I was the lone member of the general public who sat through the new Board’s first Business Committee meeting a few weeks ago. The outside temperature was about zero and the meeting lasted more than two hours, so I can understand why crowds of citizens weren’t clamoring to get into Old Central. Yet, it amazes me. People vote (at least some of them, only 43% showed up at the polls) and then just seemingly forget about everything. You’d think everyone would want a ringside seat to see if the school board (which has been a blundering failure of good government for more than a decade) was finally going to get its act together.
But of course most people naturally prefer something more fun, and nearly ANYTHING on the planet--doing the laundry, washing the dishes--registers considerably higher on the pleasure scale than a school board meeting.
On this night I was the lone wonk who found the spectacle worth viewing.
I’d shown up because I was particularly interested in the debate I was certain would ensue over pending changes in Board policy. I knew Administration was set to submit a number of “advised” changes. I was interested in how much push-back would come from minority members over the fact that Administration was making the changes to their policies, and whether or not that procedure would continue with the new Board. I was especially concerned about proposed changes concerning policy 9075, the policy that dictates the way the Board’s agenda is set.
As anticipated, the minority Board members did voice some objections. Member Oswald offered a “skeptic’s point of view.” She pointed out that Administration making the changes meant Board members were “being given something without a say,” something that reflected Administration’s “preferences.” She added that she, as a Board member, would like to know “how (the recommended change) was formed, why it was formed.”
Member Johnston read a passage from the Minnesota School Board Association that referred repeatedly to school boards’ Policy Committees. “We don’t even have a Policy Committee,” Johnston pointed out. “We’re the legislative body of the district. We set policy. We, the Board, should be writing these policies.”

Will there finally be some give?

I admit several years of watching the school board has left me a bit out of practice, but let me try my hand at positivity. This was the first time I’ve ever observed the dysfunctional government mental case called the school board have a real discussion around the subject of Board policy, much less with no overt acrimony!
Not that fault lines of friction aren’t still present.
The new Business Committee Chair, Nora Sandstad (likely in part due to the fact that she’s a working mom), seemed to minimize the policy issue, as the majority members have done for years, stating quite empathetically that she “has no interest in serving on a Policy Committee.” (Member Oswald shoehorned in the cheerful observation that she, herself, “would like it.”) Clerk Loeffler-Kemp, again spouted the DFL majority’s longstanding boardroom position of staying the course and supporting administration: “I really appreciate how staff has been giving us background…I would not prefer a Committee versus the way we’re moving forward with thoughtful policy considerations. I really appreciate our staff. I really thank our staff for the work they put in.” Member Kirby acknowledged that minority members Johnston and Oswald (Harry Welty was absent) were voicing some concerns worthy of attention, but also minimized those concerns by comparing the formation of a Policy Committee to “calling a constitutional convention to look at one amendment.”
Loeffler-Kemp garnered first prize for the lamest majority argument, by adding that she was “uncomfortable with the committee, because it would allow people who have a lot of time to be on that committee.” Let me toss in one more “thank you” from her to Administration for taking on what clearly should be Board work and not demanding too much time from our representatives.
Most school boards have Policy Committees and the board of ISD 709 desperately needs one. One of the primary problems causing all the boardroom dysfunction for years has been the slipshod application of policy. Most Board members don’t even seem to know their own policies. During the Business Committee discussion, the new Chair of the Board, Annie Harala, claimed that the Board had recently passed a policy amendment allowing three members to place an item on the agenda. She had to be corrected by Administration.
If Administration hadn’t corrected her, the lone, attending citizen (yours truly) was about to break decorum and voice the correction from the peanut gallery. I know this sounds nitpicky to a lot of people, but the fact that the Chair of the Board incorrectly referenced a policy she’d voted to amend in June of ‘14, the fact that she claimed a policy existed that does not, strongly indicates a flawed system. The Board clearly needs to be more involved in the process of writing its own policies!

The Raise

The first policy review was not dictated by Administration. It was a routine annual review of policy 8030, “School Board Member Compensation.” The media has already widely reported that the Board entertained the idea of giving itself a raise, this year. I sometimes find it difficult to sit mutely in Old Central and watch our Board wander willy-nilly down misbegotten paths. I might have to start carrying a roll of duct tape in my backpack, so I can rip off a piece and paste it across my lips. I was so tempted to jump up and say:
“Am I hearing right?! The Duluth School Board is discussing giving itself a RAISE? Does loss of perspective afflict all Board members as soon as they’re elected? This Board should consider itself on probation for at least one year! This Board should first prove to the public that it can actually function, before even considering giving itself a tiny, tiny raise.”
I understand how tough it is to make ends meet these days, but a former Board member told me when he served there was no Board salary. He received $25 a meeting as Chair of the Board’s negotiating committee. He sat through 32 meetings, which means he earned a grand total of $800 for all his years on the school board. And it was tough work back then. The district had three times the number of students--25,000--than it has now. As Chair of the negotiating committee this individual was the person who sat across from the union rep during teacher contract negotiations. He told me he put in some all-night sessions. He’d run home, grab a shower and a cup of coffee and head off to his day job. All for 25 bucks!
And, incidentally, he was a banker who negotiated TOUGH on behalf of the taxpayers and a sensible district budget. There is no way district payroll would have jumped $3 MILLION this year if Richard Paulson had still been on the Board and in the room during the last contract “negotiation.”

Administrative Preference.

The rest of the Board’s policy reviews were based on changes recommended by administrative staff. Member Johnston correctly pointed out that there is an inherent flaw in Administration taking the lead in making changes in Board policy. He pointed out that a change on one policy almost invariably affects another policy and it doesn’t make sense for Administration to be feeding the Board the changes in dribs and drabs in committee meetings. It would be a better approach for a Policy Committee to look at the whole set of rules together. Johnston was also correct that Administration’s approach to changing policy has, so far, been very inconsistent.
The majority members instructed Administration to make the changes so the Board’s policies were in alignment with the model policies suggested by the Minnesota School Board Association. Johnston said that Administration is “sometimes following the model policies, sometimes dramatically changing them.”
District CFO, Bill Hanson, repeatedly countered that “we (Administration) are just making recommendations. You (the Board) make the decisions.” But the whole process does have a tipped-scale feel--sort of like a teacher winking and nodding towards the right answer.
The specific Administration recommendation that taxed the new Board’s patience (ticking away minutes that added up to hours of debate) was a change to policy 9075, Agenda for Regular Meetings. Folding the socks in your laundry basket probably sounds more appealing than reading about a policy change, but this is how your government works.
Again, district Administration was tasked with aligning Duluth’s Board with the model policies from the MSBA. To make matters more complicated (and the reason no-one bothers to go to meetings), the arcane discussion involved two different numbering systems and no one ever gives a hoot if the audience is clued in. The policy being referenced from the MSBA, School Board Meetings Agenda, is numbered 203.5. The policy ostensibly being updated and replaced, Agendas for Regular Meetings, is numbered 9075.
Again, this is your government--please don’t tune out. The ensuing debate centered around the fact that the Board’s current policy--9075--currently includes this statement, abbreviated here to its applicable essence: “Items initiated at a school board meeting…not on the agenda shall not be acted upon…unless consideration is requested by unanimous vote of the full school board.”

Power is exercised through arcane procedure.

People complain about the citizens who represent them, but I can’t emphasize enough that these meetings are not fun gigs. During this meeting, Board members had to examine and decide on eleven different policy changes amid all the other items of the Business Committee.
Board members were expected to perform this task without having all the information in front of them. In a cost saving move (estimated to produce savings approximately one quad-trillionth the cost of the Red Plan), Administration is no longer providing paper copies of meeting agendas to Board members. Member Oswald, particularly, objected that she was receiving information only electronically. Coming into meetings having only read something on her computer, she argued, meant she wouldn’t have adequate notes and references on hand to do her job as a school board member. She said it was unreasonable to expect Members to copy out a 145 page agenda.
Tree-loving techies will probably love to hear another electronic solution to the problem was discussed: Google chromebooks. The problem has to be remedied, in some way. The school board world is complex and arcane enough without members being unable to specifically reference what it is they’re discussing. More than once Member Johnston said, “I can’t look at this. I should have it in front of me.”
Again, the stickiest point was the “change” to policy 9075. The reason I put the word “change” in quotation marks is because Administration took a model policy that required only a simple Board majority vote to change the Board’s agenda, and added back in the existing language from the current policy, which required a unanimous vote. Is that confusing enough?
It is an important point, however. Minority members are accusing (or let’s just say, openly suggesting) that Administration is cherry picking changes from the model policies that will help the majority members (and Administration) maintain control of the boardroom, and also substituting language from the Board’s current policies into the model policies for the same reason. At least theoretically, a simple majority to change the Board’s agenda is easier to get than an unanimous vote. The minority members obviously have a point, and, frankly, given the history in the boardroom, good reason to be suspicious.
But here’s the reality: a four-vote simple majority isn’t really going to be much easier for them to get than an unanimous majority. They may have a slightly better chance (new Board member Nora Sandstad, especially, may occasionally side with the rational of the opposing argument), but the four DFLers are likely to often vote lock-step in a block. Another change to the same policy--insertion of the word “Clerk” in two spots--was also recommended by Administration. This change would give Board Clerk Loeffler-Kemp agenda setting power not outlined in the MSBA model policy, and she wants only happy talk in front of the camera.

At least allow debate.

I would argue that the most important point is what happens when a motion is made to amend the agenda. On this point, the DFLers have been tyrants for years. They’ve done everything they can to shut down debate. Board Chair Miernicki declared that no discussion of the motion was required. Board Chair Seliga-Punkyo allowed her allies to jump ahead in the queue, call the question, and shut down debate. Chair Seliga-Punkyo sniped ad nauseam that no debate was necessary, because everything in her opinion had “already been asked and answered!”
On her last day in office, Judy S.-P. proudly declared from her royal perch that we got “A GREAT BANG FROM THE BUCK” from the Red Plan.
Anyone who believes that answer reflected anything remotely resembling reality is hopelessly delusional or has managed to self-administer a frontal lobe lobotomy.
All “that” said, I can positively report some real positivity here! At least the Board’s majority members for the first time in my memory listened to the minority members and actually steered away from Administration’s recommendation. A simple majority vote (four members instead of all seven) will be allowed to amend the Board’s agenda during a meeting.
About as pleasurable as tackling some of the domestic chores accumulating around my house, our new Board of Education’s maiden run-through of district business at least had a fairly good ending. Hopefully all the positivity can continue during next month’s meeting, when Board members begin tackling a huge, projected $3.3 million deficit, left in the wake of the Red Plan (we got such a great bang for the buck from.)