Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

   One interesting change that seems to have gone unnoticed in the boardroom is that Superintendent Gronseth has moved to a seat at the end of the dais.  The district’s top administrative officer has been seated in the center of the stage for as long as I’ve been going into the boardroom, elbow-to-elbow with the Chair of the Board.   

I was one of the participants, back in 2011, when the public got its chance to question the candidates vying to replace Keith Dixon.  When my chance to question came up, I asked Bill Gronseth about his views on the relationship between the chief administrative officer and the Board, including where the Superintendent sat during meetings.  I said the school board was a body of elected public representatives, and I thought the Superintendent should sit off to the side with the rest of Administration.

The man who would soon be our Super could barely restrain a dismissive tone in his voice while he lectured me that the Superintendent had always occupied a center seat on the dais, and he thought it was completely appropriate given the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent.  

What prompted Mr. G.’s move from center stage now?  Has he begun to subtly transition towards his ISD 709 exit, only months away?  I personally doubt his move on the dais reflects any movement in his attitude.  


Time for everyone to move

Just before he left Duluth, Keith Dixon said he couldn’t see how things would get much better in the next few years.  When Bill Gronseth started pushing for a boundary study that would lead to a new configuration of Duluth’s public schools, I thought he was pulling a Dixon--dumping something big and disruptive on our school district and then running out the door.  

Our soon-to-exit Super is in fact doing that, but he’s also setting himself up to catch a fair amount of flak during the last stretch of his tenure he wouldn’t have had to deal with.  He could have just cruised for five more months and walked away.  

Mr. G. may have questioned his own wisdom during the first meeting to gather public input on the boundary study, held at East High on 1/22/20.  The evening began with a technical presentation, dry and bland enough to have been put together by the Russian Siberian Mineral Extraction Bureau.  The consultant hired to do the boundary study rattled off all the usual boilerplate jargon about needs and goals and strategies, then led into an explanation of the three boundary scenarios.  He didn’t get very far before he started feeling flak from some passionate citizens.  

One woman scoffed at all the desiccated factoids--statistics and data compilations--she was being given.  Waving her arms in frustration, she shouted out sharply: “Don’t give us willy-nilly!”  Another woman called out for everyone who was against some of the new school boundaries to stand up.  A couple of hundred people, nearly everyone in the room, hopped up. 

The crowd kept pelting the consultant with irate questions, then someone asked, “Where’s Bill?” and others started demanding: “Let’s hear from Bill!  Get Bill up there!”

Mr. G. went to the head of the room, took the microphone and launched into a pacifying explanation about how the three scenarios weren’t set in stone and that the reason for the meeting was to gather input to help make them better.  He then described the dire issues in our schools: overcrowding in some, under-enrollment in others, racial imbalances and all kinds of other maladies the district was trying to address by re-configuring boundaries.  It wasn’t long before the jeers and complaints started coming again.  

One man got to his feet.  In a voice filled with distrust and anger, he started peppering our Super about the supposed goal of moving Myers-Wilkins Elementary away from being the district’s only racially identifiable school.  A school is considered to be “racially identifiable” by the state if its minority student population is 20% higher than the average minority enrollment in all district schools.  For ISD 709, the average minority student population is 24%.  Students of color currently comprise 51% of Myers-Wilkins enrollment, 27% above the average.  

The number of minority students would have to drop 8% at Myers-Wilkins to no longer have the school classified as racially identified.  The three boundary scenarios drop the percentage 6%, 3% and 2%.

“Isn’t part of this to address Myers-Wilkins as a racially identifiable school?”  The angry man demanded.  Mr. G. agreed it was.  “None of the scenarios achieve that though, do they?”  Mr. G. had to agree they didn’t.  The man asked what the point of the whole endeavor was, then.  Mr. G. tried to soothe him with some smooth talk about trying to make our educational system better, but the man kept aggressively demanding he admit that a crucial goal of the whole process was not being met.  

“We’ve lowered it (the percentage of minority students at the school) more than it used to be.”  Our Super finally countered the man’s insistent point.  “Yeah--but not enough!”  The man shot back aggressively.   

Realizing the public was in no mood to be trifled with, Mr. Gronseth wilted and threw in the towel.  If our Super had a tail, it would have been tucked between his legs.  He was panned by groans and some boos, as he handed the microphone back to the presenter from the consultant firm--ironically named Cooperative Strategies--and retreated from the spotlight. 

The three scenarios were likely designed to stop short of moving Myers-Wilkins out of its classification as a racially identified school, because actually reaching that goal would cause the school to lose funding it needs. 

Table 23 and me

I was seated at a table with two engaging gentlemen and two smart women who were the very definition of Minnesota Nice.  Needless to say, these good citizens had to put up with someone who had a few complaints to add to the mix.  I don’t think I was overbearing about it.  I asked their opinion and listened to what they had to say.  I also admitted to them, however, that I, myself, was a bit jaded and worried about the way we would be led in this round.   

I pointed out that the racial profile of Myers-Wilkins (formerly Grant school) was supposed to become more integrated through a large facilities investment the town made only a decade ago and still owed $200 million for.  All that money had only dropped the school’s minority makeup by three percentage points: from 54% to 51%.  

This is the exact promise that was made: “Newer and, in some cases, larger facilities are needed to effectively and efficiently advance Duluth’s desegregation/integration program.  Consolidating schools…will positively impact desegregation and integration.  Remodeling and expanding Grant Elementary so that it is on par with Lowell Elementary will improve our capture rate at the Grant site.  Across the district, there are numerous examples of how the long-range facilities plan will help us make some great strides towards our desegregation goals and objectives…The long-range facilities plan will provide district-wide efficiencies, resulting in more dollars to designate towards programming to support efforts to reduce and ultimately close the achievement gap.”  

An investment of hundreds of millions of dollars was supposed to set us up for thirty years with perfectly placed, right-sized schools.  This year, fiscal year ‘20, our efficiently operating school system was projected to have $4.5 million ($4,493,676.25) extra in the budget.  That money is supposed to be available to designate for closing the achievement gap.  The plan is also 1400 students below its enrollment projections and Congdon Park Elementary is still at 108% capacity. “If the plan had actually worked,” I said to the others about around table, “the school’s parking lot would now be filled with mobile education units.”   

I was trying to point out, of course, that if bad decisions are again made, our town--rather than being set up in a “stable” manner for thirty years--could easily find it itself going though this upheaval three times in thirty years.  


Sweet naivety 

One of the gentlemen at table 23 asked if we thought the public would be truly heard in the process.  The other gentleman responded that elected representatives would likely respond to the will of the people.  I felt like a grizzled old war veteran listening to a fresh young recruit.  His words took me wistfully back to what I once naively believed, more than a decade ago.  

I didn’t harp about it, but I did point out that I’d seen the public’s will trampled by its elected representatives on the school board more than once.  I told my table companions there was a political filter between the public and the people controlling the Board, and that the Board was also heavily swayed by bureaucratic influence.  Everything happening in our school district, once again, had been initiated and pushed by Administration.  This boundary upheaval is Bill Gronseth’s baby, and Bill set the whole thing up so he’ll never really have to own it.  

Three days before he left town, Keith Dixon declared the Red Plan had happened on his watch and he would take full responsibility for it.  I have the only recording of the special meeting Mr. D called just before he left.  Every time I listen to the recording, I shake my head at his words.  How in the world can anyone take full responsibility for something when he or she is heading out the door?  Any true fidelity that exists in the promise is roughly equivalent to a shady investment broker coaxing the last nickel from some poor widow with five kids into a high risk/high reward scheme, and then saying: “Here’s my new address in Switzerland.  If this goes south on you, rest assured I’ll stand behind it and own it!” 


The next night, Denfeld  

Despite its image as being in the “rougher” part of Duluth,  the crowd that gathered on a snowy night in Denfeld High was much less demonstrative than the crowd at East High.  Western Duluth, which got the short end of the stick from the Red Plan, may have been more open to the possibility of improvement from change.  The crowd listened to the presenter from Cooperative Strategies quite attentively for a good length of time, like a studious class eager to learn.  

I was sitting at table 7, with five nice, smart women and one other man.  The women were very interested in the outcome of the language immersion program at Lowell.  The boundary study is meant to address the space problems that are developing at the school as immersion enrollment expands.  The women told me the district doesn’t have a plan in place to deal with the immersion program students beyond elementary level, and they wanted some kind of plan to be part of the boundary study.  

My fellow male at table 7 said he thought Denfeld’s reputation always got a bum rap.  We had a good discussion about that and other topics, and naturally the biggest gaffe did come up.  My fellow male said: “We all know the Red Plan was a mistake.  We can’t go back, but--I don’t know--is it possible to still go to a one high school plan?”

I tried not to speak more than the others at tables 7 and 23.  At one point, while the others around 23 talked among themselves, I worked on a survey.  On the last page I wrote one comment about the high school boundaries: “Please bring the Central campus back into this discussion.”   

I interjected myself back into the conversation with the other people around table 23, when I heard one of the nice, smart women say she wanted to look out for the whole city and not just her own family’s interest.  “I don’t want an elitist attitude from the East dominating the conversation.” 

I thanked her for being so charitable.  I told her I’d always thought an elitist attitude from the East end of town had driven the Red Plan and was the reason some decisions--like shutting down the wonderful Secondary Technical Center--had been made.  

Everyone I shared table 7 with at Denfeld said they planned to ride out the boundary changes and stay with the district.  The two nice, smart women at table 23 in East said they would accept two of the scenarios, but would consider leaving if the other one was implemented.  “Two out of three!”  I remarked, “I guess that’s not too bad.”

“We’re the exception, though!”  They exclaimed.  “Everyone else in our PTA hates all three and are really mad.”

I asked if they thought the meeting organized by Cooperative Strategies was worth attending.  They responded that they thought it was and especially liked the conversation we’d had at table 23.  “I didn’t like all the yelling,” One of them added, looking around at the rest of the room, “but I guess everyone had to get it out.”

Speaking of getting out, I’ll keep a poor metaphor going and say I think Bill will hightail it out the door in five months, to get away from this conflagration he started.