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Fortunate citizens of a democracy will soon have a say. For one last look at your potential leaders, I draw on a number of school board candidate interviews and forums, as well as the League of Women Voters’ candidate questionnaire.
First up: those vying for two At-Large seats.
Josh Gorham is a public-health nurse, who has consulted in the public schools. He was instrumental in the Board’s recent revision of its “Wellness” policy, which limited the kind of snacks teachers and students can share with each other. Smart Snacks have been substituted for candy bars. If you want to make a batch of Smart Snacks at home, the simplest recipe I’ve found is to warm up a piece of cardboard and sprinkle on some organic honey and nuts.
Gorham earnestly repeats the same points forum after forum. He likes to tell a story about “a special soup recipe” a district cafeteria manager made for a student going through chemotherapy. The story comes across somewhat heart-warming the first time, but after a few bowls of the soup tale, it begins to taste bland and pointless to the real problems facing the district. Gorham likes to throw out facts, or should I say, factoids--often incomplete, and in some instances flat-out wrong.
In response to question 5 of the League of Women Voters questionnaire, for example, candidate Gorham declared that the “genesis” of the inequity between the east and west parts of the district “lies within the fact that there is a geographic student density issue between our eastern and western schools.”
Student heat density maps generated by RSP, a demographics firm hired by the district just last year, clearly indicate that the two highest student density areas in the city are on either side of Mesaba Ave., all well within the enrollment area of Denfeld High and Lincoln Park Middle School. Whenever I hear someone like young Mr. Gorham making declarative statements on a subject he has not studied in any kind of depth, and knows almost nothing about, it undermines my whole faith in elective government.
The other DFL-endorsed, At-Large candidate, Sally Trnka, has become the glittering star of this campaign. Sally is one of those light-up-the-room people who makes a tremendous first impression. Listening to her speak is like an endorphin rush for the brain. Her forum answers, collectively, combined with her bright smile and melodious voice, are just like attending a “Power of Positive Thinking” seminar peppered with lots of pseudo-intellectual jargon such as “social determinants” and “financial metrics.”
Ms. Trnka can pack an amazing number of words into 60 seconds, but I have yet to hear her say anything specific about what she plans to do, especially in terms of the district’s budgetary problems. Her vision for the school board is all about building coalitions and getting everyone to play nice together, as articulated in this passage: “We need to do more to celebrate the successes across our district. There are significant challenges that need to be addressed, but we need to do that work in collaboration with community, district and educational partners…let’s get folks around the table to develop community driven solutions to these challenges.”
She may have been “born, raised and educated in the great city of Duluth,” as she put it in her LWV questionnaire, but Sally Trnka seems incredibly naïve about the divisions in our community. Her campaign has been DFL happy-talk taken to a whole new level.
For all her apparent enthusiasm, she’s also been conspicuously absent from the boardroom, since announcing her candidacy. I can’t verify with certainty how many times Ms. Trnka’s been in the room, but she’s been less visible than any candidate I’ve observed in over a decade.
Candidate Dana Krivogorsky, on the other hand, since she decided to run five months ago, has only missed two regular meetings, due to a ‘minor’ surgical procedure she was having done on one of her wrists. She’s attended every committee and special meeting. In the LWV questionnaire, she describes herself as “a strong, independent candidate…a mother of two who cares deeply about schools in Duluth.” Trained as a scientist, she believes the research work she has done for universities (such as Johns Hopkins) demonstrates that she possesses “strong analytical abilities and a solid background in statistics and decision-making,” adding, “I have outstanding diplomatic skills and will listen to all sides.”
What warmed me towards Ms. Krivogorsky, early on, was my discovery that she’d put in an information request for the entire ledger of the district’s budget. Doggedly pursuing the request, as a candidate, she now has the ledger in her hands and has been assiduously pouring over it.
I think we need fiscal hawks like this on the Board. Anyone paying attention has probably heard that district’s reserve fund has now virtually evaporated. Our rainy day fund has plummeted down to about $111,000. Just twelve years ago, when Keith Dixon came to town, we had a boatload of money--over thirty million dollars ($30,151,202.) Every forum, Dana Krivorgorsky has singled out ISD 709’s budget as “the most pressing issue.” In the LWV questionnaire, she states that she intends to “go over it line by line.”
Those words won my vote!
Incumbent candidate, Harry Welty, has my other vote for an At-Large seat. I don’t know why anyone would put either of the two DFL novice candidates on the Board, instead of the using the twelve years of school district experience Harry Welty possesses. We have a district that is tanking financially. What sense does it make to elect people who don’t know anything AT ALL about the budget?
Despite all his knowledge, Welty’s been stuck in the Board minority, with no power to change things. He’s clearly hoping a new majority will emerge from this election. In the LWV questionnaire, he argues for more Board transparency and the need to address the problem of the district’s finances, which he points out have led to “(a) huge class sizes and (b) a growing education gap.”
Mr. Welty is against the policy that currently prevents the district from selling property to educational competitors. He wrote in the questionnaire: “This policy is not only unpopular, it denies Duluth taxpayers who paid for the schools the chance to get back the full value out of the buildings and to help fund ISD 709 schools.”
All of the non-DFL-endorsed candidates--Krivogorsky, Welty, Johnston and Kuehn--have stated they would sell the vacant property to whatever entity offers the highest price. All the DFL-endorsed candidates--Lofald, Loeffler-Kemp, Gorham and Trnka--have said they will hold firmly to the Board’s present stance against selling the property to any “competitor.”
The Fourth District candidates
The most heated contest of this election is in the western district, pitting eight-year incumbent Art Johnston against challenger Jill Lofald.
Ms. Lofald wrote in the LWV questionnaire that she is running for the Board “because of my deep roots in our western community.” She retired in the spring of 2016 after teaching for 31 years at Denfeld High and has received some impressive professional accolades, such as being named Duluth Teacher of the Year in 2015 and once making it to the semi-finalist position as Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Lofald’s career, however, is not unblemished. Her teaching license was suspended for three months in 2003. She signed a stipulation agreement with the State of Minnesota Board of Teaching, admitting that she’d spoken to a female student in regard to a “sexual assault/harassment incident.” Responding to the incident during a recent News Tribune interview, Lofald explained that she’d had “a conversation with a student about the behavior of another student that I could have handled better.” The Trib reported that she’d asked the female student “if she was ‘aware that the accused might be labeled a sexual predator if found guilty.’”
The Board of Teaching apparently felt this question unduly applied some pressure, discouraging the student from coming forward.
Mr. Johnston, semi-retired, still does consulting work as a structural engineer. In the LWV questionnaire, he wrote that he is running for re-election, “because our school (district) has well-known challenges of budget, academic proficiency and governance.” Johnston, too, has a prickly incident in his past: he was at the center of one of the most intense political sagas to ever hit the city of Duluth. Some of his colleagues--all of the DFL-endorsed members--threw a list of “charges” at him and tried to use a vague State statute to expel him from the Board. The struggle went on for more than a year, with Johnston filing a counter-suit in Federal court. The whole drama--a destructive political circus on the surface--was actually a very profound debate about free speech, especially in regard to elective office.
Mr. Johnston spent $75,000 out of his own pocket to fight for his right to continue to represent his west Duluth constituents, and triumphed. He now describes the whole episode as “water under the bridge.”
Both of these candidates are good citizens. The scrapes and falls in our lives form our character, but don’t define us.
Johnston has my vote--not only because he’s fought tirelessly on behalf of his constituents for eight years--but because he’s a budget hawk. Not only is our public school district’s once bountiful reserve fund virtually gone, Moody’s Investors Service just downgraded the district’s bond rating to sub-prime status. Bonds the district is currently putting up for sale will now be saddled with much higher interest rates, because of higher default risk. Most of the proceeds from those bonds--millions leveraged against the district’s maintenance fund--is earmarked for renovation work on Rockridge Elementary. The Board was forced to spend the money, after the DFL-endorsed majority Board members refused an offer of nearly a million dollars for the building.
Our district needs better fiscal management. When asked about the instability of the district’s finances, in a recent forum, Jill Lofald replied: “Well, I can guarantee you that this is not my strength that I’m going to bring to the school board…”
In a district that is clearly in fiscal distress, why would anyone elect someone to the Board--the body responsible for fiscal control--who openly admits financial management is not her strength?
Art Johnston is the man for the job. He has been an indefatigable numbers cruncher for eight years. One of the most ludicrous arguments of this campaign is that Johnston hasn’t gotten anything done during his tenure. I have NEVER seen anyone try harder to get something done than Art Johnston. The reason he hasn’t succeeded is because the DFL-endorsed power clique has completely cut him out of the Board’s power structure. If Johnston had been in the majority, with the ability to win a vote, there is no question he would have gotten something done. There is also no question the district wouldn’t be in the fiscal mess it’s in today.
It is an astonishing testament to the human spirit that, after all he’s been through, Art Johnston is even willing to put himself through grueling test of another campaign. To think he would so for negative reasons defies all human logic. Johnston cares about the western end of this town every bit as much as Jill Lofald does.
The 4th district race is especially rife with emotion because of the inequity created by the Red Plan between the west and east ends of the district. One issue that keeps coming up revolves around compensatory education funding. 50% of the money is currently being dispersed across the whole district, and the debate is whether or not all the money should be directed strictly to the western schools that need it. During the League of Women Voters’ school board forum held on 10/26/17, all three non-DFL-endorsed candidates present--Krivogorsky, Welty and Johnston--emphatically stated they would shift all the money back to the western schools.
“We have to insist that that has to happen.” Johnston said. “We owe it to the kids in west Duluth. We have to put the money where the need is.”
The two DFL-endorsed candidates present at the forum both waffled. Defending the eastern half of the district, Josh Gorham said, “There’s also poverty and hardship in east Duluth. That’s true! This dialogue isn’t going to help anything right now. If you want to go tell parents (in the east) they’ll have larger class sizes…that’s going to be a very difficult conversation…”
Jill Lofald waffled even more: “I do know that those comp-ed dollars are used in other schools to maintain class size that is lower. Also, that’s why curriculum cuts were used a little bit, because some of our money from comp-ed was also then used in our curriculum area…There is a State law that says you can use compensatory money in a way (that’s) different, so I encourage us to keep the conversation going and we’ll learn together.”
The First District Candidates
Incumbent Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has been a long-time advocate for educational issues. She not only served as President of the local PTSA, but also put in a stint as President at the State level. From all indications, she was born a cheerleader. Many times, during Board meetings, she has declared that the role of a school board member is to “promote all the great things about our district.”
Loeffler-Kemp tends to dismiss every viewpoint that doesn’t conform with her “Rosie” view as “misinformation.” She refuses to dig in and deal with anything she views as “negative,” a governing approach that has prevented her from searching for solutions to real, pressing problems, especially fiscally-related.
As a candidate, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp was the person I least wanted to serve on the Board with, and all of the non-DFL-endorsed candidates felt the same. She has a poisonous relationship with the people she disagrees with, on the other side of our divided Board. The minority members intensely dislike her domineering, know-it-all attitude. None of them likes working with her.
Loeffler-Kemp’s challenger is Kurt Kuehn, a former St. Louis County Corrections Officer, now retired. In a recent News Tribune candidate profile, Mr. Kuehn lists a desire to “represent the taxpayer” as his prime motive for pursuing a spot on the school board. “After the Red Plan,” he is quoted as saying, “the district has lost some trust in the community on where the money is going and if it is being spent wisely.”
He told the paper that, as he campaigns door-to-door, people keep asking him why the district refused to sell vacant property. The second most common concern he’s heard is that class sizes remain too large.
Mr. Kuehn has a calm, unruffled manner. Soft spoken, he comes across as very intelligent and thoughtful. When I asked him if he was disappointed about failing to secure an easier ride onto the Board through the DFL endorsement, he answered: “No--the truth is, I didn’t really want it. There are too many people answering to special interests in that boardroom already.”
Kurt Kuehn won my vote with that remark.
One political group has controlled the boardroom since Keith Dixon came to town. Anyone fortunate enough to own some rubber industry stock, as part of his or her investment portfolio, became quite wealthy during the DFL’s rubberstamping reign.
It’s time to finally send the party machine packing. Good government begins locally, in your own backyard. Turnout will decide this election. Get yourselves (and friends and neighbors!) to the polls on Tuesday, November 7th.
The people in this race who will best represent your interests are: Dana Krivogorsky, Harry Welty, Art Johnston and Kurt Kuehn.