Photo credit: T. Heinonen
Photo credit: T. Heinonen

The biggest news in the boardroom of ISD 709 this evening was the revelation that our public schools’ Superintendent was trying again to get out. SIX TIMES, he’s tried. What a wonderful image for the Duluth district. Our school district is broke, in very fragile shape, and (even though the Board gave him a three-year contract and jacked his pay to a whopping $175,000 a year) our Superintendent keeps trying to hitch a ride out of town — to ANYWHERE

From the beginning, to avoid the circus, Duluth probably should have just offered to pay Mr. Gronseth’s first year’s salary in another town. Judging from their past actions, the four DFL-endorsed, majority Board members would have had no problem with that. They’d probably insist on giving him another raise, as he was driving away. 

I’m amazed Mr. G. can keep showing up in the boardroom with no sign of stress or embarrassment. But he was here again tonight, sitting in the middle of our hapless Board, looking like it was a normal day at the office.

Board meeting, 3/21/17

At the onset of the meeting, in celebration of the fact that March is “Music in Our Schools” month, the boardroom audience was treated to a few musical numbers from the Denfeld High jazz band. For some reason, if you watch the meeting on youtube, you’ll only get to see them play; the audio didn’t come through. Apparently karma decided to reward only those of us self-flagellating enough to show up in person. 

Every March, for several years, Teri Akervik has spoken to the Board about the public schools’ music program. Ms. Akervik is a music specialist, currently in her twenty-ninth year in our schools. I don’t know how many thousands of bad notes she’s heard, but she remains an undaunted and ardent advocate for music education. 

After some of her music department colleagues also introduced themselves, Ms. Akervik told the Board: “There are some wonderful things going on in our classes and out in the community…I would love to take you (Board members) around on a tour…Thank you for all of your support. I know this is a really tough time with the budget, but this (music) is really important.”

The next speaker was a UW-Superior student. Maria Puglisi informed the Board that she’s a second-year college student, but “considered a senior, by credit, because of the education I was given at Denfeld High school.” Ms. Puglisi expressed worry, however, that the same level of opportunity was beginning to fall away at her old alma mater. 

“I graduated at the top of my class and was very lucky. With careful manuevering, I was able to fit all of my CITS and AP courses in my junior and senior schedule, allowing me to earn 44 college credits. I saved approximately $21,000.” She told the Board she was worried about the students coming behind her. Her sister, a senior at Denfeld this year, “has only taken two CITS (college in the schools) classes this year, out of the four she wanted to take.” She said “a shiver” went up her spine when she thought about the opportunities her cousin (a freshman at the school) “will be denied because of her address…This inequality (between the high schools) is real…This inequality requires action.” She told the members of our famously action-oriented Board that it was their job “to figure it (a solution) out…”

Ms. Puglisi addressed this inequity issue between the high schools from the podium once before (in May of 2014,) when she was a Denfeld student. I reported on her heartfelt speech in the Reader. 
“Three years ago, this issue was brought to your attention.” She reminded the Board this evening. “This potentially fatal wound to my historic high school was brought right before your eyes, and you let it continue to bleed…The public voted for you because they believed you would bring good change to this district. Prove to them that they were right.” 

These powerful words from a bright, young woman should have had every Board member hanging his or her head. The only thing I would add is: this potentially fatal wound to Denfeld High was pointed out to the ruling members of the Board TEN YEARS ago, during the genesis of the Red Plan, and they still blindly and bullheadedly insisted on hewning our town into two--one side of “haves,” one side of “have-nots.” 

The next speaker, Karen Perry, started by reading an e-mail from a parent of a child at Lincoln Park Elementary school: “‘My son has been told by teachers (at Lincoln Park) that he is stupid, that he is going to fail and that his friends are losers…I am a very involved parent, and I have seen a lot in the last three years at Lincoln Park. My son is white, but the majority of his friends are not. And I have seen these kids treated as less than (other kids)…’ Ms. Perry told the Board that it is people like this, who feel ostracized and neglected, that she’s been advocating for. “I hope you take this matter as seriously as you’re taking the ‘candy parents,’ the ‘mulch parents’ and the ‘extra-college-class kid parents.’ I support every one of those issues, (but) we need you (the Board) to support all the kids that are not being supported.” 

Our poor (in every sense of the word) Board gets hammered monthly from east to west, top to bottom. The next speaker was the parent of a child at Congdon Elementary. Jessica Durbin told the Board her child will be a fourth-grader next year. She addressed two issues at the school. “The first is this serious problem of class sizes. The reason I’m here to address this (issue) tonight is because I was told when (my child) started in kindergarten that it wasn’t going to be a long-term problem, and I think we know now that’s not true.” She appealed to the Board to “do whatever is in your power to make class sizes such that students can actually learn…”

In this instance, power is money…and our Board has no power. 
The second issue Ms. Durbin raised was “the importance of the G.A.T.E. program.” G.A.T.E. is another educational acronym, that stands for Gifted And Talented Education. As one Board member described it to me, ISD 709 gets “a smidge” of federal money to help foster children who are excelling academically, in grades 3-5. This is the first year Ms. Durbin’s daughter was eligible for G.A.T.E. The 8 year-old is reading at a seventh grade level. Teachers at Congdon “have gone out of their way” to challenge the child, but Ms. Durbin lamented their “limited resources and limited time.” She pointed out that her daughter was involved with only three G.A.T.E projects, “just a couple of weeks long,” this past year: She appealed to our penniless Board to “do what you can to make (this program) more robust next year and in future years.”

One more request is on the list, should ISD 709 discover gold during its next building project. 
Following Ms. Durbin to the podium, Anne Skwira-Brown encouraged the Board to try to “really understand the community’s experience of needs.” A nurse, Ms. Skwira-Brown told the Board that “education, like healthcare, is like a business, and people are going to continue to make choices based on their perception of quality and how they get their needs met.” She said she and other parents “feel a sense of urgency.” If the status quo continues, “there are going to be more classes that are too big and too stressed to meet the needs of all students. Graduation rates won’t move from where they are if we keep looking to the same solutions. And, even more striking--we’re watching our neighbors move, so they are within certain boundaries; we’re watching our coworkers enter lotteries, so they can send their children to charter schools; and some of our friends are moving their children into private schools, to get their needs met.” She said she and others “would like to continue to believe in our public schools,” but asked the Board to “make this a vibrant community not just for some, but for all students.” 

Board members listened attentively and respectfully to all these speakers, but a raft of misguided decisions over a decade have left them in the RED, so what in the world are they going to do? 
Time to figure it out 

The best path to finding a solution to anything is to start with good data. One of the reasons it is difficult to obtain good data in a public school district is because bureaucrats are forever moving the goal posts. The formula for calculating State aid per class level was completely altered between 2014 and 2015, for example. If you try to calculate the square foot utility costs in a district’s buildings, you will discover the State also changed its method for calculating the square footage in school buildings. East high school, sized at 282,349 square feet in 2014, is now officially 310,550 sq. ft., according to the bureaucrats. 

During discussion of the Education Committee Report this evening, member Welty brought up the challenge of dealing with this mucky, bureaucratic mutability factor. He pointed out how difficult it can be to distill a clear measurement of progress from point a, to point b: “I’m frustrated that the powers-that-be regularly change the (standardized) testing programs so that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to align test results from the past with the present, to know how you are doing in terms of helping your kids be educated.” 

Mr. Welty referenced a story in the “bygones” section of the Duluth News Tribune about the State test results from 1997. The paper apparently reported, according to member Welty, that 20 years ago “81% of Duluth’s ninth graders had reached math skills suitable for the adult world, and 87% of our ninth graders had achieved reading skills that were necessary for the adult world…So my challenge to you (addressing Tawnyea Lake, the district’s Director of Assessment, Evaluation and Performance) would be this: if you could find some reference to these test results…and see if there is some way to let us know hour our ninth graders are doing by these particular measurements, I would appreciate it…” 

“If I might intervene.” Superintendent Gronseth said, intervening. “We are in the middle of the testing season, and I know that Dr. Lake is spending most of her time with testing and testing proctors, and handling all that. I think that your ‘ask’ is a very large ‘ask.’ There might be something that the State has that we can use to compare, but the standards for which these tests are based on are so completely different, that it would be extremely difficult without having a lot of research and probably some kind of formulas to be able to cross-reference. I don’t know if it would be really possible, or maybe a good use of (Dr. Lake’s) time to research all the testing changes in the last 20 years. Perhaps it would be (a good use of her time) if it’s readily available, but I wouldn’t want her to dedicate months of time on that project.” 

“Superintendent, I agree.” Member Welty said, amiably agreeing. “So, perhaps, somebody at the Dept. of Education, or some academic (sitting in a mountaintop cave with a laptop) has put together some sort of history of these changes that have taken place, and if you (Dr. Lake) by chance run across (that hermit in his or her cave) and could point me in the right direction, I would appreciate that because testing ought to be what we do to make sure where our kids are going. The thought that we have no way — or very few options — to go back and figure out how we got to where we are, based on all those tests we have administered to our poor students, is sort of alarming.” 

Equally alarming is that there have been so many changes. We’re not talking about two centuries; we’re talking about two decades. 

Blessed bureaucracy! 

One detail that can’t be fudged by bureaucrats, however, is the graduation number. A kid either graduated, or didn’t. Member Johnston gave the audience some statistics recently released to the media by the Dept. of Education: 
“The graduation rate for all students (in Duluth’s public schools) has been running around 74%. For comparison, the State average graduation rate is 82%. Native Americans are graduating at 36%. The number’s been running pretty much about that (in Duluth) since 2009. For comparison, Cloquet is graduating 71% of their Native Americans…Grand Rapids is graduating 80% of their Native Americans. The little town where I grew up--Warroad, MN--where we have a fairly large Native American population, is graduating 73%…Duluth appears to be (according to MDE data) the lowest in the State, if you don’t count the schools that only have one or two (Native American) students.”

Black students are faring a bit better, but not much: “Minneapolis is graduating 57% of their African-American students; Anoka, 70%; Osseo 72%; St. Paul 70%…and, in Duluth, we’re at 47%.”
Numbers are like barbs on a fish hook, very hard to wriggle away from. Mr. Johnston, his hook firmly set, continued to work his line: “Looking at the white students…our white student graduation rate is about 70%; the State average is 87%. Denfeld High’s (total graduation rate) is about 76%; East High is about 96%. The disparity between Denfeld at 76% and East at 96% is really quite amazing (and, to borrow member Welty’s adjective, alarming.) Denfeld used to graduate 85-90% of its students and we’re down to 76% this year. Even more importantly (and alarming,) back in 2011, the first year Denfeld was a stand-alone school, after combining with Central, it graduated 270 students. This year Denfeld graduated 178 students. Last year was about the same. For those who are concerned about Denfeld, this is the lowest number of graduates I’ve been able to find since Denfeld was built, in 1926.”

“East High is consistently graduating at least 90% of their (senior) class and Denfeld is consistently, the last few years, in the 75-76% ratio.” Member Oswald added to the discussion. “I think that’s a direct reflection of the fact that East is better able to meet its students’ needs somehow, some way…When you compare Special Education, for example, Denfeld graduates their special ed. kids at 32%. East is able to double that amount, at 70%, with half the number of kids. That tells me that when you’re able educate smaller groups, you’re better able to meet their needs. To me, that says Denfeld would have to double the number of teachers and help for their special ed. kids, to get them to where East is.” 

Our town was sold promises made of smoke. A corporate hustler under-delivered and left us a mess. I want a Red Plan refund! I want to confiscate the mansion and swimming pool of JCI’s CEO. 
Wrapping it up

This meeting was pretty short by recent standards: only 2½ hours. The HR meeting consisted of the first reading of 8 policy and bylaw changes. I wish I had the space to go into them, but maybe I’ll be able to next time, during the second reading. I’m going to wrap up the Business Committee Report very simply: ISD 709 is broke. Rather than addressing all the needs and wishes of an increasingly clamoring public, our poor, beleaguered representatives are going to have to decide where to make more cuts in district operations within the next few weeks. 

I also want to mention some big news that broke, since the March meeting. Bill Gronseth, according to a facebook post, has now “withdrawn from other (job) searches still in progress.” He blamed his desire to get out of town on all the naysayers, saying Duluth needs “less negativity, finger pointing, and shaming.” He threatened to be a little less nice from this point on. “Life in the public eye isn’t always easy.” He declared. “Sometimes I work really hard to make it seem like it is…(but) I am going to start speaking more plainly. I am not going to work quite as hard to make it look easy. Things might get a little messier…”

Sounds like Mr. G. plans on taking the gloves off, which could definitely make a mess even messier. I, for one, intend to stay out of his way and put a lid on all negativity. Just as soon as I get my refund.