Duluth Central High School. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Duluth Central High School. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen


The 5/16/17 regular meeting of our school board was another lengthy one, ending around 10:00 p.m. I’m not even going to try to cover the whole thing in this article. Mostly I’m going to focus on public comment. Public Comment has become a passionate (and lengthy) part of meetings over the past year or so.

Articulating the issues

The first speaker of this evening, Aaron Crowell, expressed some gratitude to the Board for seemingly moving in the right direction on one issue hotly debated in the boardroom for months: rubber mulch. “Thank you so much for your attention to the concerns about shredded tire mulch on the playgrounds, and for your two unanimous votes in favor of removal over the past year. And I want to thank district staff for collaborating with parents to fund-raise and figure out less expensive and faster approaches to playground renovations.”

Mr. Crowell urged Board members to continue searching for a solution. He asked them to support a decision to “re-bid the project in a manner that leaves the playground equipment in place, and hopefully you will receive bids with quicker timelines and better prices.” Pointing out why his (and so many other parents’) concerns are valid and why actions on those concerns are “both reasonable and wise, when it comes to young children,” he criticized some advice offered in a recent News Tribune editorial. “Assessing the health risks of tire mulch is not as simple as assuming the government will provide clear answers about its safety. And addressing parents’ concerns is not as easy as slopping more sanitizer on our kids--which may actually increase absorption of some chemicals.”

Tire mulch contains multiple risks, Mr. Crowell further argued: “Nearly one hundred different chemicals have been detected in tire mulch--some probable carcinogens, and many lacking toxicity assessments. Our groups’ analytical testing found 12 chemicals listed by the Minnesota Dept. of Health as chemicals of high concern, including lead, which has no agree-upon level of exposure for children.”

Mr. Crowell told the Board there is reason to believe current government studies, “will not, or cannot address” some of the concerns about tire mulch toxicity because the “complexities to childhood exposure are just too great. Combinations of chemicals, for example, even in small doses, may interact in ways that amplify each other and increase harmful effects…Young children are uniquely susceptible to the effects, because they are still growing…Exposure to toxic chemicals early in life can affect adult health, years later. We should not wait for decades of academic research and regulatory improvements to make decisions about whether or not tire mulch should be on playgrounds. Thank you, Duluth public schools, for the steps you are taking to protect children’s health.”

Hopefully Mr. Crowell’s “thank you” was not premature, and the Board pulls this one off.
The next two speakers voiced support for the Board’s approval of a renewed agreement with Lake Superior Swim Club to manage the district’s new, very expensive swimming facilities. Try as I might, I couldn’t squeeze this issue into a two-page article. I’ll have to write about it separately. This discussion over swimming pools was glossed over by most Board members and the mainstream media, but I found the whole issue to be very interesting. The remarks made by the Swim Club’s supporters clashed dramatically with another speaker’s viewpoint--but, again, space forces me to put it all on hold until next week.

Echoes from the past

Nearly a decade back, I asked the august members of our school board: “Is the fact that you--elected public officials--don’t like what’s being said justifiable grounds for taking away a citizen’s right to speak at this podium? And, furthermore, is it wise to do so? Wouldn’t you be better off letting people speak and vent?”

The next speaker, Henry Banks, has been a school board candidate and is a very civically active citizen. Mr. Banks is one of our local leaders, especially for the African-American community. “I’m here to speak to you about one specific matter,” he began, “the matter concerns an Education Equity (Committee) meeting held Thursday, April 27th, 2017. I’m here to make you (the Board) aware of the inappropriate behavior exhibited by current Board Chairperson, Mr. David Kirby. In my opinion, his behavior was disrespectful, embarrassing, hurtful, unprofessional and emotionally challenging for most, if not all, the people in attendance.”

Mr. Banks described the meeting, where he alleged Mr. Kirby verbally pointed a finger and “accused those in attendance of only attending ISD 709 school board meetings to complain.” Mr. Banks repeated what he said were Mr. Kirby’s exact words: “You people--when you attend the school board meetings, you only come to complain. All you have are complaints.”

Maintaining that these words were “out of line, completely out of line,” Mr. Banks asked the Board and the audience in the room: “Is it right for a school board member to make disparaging remarks?” He further asked: “Does Mr. Kirby make the same comments to the parents from the East side of the district when they stand before this body, seeking the reduction in class sizes, or when they come to you because they want more stuff? The answer is an emphatic ‘NO!’ Mr. Kirby and this Board have done a disservice to children of color in every measurable way. Academically--.”

“Chair Kirby…” Member Welty’s voice suddenly could be heard, off-mic. “Chair Kirby--if I could intervene…”
Nothing freezes a public gathering like a citizen being cut off from speaking. A cold feeling literally crept through the pit of my stomach. I’ve been in Mr. Banks’ spot, and I thought: here we go, again. A school board, with an uncanny knack for riling people up, expects everyone to appear at the public podium wearing a big, happy smile.

During my own boardroom standoff, I didn’t even call the Chair out by his name. I referred to him (the person who’d broken every single one of his campaign promises) as the “so-called representative of the third district…”
In a just and ‘civil’ world, I should still be doing rehabilitation time in Stillwater State Prison, and now, apparently, Henry Banks should be my cellmate. If “Openly Displaying Irritation Towards Dysfunctional School Board” ever gets codified as a State Felony Offense, we’ll have to have Johnson Controls come back into town and add a prison facility onto Old Central. With any luck, we may be able to somehow fold the penitentiary population into enrollment numbers.

Insight into member Welty’s motive for stepping into the foray can be found by looking back at the Art Johnston spectacle. During that saga, the establishment of Duluth pegged Mr. Welty as a pesky troublemaker defending an anti-Red Plan ally, but from what I observed that was not true. Harry Welty took an unpopular stand and continued to hold his ground because he was convinced what was happening to Art Johnston was NOT FAIR, and fair play is one of his core values. Prompted by the Superintendent, (later revealed to have passed him a note asking, “Personal Attack?,”) board member Welty apparently felt even more obligated to defend a colleague he doesn’t usually agree with.

“One of the things we try to do is ease off on personal attacks.” He said to Mr. Banks and the audience. “I highly admire your restraint, (Mr. Kirby,) since you are the Chair. The complaint may have some legitimate basis, but I think we have probably heard enough, and it probably will provoke some soul-searching. I would ask the speaker, having made his point, that he allow us to proceed on…”

“With all due respect,” Mr. Banks replied calmly, but firmly, “I have 3 minutes, and I ask that I be given those 3 minutes.” He received a round of applause from the audience, mine included. “And for the record,” he continued, “this is not a point of putting anyone down--it’s bringing it to your (the Board’s) attention, as so-called leaders of the school district. So I’m going to start (speaking) again, from where I was interrupted.”

Mr. Banks finished his speech without further incident, well within the bounds of free speech and laced with legitimate criticism.
“You people” was an impolitic way for the Chair to address a segment of our society labeled separately, to its detriment, for generations. The question Mr. Banks asked about whether or not the same type of disparaging remarks would be directed towards the eastern residents of this town was also a very valid point in the boardroom of ISD 709. In an 7/31/14 editorial page article, the News Tribune wondered if one high school plan would have been better than the two high schools created by the Red Plan. “Would that have at least lessened,” the paper asked, “Duluth’s can’t-seem-to-shake-it east-west divide and its separation, whether real or perceived, of haves over here and have-nots over there…(or) would we have seen double the angst?”

I don’t know about one high school, but I believe the angst would have more than doubled--it would have quadrupled--if the people in the East had gotten the short end of the stick. The rich folk would have acted many times worse if they had suffered what the poorer Central citizens of the city suffered. If they’d lost THEIR school, (instead of getting $15 million more put into East High than any other building,) and that loss had happened in a devious, treacherous manner, including being effectively lied to by their “representative,” and their kids had ended up in underperforming classrooms, with fewer academic choices--if the situation had been reversed--the wealthy, privileged people who at times have condescendingly clucked their tongues at the less-advantaged citizens suffering the losses brought on by the Red Plan would have been in the boardroom screaming bloody murder, with their lawyers at their side.

The side that did get taken gets restless

The next speaker, Marilee Tusken, delivered a powerful speech about the inequities that now exist in district 709. A member of the “Community-based School Equity Initiative,” she expressed dismay that a Committee-of-the-Whole Board meeting promised by the Board to discuss the group’s concerns had been put off “until late June, just weeks before you will be asked to give final approval of the budget.” Ms. Tusken said she understood “the desire to know the costs of new efforts, before endorsing them, but to start the conversation with ‘costs,’ skips the essential step of identifying what is most important to fix.” She said her group had “identified the inequities. Now it’s your turn,” she told the Board, “to tell the community if you also see the inequities in the school district (and) if you feel a strong urgency in addressing them.”

She specifically thanked members Welty and Johnston for responding directly to some of the group’s concerns, then said: “We look forward to hearing more detailed responses from the rest of you…We are asking for a meaningful dialogue about the needs of students and school communities across the district…We recognize that budget restraints will keep us from doing all that we want and need to do…(but) that doesn’t excuse doing nothing...To move silently forward into next year with the same programs, policies and budget formulas as this year tells the community that you are ok” with the multiple inequities (too numerous to list in this article.) Ms. Tusken requested that the Board schedule a Committee-of-the-Whole meeting soon and prioritize which issues it will tackle, so administration can direct resources “and follow your leadership as elected representatives of the broader community.”

A sophomore from Denfeld High, Mya Halvorson, next stepped up the podium to remind the Board “about the reason you’re here: for the students, families and staff of the school district, and to make things better for them.” She said she and her fellow students were “watching what this school board does…”

The last speaker of the evening, Tobin Cook, addressed the Board (as he has in the past) about a personal issue. His daughter was refused the right to charge a lunch in a school cafeteria, because the district claimed she was not a “properly enrolled student.” Mr. Cook was working as a substitute teacher at the time and expressed dismay that he wasn’t told his daughter was not properly enrolled. “If she wasn’t properly enrolled, then why was she allowed to go to class?” He asked the Board, quite reasonably. “Why, during the whole year, was my child allowed to charge a lunch, but on this day she wasn’t? She had to sit there,” he said, “in the lunchroom, crying, while others around her watched.”

Any parent would be upset over a daughter’s public humiliation. Mr. Cook shouldn’t have to make his case again. Our Board is hamstrung trying to placate large groups of people desiring fixes that cost money, but how much effort is required to pacify an upset father and maybe keep him from inflaming his family and friends about a cruel public school that made his hungry daughter cry?

 Finally getting to our leaders, so-called

An action item that got a fair amount of press from this meeting was the Board’s rejection of a proposal from the demographics firm, RSP. The company had been lobbying to conduct a district boundary analysis and “facilitate” a process to adjust to the new information that supposedly was going to be gained. The Board rehashed the whole debate again, but the only important point was whether or not member Sandstad would hold firm to her unwillingness to go along with administration’s recommendation. When she did hold firm, the DFL-endorsed coalition collapsed.

Interestingly, member Harala, who’d argued repeatedly to move forward with the RSP proposal, voted with the majority against proceeding, and member Loeffler-Kemp, who usually speaks up in a loud, domineering tone, voted so meekly in favor of the resolution, no one was sure if her vote was aye or nay. The vote ended up being 5-2 against the proposal, with members Loeffler-Kemp and David Kirby the only two who voted to approve.

A rare moment in the boardroom, this vote actually felt like real, representative government. For once, administration didn’t get its way!
The other big action item of the evening was the Board’s unanimous vote in favor of re-bidding the playground mulch project. The hope is that the ridiculously-high, initial bid of $1.2 MILLION can be reduced to something slightly more manageable and sane.
Several other issues also came up, as always, such as the APU enrollment number. Member Johnston pointed out that this month set “a new record low enrollment in our schools.” 10,772 students were enrolled in ISD 709 the year before Keith Dixon came to town; the current APU number is 8132, a staggering 24.5% drop.

Member Sandstad countered member Johnston’s observation, claiming that RSP, the company that did the most recent demographic study, “did clearly state that we will continue to see declining numbers at about the same rate that we are, and they commented on the rational for that: it’s really a population change…”

“I must respectfully disagree with member Sandstad.” Member Johnston responded, pointing out that RSP downgraded its projection by more than 500 students from two years ago and that the Red Plan’s demographer projected 9600 students in our schools.
The district’s precipitous enrollment drop isn’t due to a population change; the drop is primarily due to a loss of market share, an exodus. Annual open enrollment numbers out of Duluth more than doubled during Keith Dixon’s tenure, a net loss of 1301 students during the last three years of his ruinous reign, alone.

A half billion dollar investment has been failing since its onset, and no solution has ever been found by denying reality.