Doing Naked Cartwheels Down Superior Street

Harry Welty

I was knocked off the Duluth School Board in 2017 by my sister Anti-Donald Trump voters. How Ironic! Not long afterwards one of my former Board colleagues reportedly told a friend that he was so thrilled with my defeat that he “could have done naked cartwheels down Superior Street.” 
He was probably even more pleased with Board member Art Johnston’s defeat. Two years earlier the gymnast had retired after a single term rather than face the voters.  He had just blown a quarter-million dollars trying to remove the ornery Johnston based on hyperbolic allegations and lies. It was an ugly waste of two years. Johnston’s real “crime” had been to doggedly ask for public data from a Trump-like school administration as though the school board was Congress. When the State of Minnesota vindicated Mr. Johnston and ordered the District to pay an unprecedented $55,000 penalty to Art it was my turn to turn naked cartwheels. I was too shy!

To be honest I’ve enjoyed my enforced vacation. I’ve had nothing to distract me from the unfolding cancer of the Trump administration. But from time to time I think back about how - for a very long time - our School Board has acted more like concubines in the Sultan’s seralgio than public servants. I sense that this has begun to change. Word on the street is that the Sultan plans to retire. While it’s too late to undo the Red Plan’s diversion of tens of millions of classroom dollars in order to pay off building bonds I sense opportunity. It’s time for me to retire from retirement. I can handle the politics. It’s the partisanship that galls me.

Long ago Minnesota designated local politics to be a partisan-free zone. Duluth has failed to play by these rules over the forty years I’ve lived in the City. The DFL party, which I greatly admire because it is much more partial to my hero, Abraham Lincoln, than the party he helped found has always endorsed candidates for non-partisan races. 

But this year the DFL failed to endorse for one local race and I am very pleased about this. Former DFL chairman John Schwetman may have been counting on his clout to win the DFL endorsement for the lone at-large seat this year but he didn’t get it. In fact, he fell just a couple votes short of my school board hero, Alanna Oswald, twice, before the DFL decided to let the voters make the decision. I found this heartening because I lobbied Alanna for a year to run for the school board in 2015. You see Alanna was a former Morgan Park student of mine, one of a stellar class of very bright seventh graders.

I had pretty much forgotten about Alanna over the next twenty-five years when I learned about a terrible injustice taking place in the school her children attended. The test scores had fallen so low that, in a panic, the schools stopped teaching anything other than the three R’s: Readin, Riten and Rithmetic. Alanna was shocked when her science loving daughter said the subject had disappeared. Alanna began lobbying for the fuller curriculum that Minnesota state law requires. The Sultan’s staff was not happy to be second-guessed by of all things a parent, and a western parent at that! 

Alanna went to the State Department of Education which was also shocked. The state could have seriously boxed Duluth’s ears but instead Alanna’s dogged pursuit of justice had a happy result. The State offered Alanna’s school a million bucks for a couple years to bring things up to snuff. Not that the Sultan was very eager to give Alanna credit. I did. Then I talked the smartest and most knowledgeable civilian in Duluth into running an intimidating city-wide campaign. And Alanna has served with distinction ever since. 

It was the Denfeld staff that sent Alanna in the direction of public education. Shortly after my teaching career came to an end Alanna’s mother committed suicide leaving a stunned daughter alone. The teachers at Denfeld stepped up to the plate and spread a protective blanket over the bereaved student. When she left Denfeld headed for prestigious Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter to earn a masters degree in Education. She came back to the Duluth Public schools and was hired to work with minorities and became familiar and passionate about fair play. That is Alanna to this day. After my undignified retirement Oswald persuaded the new Board to err on the side of fairness and spend the precious “compensatory education” funds in the schools whose children generated them. This is not a new controversy. Twenty years-ago my former colleague, Mary Glass, made the same complaint. But that was before the Red Plan siphoned off money for teachers to pay for new buildings. Alanna won the day. I’m afraid that without her it will be easy for the next school board to go back to the lazy old spending that shortchanged our most vulnerable schools. 

If Alanna is reelected to the Board in November, I will be the one who feels like doing naked cartwheels down superior street. Don’t worry. I won’t do it. The public’s fear of such a spectacle could cost Alanna, our best informed and hardest working school board member for the last twenty-five years, her seat. I can say that with confidence because I’ve seen all the others up close.

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