When we passed the three hour line (9:30 P.M.) during the regular school board meeting of 6/21/16, part of me started hoping we’d make to 10:30 P.M. When we hit the three hours and a quarter mark (9:45 P.M.,) I started rooting for our Board: “You can do it, I know you can! Let’s go for FOUR!”
The citizens who’d come into the boardroom to discuss their concerns about rubber mulch in our public school playgrounds will probably pick up on my sarcasm. They’ve had to twice endure these long, bureaucratic spectacles. During the Business Committee meeting, the prior week, they were forced to wait over two hours. Member Welty pleaded with Member Kirby (who was acting as Chair of the Committee meeting) to move the resolution concerning the mulch issue up on the agenda. No dice.
“If questions are held to a minimum, we will get to it.” Mr. Kirby responded, essentially using protocol as blackmail. In other words: if you want to help out these folks (sitting here waiting and waiting, with wriggling little kids) shut up and let us move this meeting along on greased skids!
When I noticed some of these same citizens had signed up to speak at this meeting, I checked the agenda to see where the mulch resolution was positioned. Sure enough, it was way at the bottom. It amazes me how dim-witted our school board always is when it comes to its relations with the public. Granted: in the big scheme of things, the budget may be more important than playground mulch, but in terms of public relations putting the mulch resolution at the top of the list was a no-brainer.
I used the phrase “may be more important,” purposely. Any potential health risk to a child is pretty important, and anyone who hangs around the school district understands that these citizens are very passionate about their concern over rubber mulch. Why make them sit through a long, testy debate about the budget? Why not deal with their issue, and let them go on their way?
It’s all about business.

I have to let the first two standing committees–Education and Human Resources--slide in this report. The Business Committee was so substantive I need the whole column, and then some, to cover it. I also want to move the people concerned about mulch to the front of the line. (They actually cheered when their resolution finally came up for discussion during this meeting, and the few of us still in the room all broke into giddy laughter.)
Recycling and reusing is obviously beneficial. Keeping millions of old tires from ending up in landfills by finding alternative uses for them is a commendable endeavor, but I can’t imagine looking at a mountain of worn-out synthetic rubber and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to grind this stuff up and let little kids play in it?”
During the prior week’s Business Committee meeting, Chair Nora Sandstad (who came in late and relieved Mr. Kirby of his command) remarked: “My children attend a daycare that uses rubber mulch, and they look like chimney sweeps at the end of the day. Whether or not they’re in their shorts and short sleeves, if it’s hot out, it’s pretty gross.”
The following is a synopsis of what some concerned Duluth citizens said from the public podium on the subject:
Aaron Crowell, from the group, “Duluth Parents for Healthy Playgrounds,” thanked the Board “for putting a resolution on the table tonight that is a step towards reducing young kids’ exposure to this material…Parents will be grateful once the last shovelful of tire mulch is removed from the playgrounds…Young children roll in the mulch; they bury each other in it; they stuff it into their clothes and even put it in their mouths. Their interactions with the material are intense and repeated day after day…A recent Yale university study detected nearly one hundred different chemicals in scrap tire mulch, some of which are probable carcinogens, and many of which haven’t even had a toxicity assessment…More and more research is showing that combinations of chemicals, even in small doses, may interact to amplify harmful effects…”
Kathleen Schuler, co-director of Healthy Legacy, a statewide public health coalition of 35 members that has been working to eliminate toxic chemicals from consumer products, spoke next. “Recently,” Ms. Schuler told us, “we’ve discovered that crumb rubber is a potentially significant toxic exposure where children play every day…Parents across the state and across the country want to protect their children’s health and are asking for precautionary action to prevent exposure to inherently toxic crumb rubber materials…”
Lindsey Jungman told the Board she felt this issue was one the district could use to get a leg up on the competition. A former high school teacher and current instructor at UMD, she described herself as a “passionate supporter” of public education. “I know you know,” she said, looking up at the Board, “the competition from charter schools that is going on. Some of the other parents I talk to--those who are dedicated supporters of Duluth schools--want to feel excited to be leading and not always trying to catch up. This is one issue I think you can lead on…”
Cory Kirsling made it clear that he was willing to do anything he could to make the project of removing and replacing the tire mulch happen in a timely manner. “I’ll be there (on the playgrounds) with a shovel. I’m ready to go to work.” He mentioned a recycling company that would be willing to reuse the mulch as a road paving aggregate, “so the tires can go back on the road, where they belong, and not on our children.” Melissa Janzen told the Board that the mulch issue was a determining factor as to where she sends her kindergartner to school. “As parents, I think we all would appreciate to know where this is going, so we can choose where we put our children.” Hillary Kirsling, the last speaker, added that she and her husband, Cory, initially “looked for playgrounds that had tire mulch, because it seemed really safe–kids could fall (into it.)” But, now, she told the Board, the potential dangers they’ve become aware of are “overwhelming and not understood.”
All these citizens wore their hearts on their sleeve and made their pleas with passion, and then had to sit tight for three hours to see if the Board would respond favorably by committing itself to a tangible plan of action.
In the end, it was pretty much worth their wait. The Board unanimously approved the resolution to remove the tire mulch from public school playgrounds and even added language, committing to a September/17 deadline.
Member Oswald pushed the envelope a bit, by asking administration how it intended to keep citizens in the loop: “I’m just wondering how you intend to include the public in the process?”
Superintendent Gronseth answered this way: “I think developing the process for doing this is part of our charge. Certainly in most of our processes we include staff and principals, and so as we move forward there’s going to be several phases to this. Part of it will be working with architects, who will need to design how it physically happens, and so we’ll continue to gather people’s input, but I don’t have that process in place yet.”
If this mushy, evasive answer is indicative of intent, the public is likely looking at bleacher seats way up in the nosebleed section, as far from the action as possible, but I think we will hear from these able citizens again if they’re not happy.
On to other business.

The State regards children of various ages more or less expensive to educate. The difference assigned to age groups is referred to as “weighting.” Recently the State changed its weighting formula, which means the acronym that was once used to refer to weighting–WADM–has also now changed, to APU.
One of the things that makes the world of education so inaccessible to outsiders is that there are seemingly thousands of acronyms.
Considering the length of many Board meetings, the new acronym–APU–could very well stand for: Aching Posterior, Unending. APU popped up a few months ago, but I kept using WADM, because I didn’t want to confuse readers. Until this month the district was including both–WADM/APU–in the meeting’s agenda, so I’ll do the same until everyone catches on that APU has replaced WADM.
As he has relentlessly, for many months in a row, member Johnston brought up this month’s WADM/APU number. The district lost another 23 students, dropping enrollment to 8167, scandalously below Red Plan projections, and 174 students below this year’s projection from the latest demographer, an outfit called RSP.
“Part of their sales pitch,” member Johnston remarked, referring to RSP, “was that they had a 97% projection accuracy.”
“Only on the first year.” Superintendent Gronseth qualified.
“Only on the first year! Oh, ok! Boy, that’s different.” The Lone Ranger shook his head, chuckling sardonically, before pulling himself back on point: “My point is not to make fun, but to point out that these projections are notoriously poor.”
Student enrollment projections have been so bad Duluth citizens can only laugh or cry. The Red Plan is, of course, the root of the problem. The Red Plan is doing to demographers what the big ice cube called Lake Superior does to the weather people. The Red Beast is so huge, and such a fiasco, it warps all the computer calculations.
This year was in fact the first full year of RSP’s five-year projection, and the firm projected ISD 709 would gain 16 students. Missing the mark by 174 students is probably closer to .97% accuracy. I continue to maintain we’d be better off throwing fifty bucks at the Astrology Hotline.

Half mill tax break?

In an attempt to solve its deficit problem, the Board asked its financial advisors to look at the possibility of refinancing some of the massive Red Plan debt. The Board was told one bond–the 2008b–was eligible for refunding, and a possible savings of about half a million dollars a year might be saved for Duluth taxpayers.
The agenda for tonight’s meeting included a resolution to refinance the bond. Member Welty expressed some worry about what district 709 might be getting into, this time around: “Someone who’s been very interested in our bonding for the last ten years, a former banker, told me that I may not have fully understood what exactly has been going on here. I’m beginning to fear we may be taking $85 million of debt and replacing it with $95 million.”
A spokesperson for PMA Securities, the district’s principle financial advisor, answered this way:
“The market right now is a premium market. That means the people who want to buy your bonds are willing to pay a higher amount of money to collect a higher interest rate down the road…Because of that, we have a mathematical amount for the par amount. The actual debt you have would be slightly less in today’s conditions, than the amount you have outstanding right now. Now, the reason your resolution states $95 million is because if we want to sell the bonds at par amount, meaning that every person buys a bond that matures in 2029--and you’re going to sell it a 2.5% interest–they’re actually collecting a 2.5% coupon; that’s the par. You have to pay exactly the same amount of money for the amount of interest you’re going to collect in the end. If that were to happen, and the market goes in an unfavorable direction…”
Anyone out there work for SEC? After listening as closely as I could to this lengthy and slippery numerical disarticulation, I still had some doubts. The PMA moneyman did claim on the record, however, that the taxpayers of Duluth would come out saving a net 3% on the refunded bond or the deal wouldn’t proceed. The Board took his word on it and passed the resolution unanimously.
Money, money.

I don’t have room to do full justice to the discussion over the budget. Carried over from the Business Committee meeting the prior week, the prickliest point was the $3.4 million appropriated out of the General Fund to pay Red Plan debt. Member Johnston, frustrated about this crippling fiscal arrangement, went for broke (no pun intended) and made a motion to stop pulling the money out for debt payment. Metaphorically speaking, the Lone Ranger donned the regalia of the Japanese Emperor and nose-dived straight into the enemy like a kamikaze pilot.
Explaining this “bold move,” Mr. Johnston said he wanted to stop the Red Plan’s drain from the budget “once and for all.” He added that administration had gotten the district “into this situation, and they can find a way to get us out.” He recommended turning to the State. Because the State had approved the plan, he argued the State should help bail it out, by granting ISD 709 special legislation that would let the Board refinance the full debt, or provide some subsidies to make up for what is currently being robbed from education.
Warning about the risk of defaulting on Red Plan debt, but acknowledging the fiscal problem, Superintendent Gronseth observed that, “If we had a time machine, we might go back and make some changes…”
If we had a time machine, I’m pretty sure the citizens of Duluth would go back and catapult Keith Dixon to the moon.
Member Sandstad called the question to shut down debate, after listening to what she thought was enough. Chair Harala allowed her to jump ahead in the queue, a violation of parliamentary rules. The majority then tried to push the meeting forward by passing a motion with a simple majority vote, another violation.
The Lone Ranger called a point of order.
“Member Johnston?” The Chair queried, asking for his point.
“Calling the question requires a two-thirds majority.”
Interminable minutes passed as Chair Harala paged through Robert’s Rules of Order, but she finally announced: “Member Johnston, you are correct. The discussion will continue.”
The minority members (now three strong) won a procedural point for the first time in my memory! Member Sandstad did not look happy. She stuck her jaw out and stared up at the ceiling for a lengthy period, from all appearances quite piqued that she couldn’t go home to her kids.
When a similar situation occurred later in the meeting–this time Clerk Loeffler-Kemp calling the question, and the minority again winning the right to proceed–Chair Harala grumbled disconsolately: “Here we go again.”
“I’m sorry that we’re going at it again, Chair Harala,” Member Welty huffed, his voice filled with considerably more annoyance than sorrow, “but these are important questions for the financing of the district and I take umbrage at that comment under your breath, with the microphone off!”
The undercurrent of the evening was another skirmish between the people who want to closely examine the details of district operations and the ones who want to take a broad stroke and move on. The dissenters had many doubts. Member Oswald, for example, worried about lingering confusion over parts of the budget, such as a $3.3 million deficit that appeared to have grown to $3.6 million. “I consider myself a relatively intelligent person…but I don’t know why these aren’t matching numbers…”
Clerk Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, on the other hand, praised the process and disagreed with the doubters: “I guess sometimes I just feel like I’m sitting in a different meeting in terms of the opportunities to ask questions and be informed on the variety of things related to our budget…”
The budget passed 4-3, with Mr. Johnston’s motion to amend failing. Three Board members weren’t convinced the numbers handed to them by administration would solve the district’s problems; four were wearing Rosie-colored glasses.