The Beat Goes On

Fight without end.

Loren Martell

Boardroom rules are like sand dunes in a gale storm. Last year, former Chair Miernicki decreed in his loud, authoritative voice: “We don’t have public comment at Special Meetings!” Last week, the rabble was suddenly allowed to step up to the podium, during the Special Meeting called to censure member Johnston. What gives? My best guess is that the Board’s majority members were hoping the riffraff would blow out all its venom during the Special meeting, which isn’t televised. The public speakers were in a good mood, however. Art Johnston’s supporters looked downright cheery. They thanked Chair Seliga-Punkyo and the rest of the majority for backing off their witch hunt and made optimistic statements about starting anew.
That nice May evening held a brief chance for peace in the boardroom. Art Johnston said he wanted all the Board members and Superintendent Gronseth to “shake hands in front of the cameras.” Instead, the Special meeting called to censure him was about as bad as anything that’s gone on in the boardroom over the past year. The ruling majority couldn’t have played their hand much worse. Reflecting on the scene, Student Board representative Jude Goosens dressed down the adults in the room, describing their actions as “middle school drama.”

Education First

Before diving into the dank, however, a few topics actually related to education deserve attention. There were moment when heart of education--teachers and kids--tenuously filled the room with warm affirmation. Doreen Ruhanen, a first grade teacher at Homecroft Elementary School received this year’s $5000 Goldfine Gold Star Teacher Award. Apparently, this dedicated, saintly educator somehow taught first graders with an elevated broken leg. (At least another zero should have been added to her cash prize, I thought.) A group of students showed up and charmed everyone from the podium. They were advocating to create a Duluth high school lacrosse team and cheered enthusiastically when the Board gave the plan a go-head.
Some criticisms were also vocalized from the podium. Citizen Jeff Funk complained to the Board that the public school district has been inconsiderate towards the neighborhood around East High School. Mr. Funk said neighbors had not been consulted about new, invasive lights that were about to be installed in a parking lot and that the district had been woefully inadequate in addressing traffic problems. The next citizen, Dr. Rogier Gregoire, turned the atmosphere to a somber note, by expressing dismay over a comment made during the Education Committee meeting, concerning a recent episode involving a photo circulated on social media by some students at Denfeld High. The students doctored the photo, showing of an African-American student with a noose around his neck and included the caption “Gotta hang ‘em all!” Dr. Gregoire objected to a Board member referring to this episode as a “micro-aggression” incident.
All of the above embody the passion that surrounds the complex mission of operating a school district and educating kids. As so often is the case, however, these concerns were overshadowed by the Board’s middle school drama. Jude Goosens’ father, Paul, summed up the situation quite expressively from the public podium:
“I wasn’t going to speak tonight, but I changed my mind. After witnessing the recent episode (the just-completed, absurdly dysfunctional censure meeting), it just really compelled me to share with the Board some observations and feedback. I periodically do leave Duluth and visit with people around the State--relatives and friends--some of whom serve on school boards…”
Mr. Goosens went on to relay a conversation he’d had just the previous weekend. “(This person) gets the Minnesota School Board Association news, and here’s (his) characterization: You guys are a case study in poor leadership and governance. (This is someone) with no horse in the race. Doesn’t care about sides. Doesn’t care about Art (Johnston); doesn’t care about anyone else. That’s harsh: ‘A case study in poor governance and leadership!’ Poor conflict management. Poor governance. Poor management of majority power. Intolerance of disagreement and disagreeable people. Poor meeting management. (Other school board members) watch your youTube videos. Seriously, other Board members are studying you people…It’s fascinating. My less mature side finds it just funny--humorous. I wanted to bring popcorn tonight, but I was running late. But then it settles into a level of disappointment and absolute embarrassment…It’s embarrassing. It’s all about (getting) the last word…this is what you’re ‘modeling?’ (Chair Seliga-Punyko gives a lecture about modeling behavior at every meeting.) I suspect most of the what--9000 students?–(in the schools) function better than this. And it was really disappointing to see this tonight, because it appears that it’s likely to continue…”

Fight without end.

The Board majority points an accusatory finger at the Lone Ranger’s alleged misdeeds, but trouble’s been brewing for years. Long ago the masked marauder blew any chance of being voted Mr. Popularity. Chair Seliga-Punyko flat-out hates him, and has for a long time, a fact glaringly obvious to any marginally astute court observer. Last election, she got on her knees and prayed as hard as she could to the big superintendent in the sky, but the devil-man still won! She finally came up with the perfect way to nullify that election and give her antagonist and his persistently annoying Red Plan Inquisition the boot, but he’d managed to outfight and outfox her again!
There was absolutely no way she was going to let the bad boy get off scot-free without feeling some sting of the righteous rod.
She and her allies put together a withering resolution 10 paragraphs long, each starting with the word: “Whereas…” It was essentially a compendium of their accusations, backed up by the Rice Report, referred to in the resolution as a “detailed and comprehensive investigation report…(which) substantiated a number of allegations” that, among many other dastardly deeds, the Lone Ranger had roughly manhandled Superintendent Gronseth and former Chair Miernicki “in front of students, parents, and members of the community,” including poor, still-shocked Ms. Annie Harala, who may never recover from the worst trauma she’s ever suffered in her obviously unsheltered existence.
Member Johnston pointed out that the resolution, as worded, was “a clear indication that the five majority members of the school board and the Superintendent have decided to continue the animosity.” He made a motion to substitute their resolution with a very short, simple sentence: “Resolution HR-12-14-3215 (the resolution passed seven months ago to remove him from the Board) is hereby rescinded.”
The majority wasted little time in voting this proposal down, which brought the Board back to discussion of the original, impugning resolution. Board member Welty started a “point-by-point,” critical analysis of each “whereas…” Starting with the second paragraph, which stated as fact that the Rice Report had “substantiated a number of allegations against Member Johnston…” Mr. Welty countered that what the majority was holding up as a legal conviction “showed little even-handedness either in the testimony it included or in its subjective interpretation of the testimony. In no sense can this report be regarded as either fully detailed, fully comprehensive or fully vetted in a court of law…”

Verbal fisticuffs.

Mr. Welty effectively knocked similar holes in a few more paragraphs of the resolution before member Miernicki spoke up in his deep, raspy voice: “We’ve been through this for a long time...Mr. Johnston has his camp–”
Member Welty raised a point of order: “Is there a motion on the floor?”
Chair S.-P, jumped in: “We’ve got a motion. The main motion is on the floor.”
Mr. Miernicki continued making his point about divided camps: “And I don’t think we’re gonna solve this here, so I call the question.”
Member Welty raised strong objections when the Chair quickly seconded. “Chair Seliga-Punyko, I had a motion on the floor. Point of Order!”
“We’ve already voted on your motion. We have the main motion--”
“And I’ve made another motion.”
“And I called the question.” Miernicki jumped back in.
“He called the question. He called the question.” The Chair repeated twice for emphasis. “We’re going to vote on the original resolution. All in favor, say ‘Aye!’ All opposed–”
Competing voices collided in a mishmash of argument and counterargument: “This is an affront!” “It passes, 4-2–!” “I called the question!”
“Point of order! Point of Order!” Member Johnston tried to be heard over the din.
“This is an attempt to–” Member Welty started to say, but the Chair cut him off.
“We passed the resolution. We are now adjourned!”
“This is an illegal activity by the Board.” Mr. Johnston stated. “There has to be a vote on calling the question. Did you read your little book yet (Robert’s Rules), that’s sitting in front of you?”
(Stopping debate requires a super-majority (2/3) vote of approval.)
“Ok–” Chair S.-P. tried to back off. “We’re gonna have a vote on calling the question. All in favor of calling the question, say ‘Aye–’
Miernicki hollered out “AYE!”
“The meeting has already been adjourned.”
“No--we voted on Mike’s–member Miernicki’s--calling the question. We are nowwwww (holding the note for emphasis)–gonna vote on the original resolution--”
“Point of order! Point of order!”
Chair Seliga-Punyko inexplicably started reading off the number of the original resolution again, already passed.
The Lone Ranger openly questioned her competency: “I move that we immediately remove the Chair from her acting position.”
“You guys–we are following Robert’s Rules.”
(Someone should apologize: SORRY, ROBERT.)
“We voted on the calling of the question and are now voting on the resolution–”
Jeers erupted from the audience. Citizens started shouting out the obvious: that the procedure was illegal, because the meeting was already adjourned.
“I made an error–” Chair Seliga-Punyko reluctantly admitted, taking back her brash, initial adjournment. “And, so–”
“Point of order!”
“What is your point of order, member Johnston?”
“My point of order is that the meeting has already been adjourned. You can’t just go back–.”
The jumbled mess lurched on. Poor meeting management? One nice way to put it. Our school board is so dysfunctional you want to both laugh and cry.
And we still had another meeting to get through–the regular May meeting! The back-to-back ordeal lasted three and a half hours, which had to earn everyone who hung in there a get-out-of-purgatory-early pass. Chair Seliga-Punyko slipped out after the censure meeting. Madame Chair misses a fair number of meetings, more than any other Board member. Her absence seemed to help the mood in the room. It was sort of like a tough, buttoned-down schoolmarm being replaced by a fresh-faced substitute–this evening in the form of Annie Harala, who took over Chair duties.

A little less rough.

We sailed through the Education and HR committee meetings with barely a bump. As always, though, the WADM numbers kicked up some rough waves during the Business committee report. Member Johnston reported that the district lost another 28 students this past month, dropping enrollment to 8321, many hundreds below Red Plan projections. 271 students have been lost this year. The district’s CFO, Mr. Hanson, claimed the losses were in line with the district’s monthly “forecast”–meaning, apparently, if you set the bar low enough you can’t fail. Mr. Johnston accused member Miernicki of laughing while he laid out the numbers. Ignoring protocol, Mr. Miernicki ruffled himself up and responded: “Quit inferring that!” When he regained the floor, he brought the issue up again: “I resent any insinuation that I was laughing!” He said, definitely not laughing. “I was not (and am not) laughing…!”
The relentless Mr. Johnston next questioned Facilities Manager Kerry Lieder about some projects that should have been covered under the Red Plan on the Myers-Wilkins school. The district is going to spend $350,000 for masonry work and $450,000 to upgrade windows. Lieder said the windows were “some of the oldest in the district.” The multi-million dollar Red Plan was supposed to leave all the schools “new or like new.” Myers-Wilkins alone jumped from $12 to $14 to $20 million. Two years after the project was said to be done, old brick walls still need tuck-pointing and old windows still need replacing at a price of hundreds of thousands. Some people in the boardroom would love to clamp the Lone Ranger’s mouth shut, but he keeps asking questions the public has a right to have answered.
According to Board policy 8005, all Board decisions are supposed to be tested “against their probable effects, and…actual results eventually attained.” Board members are supposed to examine what the Board is accomplishing, but that job description is not popular with everyone in the boardroom. Sparks are likely to keep flying and, as Mr. Goosens lamented, the madcap spectacle is likely to continue.
Don’t forget the popcorn.