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Editors Note: We are running the correct version of Loren’s article that appeared last week.
A few years ago, disillusioned with the mainstream media, I signed up to report on school board meetings with the Reader. This wonderful task, done for free, required me to re-listen to quarrelsome School Board meetings that lasted up to four hours.
Last Spring, I took a sabbatical from this self-flogging occupation to jump into the school board race for a third time. (From the boiling kettle, back into the fire.) Best of luck to my election opponent, who beat me soundly and “won” the third district school board seat.
Taking note of my third loss, the International Brotherhood of Masochists considered giving me a consolation membership card--but deemed my track record too self-abusive. I won’t even try to argue my actions in regard to the school district over the past eight years were those of an intelligent person. A much stronger argument can be made that everything I did will go down in history as the legacy of the dumbest, most foolish creature to ever bumble about our planet.
Where’s the UP button?
I started my political “career” the same year--2011--our newly elected mayor started hers. What a perfect, opposing trajectory! Can I somehow bribe a ride on that smooth-running, air-conditioned “members only” DFL elevator?
Years ago I was fairly active in the DFL, and have always found DFLers to be good, well-intentioned citizens. Facts, however, are facts. Most of the problems in school district ISD 709 stem from the iron grip the DFL party has held on the boardroom for a decade.
The DFL controlling the boardroom and administration controlling the DFL is what gave birth to the fiscally irresponsible, wantonly wasteful, ill-conceived, massively misguided debacle called the Red Plan.
The five Board DFLers tried to throw Art Johnston off and censured Harry Welty. Counting Gary Glass, there have been only three dissenting voices in the boardroom over the past decade and all three have been attacked. The party that preaches diversity and tolerance has a history of playing a mean game of hardball with anyone who isn’t gung-ho behind the party plan.
The reason I put myself through the misery of another school board race was because I wanted to break the DFL’s grip on the boardroom. I feared continued DFL dominance would mean no needed reforms would be made.
The Red Plan is “over”myth.
From time to time I read a blog called “A Patient Cycle.” The author has been quite critical of me, but I respect his opinion. He has a very astute mind. My only criticism of him is that he’s never displayed much insight into the Red Plan. Sometimes intelligence isn’t the only qualification required to talk about something; knowledge of the subject also comes in handy.
In a recent blog post, the ‘Patient Cycle’ author formed one of the most popular, dissonant arguments made in Duluth: that the Board should put the “dead-horse Red Plan debates” to rest and focus its energy on the “real issues at stake.” In other words, the Board can effectively deal with “real issues,” while ignoring the fact that the district has run up a $21 million annual debt service, is pulling $3.5 million out of the General Fund every year to pay off three Red Plan bonds, blew what was once a $30 million Reserve Fund, has lost nearly a quarter of its enrollment (some $22 million a year in state aid) and has dumped an additional $20 million tax burden on the city.
I know the happy talkers of this town want to believe otherwise, but you can’t have every promise made in the selling of a half billion dollar capital project go south, and then just blithely declare it “over.” Duluth is going to be wrestling with the fallout from the flimflam Red Plan for a generation.
One of the most amazing observations from my experience in running for the Board is that not one single question was asked about the budget. NOT ONE! Not even in the Chamber of Commerce forum. Talk about denial! Candidates were being vetted for a position that ostensibly controls a hundred million dollar operational budget (heavily burdened by a $481 million capital project) and nobody asked anything at all about the money.
The editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune, Chuck Frederick, was one of the moderators of the Chamber of Commerce forum. Throughout the campaign our resident watchdog of government promoted a positive attitude as the most necessary attribute of a good school board candidate. In such a happy talk environment, fantasy flourished. Candidates could promise all kinds of pleasant-sounding niceties--that they would lower class sizes, encourage more physical education and art, restore the music program to what it once was, bring back seven periods in the high schools…without ever having to answer, “How?”
The only thing I’ve heard Art Johnston and Judy Seliga-Punyko agree on over the past six years is that seven periods should be reinstated in the middle schools. These two tough, unrelenting combatants both wanted to deliver on one classroom improvement, and they couldn’t get it done again this year, despite millions of extra dollars (from increased state aid, etc.) pouring into the district’s coffers. If the Board has been unable to accomplish this one thing, how could any candidate, in good faith, promise to deliver a big, glittery wish list for education?
In Feb/14, Board Chair Mike Miernicki proudly declared, without a drop of irony: “We have our buildings built, now we can concentrate on our students and our curriculum!” First of all, it was not overly bright (in fact, really, really DUMB) to take the focus off students and curriculum for buildings to begin with. And, secondly, it’s a little difficult to finally get back to focusing on education when your facilities’ obsession blew a big hole in the budget.
The dead-horse debate.
Some board members want to have a real discussion about what state the Red Plan has left the district in. They are convinced that no real solution can be found without an honest and open assessment of the problem. Because of the warped nature of boardroom procedure, they have been repressed from having that debate. They are banned from their own agenda-setting meetings. Behind closed doors, an unelected bureaucrat--the superintendent of schools (currently, Bill Gronseth)--has the authority to reject any item from an elected body’s agenda.
The city council would never allow the city’s chief administrative officer to exercise that kind of power. The ability of administration to circumvent the check-and-balance role of the Board struck me as an egregious violation of representative government from the first moment I stepped into the boardroom, nearly eight years ago. How in the world can such an arrangement be construed as proper government? The Board is meant to represent the people who elect it, not administration’s wishes. As Jennifer Martin-Romme, owner of the Zenith News, succinctly wrote in a recent article about the issue: the Board isn’t supposed to “represent the administration to the people of Duluth,” it’s supposed to “represent the people of Duluth to the administration.”
(Thank God for the alternative press in this town, where actual ideas can thrive!)
Try to box people up, and you’re going to have conflict. On top of repressing any criticism of Red Plan shortfalls, administration has also been unduly secretive about other district business, such as contract negotiations. Some Board members have been barred from the negotiations and kept in a complete blackout. The public has been denied access to details, even after the contracts were settled but not yet voted on (information determined to be public in IPAD advisory opinions 06-015, 10-015 and 10-021.) Administration has also disallowed any public discussion of the superintendent’s job performance, especially in regard to his highly-touted “continuous improvement plan,” which has been continuously failing, especially in the western schools.
For years the DFL-backed Board members have seen their role as loyal soldiers in the administration’s army: aggressively promoting whatever administrators say is true. They demand only “positive” talk, and want no real questions asked, especially in public. This constricted, repressive form of government is exactly how we ended up with the Red Plan to begin with.
Problems will continue in the boardroom of ISD 709 as long as the DFL happy talkers (represented by the Clerk and Chair) are able to slip behind closed doors and have collusive, ex parte conversations with administration.
A bright and precious Pearl.
One of my favorite encounters during this campaign was with Pearl, an elderly Park Pointer. Pearl was laid up with a broken leg and rasped quite irritably, “Come-in! Come-in!” when I knocked on her door. Stepping into her house, I gave her the most charming smile I could muster and said, “I don’t know if you’ll be glad you invited me to come in, when I tell you I’m running for the school board.”
Pearl was definitely not happy. “Oh, the school board!“ She groused, shaking her head with an open scowl. “The problem with these damn elections is that they’re nothing but popularity contests! The dummies just elect a bunch of dummies who don’t know anything about anything!”
“Let me shake your hand, Pearl!” I grinned, crossing the room. “You hit the nail right on the head. All you need is DFL backing and you’re usually in.”
“And the unions!” Pearl barked out.
“Right again, Pearl! Most of the people elected to the Board are already blindly saluting administration and the unions. It’s a revolving door, all inside baseball. The only Board member allowed in the room during the last teacher contract negotiation (Rosie Loeffler-Kemp) is up to her eyeballs in the unions. She was endorsed by labor, her husband is a field rep for AFSME and her daughter is employed with the Duluth Central Labor Body. That’s why district payroll jumped another $3 million this year, while the eastern schools complain about big class sizes and the western schools starve for money.”
“Oh, they control everything!” Pearl fumed exasperatedly. “You can’t beat them!”
“Don’t give up Pearl! I think we’re going to this time! We just need two out of three seats! Some good people are running and they’re working hard. I’ve walked miles and miles, myself. I’ve knocked on every door across the hillside, from Mesaba to Chester Creek, and at least 80% of Piedmont Heights. I think we’re going to beat that big bully in this round--the DFL machine--and finally restore transparent, representative government to the boardroom…”
I went on an on, blabbering to that wise old woman as though I knew what I was talking about--if not the dumbest creature on the planet, certainly, hands down, the slowest learner in Duluth.