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

The order of the 11/19/19 school board meeting will be inverted in this article.  Public Comment will be covered at the end.  I seldom mention the Superintendent’s Report, which follows Public Comment during Board meetings, because it is often little more than an exercise in pr spin and scapegoating.  

A good job, however, always deserves some credit.  This evening, our Super, Bill Gronseth, did some exemplary spinning around the boundary study the district is currently engaged in (and the taxpayers are paying more than $30,000 for.)    

“It’s been quite a while since the community engaged in-depth in looking at the boundaries, probably 12 years ago?”  Mr. G. raised his eyebrows and his voice in a question, as though he--one of the biggest boosters of the notorious Red Plan--couldn’t quite remember.

 “Perhaps” it has been 12 years, he went on, feigning his subterfuge of ignorance.  “Maybe (it’s been) even more than that.”  

It’s been 12 years, and time keeps revealing what a flimflam ride we were taken on.  

“Pretty soon,” Our school district’s esteemed leader told the school board and observers in the audience, “we’re going to run out of capacity in a few of our buildings.  We have arrived (at the baseline truth of a huge investment’s failure.)  A few of our buildings have more students than there is capacity for.  And so, that is the main motivator” for being forced to try to correct this costly mistake.  

Lester Park Elementary is currently at 111% capacity; Congdon Elementary is at 113%.  Enrollment is 1/3 higher at East High than Denfeld High, and a similar problem exists between the East and West Middle schools.  “Lincoln Park, as you can see,”  Our school district’s Supreme Leader informed us two years ago, “has about 300 students less than Ordean East (Middle School) does, and at this rate, Congdon Elementary (with a capacity of 600, and an actual enrollment of 613,) could end up larger than Lincoln Park, if the pattern keeps going the way it is.”         

We’re still paying off a half billion dollar bill for this mess and no one is being held accountable.  

Another Super will soon slip out 

The longest Board discussion during this evening’s meeting centered around which firm our district should hire to help find a new leader.  Personally I think ISD 709 should consider something roughly along these lines, when advertising the job: “WANTED--broke district seeking to hire new Atlas willing to hold up the world.  Good benefits, including chiropractic.” 

For a mere $20,000, plus about $14,000 more for advertising and other reimbursable expenses, our school board chose a firm called BWP.  David Kirby cast the only “nay” on the initial vote taken.  
Kirby, who generally speaks little during meetings, went on at length about his misgivings concerning the firm.  “I was concerned about the people who came to talk to us,” he told his colleagues. “I did a little research in districts they are currently engaging in (Superintendent) searches with.”

Mr. Kirby pointed out that in some searches, members of the firm’s Board of Directors were the primary facilitators.  “We (were given) no choice who were going to be our facilitators.”  he complained.  Next he pointed out that 50-to-75% of the firm’s jobs “were in suburban Illinois or South Carolina or Virginia…There was only one, some time in the past,” Kirby continued, “from Minnesota.”  He said that concerned him, “because one of the characteristics we need in a Superintendent is someone who is well-versed in Minnesota school finance.”

The usually mute Mr. Kirby, on a roll, also brought up a search the firm is currently working on in Madison, WI, a town he apparently once lived in for a decade.  “In a town of 250,000, with 27,000 students, they had two community meetings and there were about 3 dozen people at each one.  They had 18 applicants (for the job.)  I think member Lofald wanted (us to have) 70 or something like that, but--(laughing) I don’t think we’re going to get 70.” 

Perhaps we should try casting the net wider, to include bronco riders from the rodeo circuit.  

After member Kirby’s downer assessment, I had little faith we were going to get much, other than another bill for about $34,000.  Mr. Kirby reversed his initial vote against BWP, so the Board could go on the record with an unanimous decision to hire the firm.           

Welcome to reality

During his critical commentary about BWP, member Kirby also said he wanted to hire a search firm that would not only make applicants aware of the opportunity offered by our school district, “but we do have a story and a history, and I think people are going to be aware of that, and so I want the firm to be able to tell that (story) accurately, realistically.”  

Dear applicants, here’s the story:  Rather than being our salvation, a huge vanity project broke the bank, the promise of “educational equity” has failed and the public is growing restless.  

The citizen group pushing for East/West equity has been pressuring the Board for more action.  The group started showing up in the boardroom a couple of years ago and has proven itself to be tenaciously durable.  One of the group’s members--Betty Greene--even shows up for Business Committee meetings.  The others dependably attend regular meetings and actually sit through the entire ordeal.  

The equity group came out in full force for this meeting and most signed up to address the school board.  I don’t have enough space to cover all speakers, but I’ll cover four, to give readers a sense of the public’s concerns and desires.

First, Betty

Betty Greene is a middle-aged woman who seems to personify social justice.  Radiating a sincere, purposeful air, she is all-in on the equity issue.  From what I’ve observed, Ms. Greene regards the matter as a moral imperative, and is less than impressed by the school board’s snail-like progress in addressing it effectively.  

“I am speaking about the boundary study, the Superintendent search and agenda setting from the perspectives of equity and transparency.”  Betty announced to our attentive Board from the podium.  She said was “quite surprised” to learn that 11 of the 15 boundary scenarios had already been dropped from consideration.  “Is it really the case that that a full 11 scenarios weren’t worth considering for the next step?”  She asked with a note of incredulity.  “I find that hard to believe.”

Ms. Greene requested all rejected scenarios be made available for the public to view, in the “interest of transparency,” adding that they “might reflect nuances or insights of (district) residents the consultant doesn’t see.”  She also called for representatives from under-served communities be involved in every step of the Superintendent search process, and for more transparency in “how community members are chosen.”

Finally, Betty called for the Board to “please open up your agenda sessions, so that all school board members receive all pertinent information.  Transparency is extremely important, rather than continuing the secretive process that lessens the community’s trust.”  

Another speaker, Cruz Mendoza, pointed out that the school board unanimously passed an equity policy last year, which he described as “a commitment to this community.”  Mr. Mendoza illustrated the shortcomings of that commitment, by reading off some statistics: “Last year, at Laura McArthur elementary, 76.5% of African-American students did not meet standards in math.  In the subject of reading, at Laura McArthur, 70.6% did not meet standards for reading.”  

Mr. Mendoza next presented stats from Lincoln Park Middle School: “Last year, the first year of the equity policy, 63.2% of African-American students did not meet standards for math.  In reading--at Lincoln Park--59% did not meet standards.  In the subject of science, 75% did not meet standards.” 
The dismal stats kept coming: “At Denfeld High, of African-American students, 83.3% did not meet math standards.  In the subject of reading, 45.5% did not meet standards.  In the subject of science, 67.5% did not meet standards.”

Mr. Mendoza blamed these disappointing outcomes largely on the failure to include traditionally marginalized groups “up and down the strata” during the formation and implementation of an equity policy.  He called for more inclusion of these groups in major district decisions, including the Superintendent search.  Clearly dismayed by the lack of progress, he called for the Board to “make up for what you allowed to happen for decade after decade after decade after decade.”

An employee from the district’s transportation department, Christine Koosman, also stepped up to the podium.  Ms. Koosman passed out photos and addressed the Board about the condition of the transportation building: “We have a really bad building.  Our building is a mess…”  She described buckets collecting rainwater, paint peeling from walls, a break room poorly heated by a portable heater.  “We (the transportation dept.) were in the Red Plan (to have a new building built,)”  she pointed out. “I don’t know what happened with that.”  

This is what happened with that: The Red Plan’s budget went south, for the first time, in 2010.  In order to protect Johnson Controls’ profit line, $11.6 million of the original work scope was thrown over the side of the boat.  This was roughly comparable to a contractor, employed to build a house and a double-car garage, tossing out the garage when his expenses started running out of control.  

A $2 million building to replace the district’s worn-out transportation center as well as repair work on Old Central were some of the largest items erased from the plan. The crumbling facility has grown even more decrepit as a result, while a leaking historic school is on a path to look like Notre Dame with its roof caved in and chimney toppled over.  Not only was $11.6 million worth of work tossed out, $19 million MORE was added to the Red Plan’s price tag within another year.  

I wish I had space to fully quote another citizen who addressed the school board: John Ramos.  Among his many achievements, the intrepid investigative reporter, Mr. Ramos, broke the story about the sorry financial state of Spirit Mountain, and, as he once put it: “Because of my articles, the idea of building a new library disappeared.  It is no longer being considered by anyone in City Hall.” 

Mr. Ramos delivered a spot-on commentary about the biggest flaw in transparent school board governance: the closed agenda sessions.  Much of what happened with the Red Plan was manipulated behind closed doors in secret agenda meetings.  

“What is the down side on opening these meetings to the public?”  Mr. Ramos asked.  “By opening the meetings, you would carry on doing the exactly the same business as before, but in public view.  The city council sets their agenda in public view.  The county board sets their agenda in public view.  If the school administration fears public scrutiny of their actions, they shouldn’t be doing those things anyway, and public meetings would help them avoid the temptation.  The reasons given for having closed agenda sessions are not compelling.  One reason given is that, if the meetings were open, it would make more work for everybody.  It’s hard to see how that would be the case…”

If the meetings were open, 5 Board members would have to attend one more meeting a month.  The school board is a hard, thankless gig that pays, at best, $2/hr if you really dig in and work, but that’s what you sign up for!  After losing five times to the DFL, I have little patience for the whining I’ve heard lately about the work load.    

During this meeting, the school board decided the full Board wouldn’t meet for standing committee meetings during December and suggested this may continue happening in the future.  In an email to a Board member, I wrote: “If only 3 members now attend standing committee meetings, where will a full discussion take place?  The idea (seemingly being embrace by some) that you are adequately doing your job just by viewing a YouTube video is erroneous.  You have to actively participate and bring your constituents voices into the discussion or you are failing to follow through on what you were elected to do.”  

The email I received back said simply, “Amen.