The Board recently completed its evaluation of Superintendent Gronseth’s job performance. How individual members rated district 709’s chief administrator is private data, placed in Mr. G.’s personnel file, but I’ve procured the form that was used and will make my evaluation public.
First I’ll report what I can report: the scores ranged from “1” for Unsatisfactory, to “5” for Outstanding. According to the district’s HR Manager, Tim Sworsky, the Board’s accumulative score came out to about 3.5, which breaks down to a grade equivalent of C+/B-. On a generous curve, 3.5 could maybe even squeeze out a straight B.
This grade is lower than our top district official has received on past evaluations, but does not really reflect a change in how well he is doing. It is more due to a change in the makeup of the Board. After the last election the DFL-endorsed majority dropped from 5-2, to 4-3. The fabulous five from years past (the same five that went after Art Johnston)--Judy Seliga-Punyko, Mike Miernicki, Bill Westholm, Annie Harala and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp--assigning a grade to the Superintendent’s job performance was bit like Russian judges scoring Russian figure skaters at the Olympics.
Of the nine performance categories ranked by our Board, I give the Superintendent one “5,” for “Curriculum and Instructional Leadership.” I know there’s a fair number of people in Duluth who still want to throw hand grenades at the district, but it’s important to be fair. Mr. G. has done an excellent job within tight budget restraints to hire good staff and introduce some innovative programs in the schools.
The New Tribune recently reported that his goal is to “reverse further enrollment decline by adding new programs that may not be offered elsewhere in the region or that cater to the area’s workforce demands.” In the article, Mr. Gronseth mentioned several new programs: language immersion programs at Lowell Elementary, more technical courses, such as aerospace physics, and a new high-tech fabrication lab in Denfeld High School.
In a normal school district, these types of programs probably would save the day, but here’s the rub: ISD 709 is not a normal district. ISD 709 was terribly warped by the colossal miscalculation called the Red Plan.
On with the scores

For most of the categories grading relational skills: “Community and Public Relations,” “Employee Relations,” “Student Relations,” “Intergovernmental Relations,” I also give our Superintendent pretty high marks, generally a “4,” which stands for Very Competent. Some may question the “4” for public relations, but Mr. G. never shirks his responsibilities, showing up with a good attitude at every community event.
For “Leadership and Communication Qualities,” I give him a “3,” or Satisfactory. He drops down to a “2” in the categories: “Planning and Goals,” and “Business and Financial Management.” A “2” score means Needs Improvement. Where the Super definitely bottoms out in my evaluation--only earning a “1,” or Unsatisfactory--is “Board/Superintendent Relations.”
Board members who gave the Superintendent a “1” or a “2” in any category of their evaluations were also required to include recommendations “on how the Superintendent can improve (his) performance in that area.” Needless to say, the majority members likely did not wear out many pencils; whereas the minority members were left with stubs.
A little more background.

Superintendent Gronseth has been a major player in the boardroom saga of ISD 709. I’ve pored over the public record over the past few years, chronicling the words and actions of our leaders. While doing so, I’ve laid out an extensive analysis of Mr. Gronseth’s job performance. An excerpt:
“He tried with some success to create a more respectful climate in the schools, and was also open to innovation--such as coming up with creative ways of integrating State science requirements into applied courses. He once enthusiastically promoted one of these courses in a subsidiary of the local paper. As he described it, the new aviation course was designed to ‘apply physics and engineering principles to design a more intricate model aircraft, build it and fly it.’ His love of education was evident from his description of students making ‘model planes of paper, then wood, (and testing) them for distance, flight path and velocity.’ He was a dedicated educator, who tried mightily to steer the conversation away from the Red Plan disaster, back to education and ‘the kids.’ Touting his own accomplishments, he claimed to have ‘changed the conversation about education in our community.’
His biggest failure was not establishing a good working relationship with the full Board. Unwisely, he actually helped to inflict great damage onto the district by getting involved in an attempt to purge a voice from the Board he and his allies found troublesome. The resultant public blowup and verbal war definitely did change the conversation: from distrust and alienation, to open disgust. Meanwhile, the underlying negative dynamics of the district--not enough resources funneling into the classrooms and plummeting enrollment numbers--did not improve despite large influxes of cash.
His social manner was very polished and he interacted well with allies and was very professional at public events, but he failed to heal the division in Duluth. His primary problem during his years at the helm was that he was afraid to admit mistakes and alter course to adjust to the failures of the Red Plan. He kept trying to shepherd a bad plan into a good outcome. In other words, his predecessor had pushed through an illogical solution to ISD 709’s problems, and he kept trying to logically follow an illogical premise to a positive conclusion.”
Those failing grades.

I’m going to start with “Leadership and Communication Qualities,” even though I gave Mr. G. a “3.” The fact is, depending how you grade this category, he could earn a “5.” Our Superintendent does have an avid fan club, happy to follow his lead. Burdened with a lot of baggage from his stint as Keith Dixon’s assistant, however, Mr. G. stepped into a boardroom as divided as the Trump/Clinton camps. Naturally he gravitated towards the side that not only had no problem with his baggage, but were convinced all the RED bags were filled with gold. As the last presidential election proved, if you’re a true believer, convinced your leader is guiding you down the righteous path, all blemishes disappear. In your eyes, he or she is Outstanding.
If you add up all the “5s” and “1s” for D. Trump and H. Clinton in the country it averages out to about a “3,” and that’s important to factor in. Even if some people will cheer for you until they’re hoarse, you still don’t deserve a high grade for “Leadership and Communication Qualities” if the number of people who think you’re greatest person on the planet is pretty equal to the number of people who think you’re the worst.
Some members of the Board regard the Superintendent with a respect bordering on adoration; others not so much.
As long as I’ve broached the subject, I’m going to skip down to my “1” grade. When it comes to “Superintendent/Board Relations,” Mr. G. deserves the lowest grade. If we were using letters, I would give him a “F.” My guess is the Board’s minority members gave him a “2” at best, and wouldn’t be surprised if all three gave him a “1,” while their majority colleagues likely all gave him at least a “4,” if not a “5.” Throughout the Superintendent’s reign, the deep division he inherited has persisted in the boardroom. Mr. G. and his administrators have in fact cultivated a chummy, us-versus-them relationship with the Board majority and have been very been antagonistic towards any dissent.
I would advise the Superintendent to open up the Board’s agenda-setting sessions. Boardroom problems are linked in no small degree to the way the agenda has been handled for years. The minority feels these meetings are exclusive and that the Superintendent exerts exorbitant influence over his already admiring fan club--the DFL-endorsed majority. Behind closed doors, differences of opinion tend to be chopped off at the ground, which stymies communication and repeatedly sets the stage for very poor Superintendent relations with the full Board.
Needs Improvement.

As for the “2” scores, I’m certain the majority ranked the Superintendent higher, and in one way, in at least one category, they are correct. I would agree with high marks for the academic side of “Planning and Goals.” Again, the Superintendent has been admirably open to academic innovation; in a normal district he would have his staff well positioned for success. His biggest failures in this arena are intrinsically linked to the failures of the Red Plan.
We were told, for example, that a huge investment in buildings would result in millions of dollars in savings pouring into programs to “ultimately close the achievement gap.” One of the goals of the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan was to close the achievement gap by 50% this year. Is Mr. Gronseth responsible for that goal not being met? He was Keith Dixon’s right-hand man, and right or wrong, the person in charge is generally held responsible for the failures on his watch.
The Red Plan also claimed that eliminating all the central schools and building big palaces on the either end of a city more thirty miles long, (a city, incidentally, with a deep, historical east-west divide,) would magically produce “equitable education.” I don’t know what Johnson Controls slipped into the water supply to be able to sell our gullible leaders on this idea, but it was incredibly inane from the onset and has predictably failed.
When I started beating the drum about the fact that things were tilting unfairly east some years back, I heard from a Board member that Mr. G. was claiming the dividing line was 14th Ave. East. I told the member where to find the map on the district’s website and he printed it out and brought it into a meeting. The Superintendent, in front of the boardroom audience, stared at the map with complete surprise, apparently learning for the first time that the line was actually 6th Ave. East.
The fact that the Superintendent of Duluth Public Schools didn’t know where the line was indicated to me that he was largely paying lip service to the issue. Virtually no progress has been made and no real plan is in place to solve this disparity.
My other “2” score is for “Business and Financial Management.” How can the Head of an organization that just slipped $3.3 million into the red (and is looking at another, perhaps even larger, deficit in the coming year) get a high score in this category? The only reason I didn’t give Mr. G. a “1” is because he stepped into a fiscal disaster when he took over in 2012.
Few people in this town know how bad it was. The district narrowly averted statutory debt in fiscal year 2011-12 by un-designating an insurance fund, so the money could flow into the unassigned part of the General Fund. The Fund actually did slip into statutory operating debt status in fiscal year 2012-13. This time it appears the district managed to bail out its sinking ship by moving some of the debt of the 2009a bond to the tax base.
Taking over administrative control of ISD 709 after Keith Dixon’s turbulent reign was like taking command of a ship caught in a whirlpool out in the middle of the ocean during a raging storm.
Eventually all of the 2009a debt was moved to the tax base, smashing the Red Plan’s tax promise (very unfair to the public,) but Mr. Gronseth does deserve kudos for one tax-related move. I’ve always given him a great deal of credit for the moxie he showed during the 2013 election. The State handed the district levying authority to smack Duluth with a big tax hike without voter approval, and the Superintendent talked the Board (except Judy Seliga-Punyko) into asking the voters instead. Especially given the fact that the district’s finances were tanking through the basement, this gamble was like laying every penny on the roulette table in Vegas, and our Super won!
This move was Mr. G.’s biggest victory and another reason for his good score in public relations, despite his disastrous judgment in the Johnston debacle.
One suggestion in regard to the continuing fiscal crisis I would offer the Superintendent is to use his clout with the DFL majority and persuade them to get some real concessions, especially on healthcare, in the next round of teacher contract talks. Last time, for example, the district wanted a 20% insurance premium contribution from single-payer employees, but the only Board member allowed in the room, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp--a union activist--continued giving them 100% coverage. Healthcare costs jumped another 6.9% last year, which means instead of saving $1.1 million, the district paid out nearly another million ($968,482) on top of more pay raises.
Loeffler-Kemp was Chair of the Business Committee at the time, and just a few months before the contract talks CFO Bill Hanson warned the Board the district would soon head into another deficit, if it stayed on the same track. The contract approved by the Board was completely irresponsible given the fiscal realities of the budget.
Instead of doling out pay raises and full healthcare coverage, the district needs to start pumping money into education--getting seven periods into the middle and high schools and lowering class sizes. District 709 remains uncompetitive in the educational marketplace. Enrollment is 1400 students below Red Plan projections, which claimed student numbers would “stabilize around 9600”--a monumental failure after all the millions and millions the Board has spent.

Will he really stay?

The Superintendent is telling everyone he likes it here now. His three attempts to land another job over the past two years, as he told the News Tribune, “showed me what I had in Duluth.”
Personally, I feel the way I would feel if I looked out my kitchen window and saw the guy renting part of my house out on the shoulder of the highway with a pack on his back and his thumb out. The guy waves frantically at every passing car, and failing to flag any down, finally comes back to my place with his hat in hand and declares, “Gee--I really do like it here!”
While he was trying to get out, just last spring, Mr. G. said, (News Tribune, 3/19/16): “It’s pretty clear that I have had some challenges (in the loony bin,) and perhaps a fresh start would be good for a lot of us.”
The Superintendent’s actions give me little confidence in his commitment, and I would not be inclined to give him a three-year extension on his contract. If I were forced into giving him a three-year contract, I would stipulate that he pay back any salary raise if he leaves sooner. Given the fact that he himself recently spoke about a “fresh start,” the best I would offer him is a one-year contract without a raise. I understand a raise can be more than just money--symbolizing appreciation--but it’s also true that a guy making a base salary of $168,000 isn’t going to have to bunk at CHUM if he doesn’t get one.
If Mr. G. hangs around for another year, I then would offer him a two-year contract with a 1% raise.
What he wants is a three-year contract with a 2% raise the first year and a 1% raise in each of the next two years. These raises will jack up his base salary to nearly $175,000, and he’s going to get it all--both the three year deal and the raises, because the DFL-endorsed power clique that runs the Board does whatever Administration wants. They see themselves as a booster club for the people who work in the buildings of ISD 709; this group of fortunate citizens is their true constituency.
That concludes my evaluation, with a bonus observation. By the way, my overall score came out to 3.2, solidly Satisfactory. The poor score for “Board/Superintendent Relations” was the big drag. Erasing this failing grade would have jumped our Super’s job performance number to nearly 4, or Very Competent.