it was worth it!
Everyone thought we’d evaded a fight over the agenda, but I guess it would be foolish to throw away any golden opportunity engendered from conflict. Member Johnston made a motion for the first reading of a change to Policy 9075, Agenda For Regular Meetings. A few of Mr. Johnston’s proposed changes, certain to ruffle the controlling majority’s feathers, were (1) for the Board to start having agenda-setting sessions “all Board members are welcome to attend” and (2) to allow “any proposed item submitted by two or more members to be included in the agenda.”
Board chair Miernicki, not surprisingly, balked. “That would be a change of policy. We’d have to do that in committee.”
“I’ve made a motion.”
“You can’t add to the—”
“Point of order—”
“No, no. ” The chair explained that he didn’t believe a motion to change a policy was proper at this point, then recognized member Welty, who solicitously offered to withdraw his second on member Johnston’s motion if he could get some assurance the Board would fairly discuss the issue at a later time: “As I think everyone knows, member Johnston and I have been attempting to have some discussion about agenda-setting and placement of items on the agenda… To deny the minority an opportunity to have a discussion I think ill-suits our reputation as a deliberative Board.”
“The motion is out of order. Member Johnston, you have a point of order?”
“Yeah. My point of order is that my point of order is not out of order. That’s my point of order.”
“Ok. Thank you.”
“The point of order is not out of order… We have a motion with a second on the floor.”
“And I’m ruling it out of order.”
“I appeal the decision of the chair.”
“And I rule it out of order.”
“I appeal the decision of the chair.”
“Yep—and I’m ruling it out of order… We’re not going to change the agenda…”
“…You can’t do this unilaterally. I’ve appealed your decision…”
This verbal sparring of government-speak went on for quite a while. I kept waiting for someone in the audience to start passing a hat to buy every Board member the same edition of Roberts Rules of Order. The more obscure tome, Miernicki’s Unruly Rules of Disorder, is only recommended for use during meetings held in tree houses. Member Welty saved the chair by finally withdrawing his second from the motion, “for the sake of comity.” (Or… to stop the comedy).
The Business Committee Report was finally moved and passed, and the Board engaged in some final observations, which gave Mr. Johnston a chance to revisit Mr. Sworsky’s outburst.
“I think [it was] inappropriate to question my marital status and sexual orientation. It [was] out of order and I expect an apology. I’ve never seen Mr. Sworsky so upset [as] when discussing my marital status and sexual preference.”
I’m not certain what was being implied by sexual orientation/preference, unless Mr. Johnston was suggesting that Mr. Sworsky was suggesting that if you are a male of a certain age, and you’re not legally married, then your “girlfriend” is suspect, maybe just a beard. The fact that sexual orientation/preference was even mentioned at all, though, raises another, overriding question: how the hell did our absurd school board spiral down to this?
The evening’s business consisted of little more than approving a couple of resolutions to accept some grant money. After two hours, two minutes, Captain Miernicki finally ended another episodic voyage with the Duluth school board, a hapless crew that may sink the ship yet, and drown us all in a sea of ineptitude.

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.