The boardroom of ISD 709 was initially overflowing with citizens this evening, standing room only. As soon as the Public Comment period was over, however, everyone started slipping away. By the time the Business Committee Report began, a few hours later, the place was as deserted as a funeral service for a hermit. Only three citizens remained, myself included. 

This disappearing act is not new and not really baffling. Who can blame the public for being disinclined to remain seated hour after hour on the hard seats of rickety old desks, listening to riveting words like this, from Business Committee Chair, Sally Trnka:
“Our next resolution is B-18-3544...Release and Pledge of Collateral: ‘Be it resolved by the school board of independent school district number 709, St. Louis County, MN, that it hereby releases the $500,000 par value first homeowner-rate note on uniform security identification procedure numbered — exed-out-KG7 — pledged as collateral by Harbor Point Credit Union. Be it further resolved by the school board that it accepts the pledge collateral of a $500,000 par value Federal National Mortgage Association note, maturing March 29th of 2019, CUSIP number EB7, in exchange for the released collateral noted above.’”

Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

School board meetings are sort of like pitching duel baseball games, only you can’t drink beer and otherwise cut up until someone finally gets into scoring position and the pitches start captivating your attention. Another way I like to think about them is one of those heavy, burdensome Duluth days, where the fog obliterates the line between earth and sky. The world is dripping with dreariness, and then, as though the heavens themselves have had enough, everything ignites. Bright glimpses of electricity flash, and crackling rumbles announce an unseen presence of power…

School Board meeting, 5/15/18

This evening’s Public Comment period lasted for over an hour. The primary subjects were school safety and support for the district’s secretarial staff. The secretaries’ union has been in extended contract negotiations with a school district struggling with money problems. Several union members were in the room, wearing bright red T-shirts. 

Citizens were so passionate, some of them wept at the podium. One speaker from the secretaries’ union, outlining her value as a district employee, pointed out that she’s “always had a love of numbers and problem solving,” which certainly seemed like sterling qualities for an employee of ISD 709. 
“I’ve been on the (contract) negotiating team since we started over a year ago.” This employee told the Board. “We are in need of your help, in coming to a fair and favorable contract…Asking our members to accept the reduction of one month of pay without the option of making themselves whole is not possible. I’ve had Duluth police chase armed suspects through my hallways and have needed to lock down my buildings. There’s a lot of stress in these positions, and having vacation time to decompress and recharge is vital to the mental health, productivity and employees’ morale…” 

The Board is in a real pickle. Already locked into big increases from all its other contract give-a-ways (especially to the teachers’ union,) it’s been forced to increase class sizes while cutting, cutting, cutting from operations. Deep in the red, with a completely depleted reserve, a cutoff line on spending assumingly has to be drawn somewhere. 

The topical importance of the other primary subject — school safety — was highlighted by another multiple-death incident in a Texas school, just three days after this meeting. Apparently, all entryways are secured and locked during the school day in the elementary schools of ISD 709, but a citizen pointed out from the podium that danger lurks even more prevalently in the higher grades: “Other than Sandy Hook, all school shootings have occurred in secondary schools.”

This citizen, clearly very worried about the safety of the children in our schools, informed the Board and the rest of the audience in the boardroom that district 709 “does not implement locked-and-secured access into the offices at Lincoln Park middle school, Ordean middle school or East High. According to CNN,” she continued, “there have been 17 school-related shootings since the beginning of 2018. This is a horrifying statistic, and one that should cause us to take notice and review our district’s policies.” 

Pundits have lately taken to calling the children in our schools: Generation Lockdown. 

Onward, with our capable Board 

Education Committee Chair Jill Lofald appears to be cut from the same cloth as former Committee Chair, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp. As she reads her committee report, she always tries her best to inspire the audience, by pumping in as much upbeat optimism about the functioning of our public education system as she can. 

The only comment engendered from the Board by the Education Committee Report was made by member Oswald, who mentioned an ongoing problem with the athletic field at Homecroft Elementary school. Superintendent Gronseth responded in the following manner: 
“The Homecroft field has been an issue for quite a while. It was an issue when I was Principal at Homecroft--the water issue that is there…It’s considered wetland, and so we have to do some work there. So it’s — it’s not a done deal. Certainly it’s work that we want to do, but we have to make sure that we’re doing it well, and that we’re working with all the agencies that we need to work with…And so know that it’s probably going to take a bit more time to work through all the different parts of this project, because it’s very large, (and likely, assumingly, very expensive.)”

I’d be remiss by not asking, once again: aren’t we still paying off a half BILLION dollar bill for a plan that was supposed to leave all our facilities in perfect working order? 
Resources of the human kind 

The HR committee Chair, Josh Gorham, looked a bit taken aback by the fact that none of his colleagues pulled any items out his report for discussion after he was done. “To be clear,” he said to his fellow board members, “I was anticipating perhaps there might be some discussion on the hourly wage rates, for hourly employees. We would be accepting these rates right now (by voting to accept the HR report,) is that correct?”

The HR Manager, Tim Sworsky, concurred: “Yes — by accepting the Human Resources Report, you would be accepting these wage rates. This would not require a resolution.”
The initial silence was surprising because this issue has been somewhat contentious for several months. Member Oswald has been on a mission to make some small gesture of appreciation towards the non-unionized hourly employees of ISD 709. After much effort, she finally had a proposal on the agenda to give these workers a whopping 10-cent an hour raise. Implementation of this raise would amount to an annual increase of about $20,000 to the district’s bottom line. Board member Lofald raised the most strident objection against approving this action. 

“Well, then,” she responded to Mr. Sworsky’s statement, “I’d like to pull (this item) from the Human Resources report and have a conversation on that.” 
No one else had an immediate comment, so Chair Kirby said, “Go ahead, member Lofald,” and now the floodgates opened.
“So, on the approval of the hourly wage rate/rates…I just have some concern about moving forward with that tonight. I know you (administration) have worked hard on answering our questions, working with member Oswald, to show us what these rates would look like and who would be affected, but tonight I just don’t feel like moving forward and approving those 10-cent raises as something I’m willing to do right now. We have increased the minimum rate $1.75 over the past three years. They have gotten a $1.75 raise over the last three years — so that’s one of my concerns is that we have worked with it. 

“My second concern is that there are companies and school districts across the country that hire, and hire that position as a minimum wage position. That’s what they’re called. So, if I apply at a company, and I’m applying for a job that has a job description; I’m applying for that position and it’s set on salary that it’s a minimum wage salary. And right now, that’s what we’re doing.

“The third reason I can’t move forward with it at this time is that I don’t know the — it just seems like who we’re giving the raise to is random, and if we set this as a precedent, then I don’t know what the unintended consequences are. I just--I worry about the random selection that we have. It’s not going — it seems like it’s not going — by job description. It’s going more by people who have been in our district or who serve our district well. And I appreciate that. But I still don’t know…it just doesn’t seem as concrete as I would like it.

“Lastly, I’m not going to support this (10-cent) raise because I really feel that when we listened to our (HR management team) explain it to us, it felt like a lot work for our payroll to determine who’s getting what in what week, and we’re continually cutting our payroll department…” Ms. Lofald continued her discourse on this subject at length, describing her own paychecks as a district employee and the “many levels of pay I receive for the many different jobs I’m doing…” 

Members Trnka and Sandstad both came out in support of member Oswald. “I think this is a really important first step in acknowledging the hard work these folks put into supporting us across the district, and I’ll be supporting this.” Member Trnka declared.
“I’m also going to vote in favor.” Member Sandstad added. “This is a very small increase…The original intent when member Oswald raised this issue months and months ago was: an affirmation to folks who have remained with us and continue to serve our students and staff, and I think we should do that.”
Member Gorham confessed he was conflicted. “I definitely do see the point of some folks who have been in the same position for several years not receiving that recognition, a pat on the back…but it also happens to be at a time when we’re going through some significant deficits…”
Member Loeffler-Kemp, using her own hybrid version of the word “disingenuous,” declared: “I feel almost disingenuine giving a ten cent raise!”
“I don’t know what to do anymore.” Member Oswald responded. “A dime is still better than nothing. Period. They (the people getting this raise) are going to appreciate it. What they’re not going to appreciate is not having the opportunity to get a little, tiny ‘thank you’ in a dime an hour…I don’t think that’s right. We, as a Board, have had an opportunity to talk about this for five months. I was ready to vote on this last month, but we needed more time to talk about it, so I waited patiently…” 

Member O will have to find more patience. The Board voted to further postpone any decision by a 4-3 vote--members Loeffler-Kemp, Lofald, Gorham and Kirby in favor of again delaying a vote. 
The school board of ISD 709 displaying some inclination towards fiscal restraint normally would raise a cheer from me. In this case, however, the irony is just too rich. 
Look at one example from the Board’s history: after the district had just narrowly averted statutory operating debt status the previous year, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp boxed all other Board members out of the teacher contract negotiations in 2014. The 3% raise from the contract settled that year jumped the teachers’ salary expense $2,109,971 in 2015; wage/salary expense for all other bargaining units increased $2,139,087--a total payroll jump of $4,249,058 in a district clearly struggling financially. 

In light of this kind of largess showered on union workers, any concern over a 10 cent raise to nonunion workers did feel a bit disingenuine.
A parliamentary kerfuffle of sorts broke out as the Board tried to move the 10-cent raise debate to another day. When Chair Kirby started making a motion to “indefinitely postpone” the discussion, one of the three remaining citizens approached the dais--much to the consternation of secretarial staff. 

The citizen pointed out to the Chair that the proper procedure was to “definitely postpone”, because to “indefinitely postpone” meant the subject couldn’t be reintroduced until a new legislative session. I’m not certain what time frame constitutes a “session” for a school board. 
I haven’t grown into an expert parliamentarian from my many years in the boardroom. Learning proper parliamentary procedure from watching this Board operate, especially during the wild days of the Red Plan, was roughly comparable to learning how to perform heart surgery from a hockey player with an eighth grade education. If what the Chair did constituted a procedural error, it wasn’t a boardroom first and it won’t be the last. 

Abbreviated Business

Tonight’s Business Committee report lasted only about fifteen minutes. The Board won’t be able to skate away quite so quickly in June, when it has to approve next year’s budget. This evening, however, Committee Chair Sally Trnka managed to speed read through what she described as “239 pages that took us four hours” to cover during the Business Committee meeting the previous week. 

In regard to the complex resolution quoted at the beginning of this article, the Committee Chair, somewhat abashedly, asked: “Could you give us a quick snippet of what this (resolution I just read) means?” Answer: the Board was approving a collateral pledge ISD 709 is required by law to get on any of its bank accounts that exceeds the $250,000 limit for FDIC savings insurance. 

Member Oswald inquired into a possible conflict between a pending resolution and the way the Board had previously outlined the duties of Deputy Clerk. She was also the only Board member to pull items for discussion from the Business Committee report. 
After dutifully calling administration’s attention to a policy revision that needed to be updated, member O made this observation about the district’s Long Term Facilities Maintenance Plan: “I just want to comment that our list of projects vastly exceeds the amount of income that we have for the ten years. I believe it’s about $39 million (for the plan,) and that’s about $13 million more than what we get (through taxes.) And of that $39 million, $25.5 million comes from trying to get this building (Old Central) into a functional state. Yet, again, I’ll question whether our taxpayers and our city want us to take $25 million that we should be spending for the upkeep of our schools and invest that money into this building…” 

The mess the Red Planners got us into in regard to district maintenance would require an entire article to lay out in detail, but for now I definitely make a motion to postpone.