Another year, same bumpy road

Loren Martell

Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

The school board’s annual organizational meeting is always a harbinger of the coming year.  The underlying question is: who gets the power?  For years the process has boxed some Board members out, and an insider club has continued to call the shots.  After this year’s meeting, which stuck to the same worn script, I have dubbed the boardroom for the upcoming year: “The Rosie-View Happy-Talk Indoctrination Center.”

     If we want to make up for the big energy savings that never materialized from the Red Plan, here’s our chance.  All we have to do is figure out some way to capture all the hot air that will be emanating from the school board, especially from the Chair and Vice-Chair, and use it to heat the schools.  

School board organizational meeting, 1/7/19

I want to begin by acknowledging that five out of seven Board members showed some concept of collegiality and fairness in this process.  The two who didn’t are now the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Board.  
For as long as I’ve gone into Old Central, our government house has been partitioned into a two-tiered system.  Some people, as soon as they walk into the boardroom, are placed on a higher strata than others.  The primary badge of distinction that automatically establishes a Board member as a natural born “leader,” destined to be seated first among equals, is DFL endorsement.  

In a supposedly nonpartisan elected office, the strength of party affiliation has always been a ticket to inside power.  
The boardroom of our public school system is completely dominated by one political party.  All seven Board members are active members of the DFL.  Only one has not been endorsed by that political machine: Alanna Oswald.  Subsequently, member O has found herself boxed out of the inner circle.  
Member Oswald, bucking the built-in bias of the process, nominated herself for the Board’s Chair position.  She made the move only after member Lofald nominated member Loeffler-Kemp and member Sandstad nominated member Kirby, who declined because he had already served two consecutive terms as Chair.  Still sitting as Chair, until the votes for new Chair were cast, Mr. Kirby asked twice if there were any other nominations for the position, before member O finally put her light on and offered her own services as the Board’s top officer.  

Besides voting for herself, member O received one other vote--from the DFL-endorsed board member who consistently demonstrates the most independence from the prevalent group-thought in the place: Nora Sandstad.  
Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, in explaining why she wanted to be Chair, said: “I have put a lot of thought into thinking about whether I wanted to be nominated.  I have been encouraged to be nominated in the past, and I felt I didn’t have the time commitment.  So, this year as I put a lot of thought into it, again, there are things that kind of surfaced why I was interested, and one is: I feel the Chair--it’s really important--they’re out there in the community, building relationships with our school board members, our staff, our community, and I think I bring that leadership style of relationship building and collaboration…”

Explaining her reach for the golden ring, Alanna Oswald told her colleagues that she’d “like to be considered as Chair because I feel I can be the person who brings nonpartisanship to our group, which I think the community will see as a valued trait.”  Member O elaborated about how the district was at a time of “change and transition” and how she, as a Board member, had already worked extensively with disenfranchised groups of citizens.  “I think I can meet the challenge of bringing their voices to the table with us, moving forward and being successful for the district as a whole.”  She said she knows the district “inside out, backwards and forwards.  I’ve been here for a very long time.  I know a lot of people.  I know a lot of things.  I know a lot about our roles and people speak freely to me.  I think I can hear their voices without bias.  And lastly, I have the educational background to lead the district from a Board perspective.  I have a masters in teaching.  I understand teaching; I understand education…”

I understand the school board.  As much as I’ve come to respect the wise and worthy member O, I would have bet the farm on her opponent.  To put it plainly and simply, some people have the upper hand in the boardroom.  This was no contest.  Loeffler-Kemp won the top seat of power: 5-2.  

More reshuffling, no real change

Member Lofald nominated herself for the Vice-Chair position.  No one else made a nomination, so the new Chair, Loeffler-Kemp, declared her “elected by acclamation.”  The phrase struck my ears as a bit over-the-top, seeing how Merriam-Webster defines acclamation as: “an overwhelming affirmative vote by cheers, shouts, or applause rather than by ballot.”      

A more appropriate phrase, in my opinion, would have been: “elected by default.”
In making her case for office, Lofald, like Loeffler-Kemp, described the role of the Vice-Chair as an important one that should be occupied by someone “who can build relationships, and be willing to reach out…to other Board members and be a good communicator, open to suggestions and ideas…” 
Interestingly, members Lofald and Loeffler-Kemp, who claimed one of their primary attributes for office was a willingness to reach out and work with other Board members, both pointedly neglected to acknowledge in any way shape or manner one colleague who was struggling to gain a bit of well-deserved recognition from outside the perimeter of power.     

The reason the Board’s newly elected top officers did their utmost to box member Oswald out is because she has a penchant for asking Administration real, probing questions.  Both Lofald and Loeffler-Kemp prefer the school board to be an adjunct PTA, nothing but a booster club spinning happy-talk in front of the cameras and promoting, as Loeffler-Kemp has put it, “all the great things in the school district.”  

All four other Board members at least acknowledged member Oswald’s value to the school board, either by nominating or voting for her during this insider-game.  
Member Trnka nominated member O for the Board’s Clerk position and both she and member Sandstad voted for her.  The other candidate for Clerk was Member Gorham, who nominated himself.  While Mr. Gorham made his pitch for being Clerk, the new Chair nodded approvingly and affirmatively at him from her throne.  He won 4-3. 

Member Kirby nominated member Oswald for the Board’s Treasurer position.  Member Trnka, the other candidate for the position, thanked member Sandstad for the nominating her, then said: “I’m feeling a little conflicted about accepting it, because I appreciate the leadership that member Oswald brings to the Board, and would like to see her in a leadership position.”

“I, too, am feeling conflicted,” member Oswald responded, “ knowing that member Trnka has a wealth of experience with budgets and things.  However, I gratefully accept the nomination from member Kirby, based on the fact that this my fourth year (on the school board,) and I may not have another year after this.  So I would really like to serve in a leadership capacity--something that has evaded my talents so far.  I hope that I can have a leadership position and be of value beyond what I’ve been.”      

No chance.  She lost, 4-3.  Besides member Oswald’s vote for herself, members Gorham and Kirby voted for her.  Again, everyone on the Board nominated or voted for member O at least once, except the Board’s new top brass: the Chair and Vice-Chair, self-described as great communicators and relationship builders. 

Moving on down the line
The second tier of Board power positions are the Committee Chairs.  These are appointed by the school board Chair.  The appointments are made after the meeting, and it takes a while for the information to seep out to the public.  Appointments are not supposed to be negotiable, but reading the tea leaves during the interim, I felt it was unlikely members Sandstad and Trnka would accept a Committee Chair position unless it was offered to the worthy member O, first.  I suspected member Kirby, after serving two consecutive terms as Board Chair, would likely beg off a committee appointment.  If the exclusion of member Oswald from consideration was assumed, that meant the Chair would have only three members left to choose from for three committees: herself, the Vice-Chair and member Gorham.  

All this neat guesswork about my government was torpedoed upon learning that the Chair of the Board is “ex-officious” on all committees, which means she can’t take a Committee Chair position for herself.  Learning this made me wonder if Chair L-K wound actually have to concede something to that pesky black sheep outsider, member O, especially after she’d managed to demonstrate some hard-earned respect and support from her colleagues. I thought a concession-appointment might be Chair of the Human Resources Committee, which is usually a pretty rote position, receded in the background behind the Education and Business Committees. 

I don’t know if anyone else finds all this political maneuvering interesting, but the subterranean world of politics is often where the real action is.  Under the surface of a meeting billed as “organizational,” competing agendas and endless plot twists invariably lurk, as leaders jostle for, horde and exert power.   

One thing that cannot be assumed as a pertinent factor in these machinations is any assured fairness.  Member Oswald has worked diligently for three years.  She always digs intelligently into problems, with an eye for pertinent detail.  She’s been an excellent Board member, but even a second-tier power position has again evaded her talents.  Our new Chair refused to appoint her as head of any standing committee.  

Former school board Chairman, David Kirby, apparently agreed to take on the HR committee Chair position.  Our new Board Vice-Chair, Jill Lofald, will retain her spot for two years in a row as Chair of the Education Committee.  Sally Trnka will remain, for two consecutive years, Chair of the Business Committee as well as wearing the mantle of Board Treasurer.  

Not to be left completely out of the picture, member Oswald was given an underling position on the Education and Business Committees and some highly coveted spots on two advisory subcommittees.  To make her feel even better, I’ve heard a rumor Chair Loeffler-Kemp has also given her an office space of her very own.  An old storage closet deep in the bowels of Old Central, the fancy office will be a pretty decent setup, afforded all the accoutrements due to a colleague of equal status.  “MEMBERGER OSHWALT” has reportedly already been written out in colorful crayon by Myers-Wilkins’ second graders across the battered front door.   

For years ISD 709’s boardroom has been plagued by politics. All the political gamesmanship played in the place has not resulted in good government or adequate protection of the public’s interest.  After this Board election, everything will proceed along the same bumpy road it always has.  Some people will be elevated above others; important conversations about district priorities will continue to be hidden behind closed doors in secret agenda meetings.   

The school board has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the taxpayers and provide a check-and-balance on Administration’s ambitions.  Board members are not meant to be just cheerleaders; if that were the case, we may as well ditch the pretense of an election and hire a cheerleading squad.  (With all the union money now pouring into these races, we might get better representation.)  

    A deeper dive into the politics

Duluth has obviously fallen under the reign of a political machine.  Our school district, particularly, is increasingly feeling more and more like Tammany Hall: a patronage system based on who you know rather than what you know.  Whoever gets DFL-endorsed in a school board race also gets teachers’ union endorsed and is invariably backed by the PTA.  There is a powerful collusive constituency locked like a tight shell around our school district.  

DFL candidates that emerge from the teachers’ union and the PTA are often touted as the best people to step into a school board role, but in one sense they’ve been the worst. They are invariably top-notch citizens who possess considerable institutional knowledge and a deep love for our public school system.  Two flaws they share in common is that they tend to represent the people who work in the buildings, as though elections are held within the district, and they are conditioned to a pyramid of hierarchy.  They enter the boardroom with blinders on and a penchant for cheerleading and saluting and following like puppies on the heels of the Superintendent.  They seem to find it impossible to say “no” to the teachers’ union and Administration, but have no problem whatsoever saying “no” to the public. 

Former PTA president and teacher, Judy Seliga-Punyko, actually did disagree with the Superintendent once.  During the August, 2013, meeting she said: “I’ve never disagreed with you before, Mr. Superintendent.”  What was her first beef with Administration about?  She wanted to use two taxing authorities and deny voters any say over $6.5 million of their tax money.  The new Chair and Vice-Chair (another former PTA President and former teacher) were the Board members who fought hardest to take away the public’s right to vote on $2.55 million of their tax money last fall.  

Loeffler-Kemp was also one of the most aggressive Board members involved in stopping the sale of the Central High campus to Edison Charter, a sale the public overwhelmingly favored.  She and her DFL allies told us not to worry: they were going to implement a “new marketing strategy” for moving the property.  Three years later, the campus is still vacant, still slipping deeper into disrepair, still bleeding money from the classrooms of ISD 709.  The new marketing strategy was recently announced: cut the price nearly in half.  A property we could have sold for $14.2 million is now being marketed for $7.9 million, a prime example of the business savvy we’ve been subjected to.  

Another bullet point on Loeffler-Kemp’s school board resume is that she was one of the most aggressive of five school board members--all DFL-endorsed, waving their flag of diversity and tolerance--who tried to toss another persistent questioner off the Board a few years ago and replace him with one of their rubberstamping friends. 

Our new Chair’s self-assessment was obviously spot-on when she touted the sterling “leadership style of relationship building and collaboration” she brings to the table.  She proved her leadership bona fides right out of the gate with the way she treated member Oswald, the best representative Duluth citizens have in the boardroom.