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One reason government meetings drag on so long and bore most people to distraction is explained through an old political maxim: “Everything’s already been said, but every politician hasn’t said it yet.”
I had to dig deep to find enough grit to walk into Old Central again, for the school board’s HR/Business committee meeting, held on 2/11/20. On top of a search for a new Superintendent, and an upheaval of school boundaries, and an over-the-top scheme to deal with the Old Central building and the vacant New Central campus, the Board is trying to cope with an entire restructuring of its monthly committee meetings.
A sixth sense wasn’t required to know I was in for a long one.
Nearly three and a half hours, in fact.
This run-on meeting can’t be covered in two Reader pages. If I try, anybody trying to read the article would need high-power magnification to see the microscopic font. For anyone interested, it is on YouTube.
The school board engaged in some discussion about the Superintendent search during HR, and a number of topics were covered in Business, including enrollment numbers, next year’s budget, and a “slow-down” of the ambitious school boundary shift. Administration is now recommending a two-phase process for the boundary changes, dealing first with elementary schools, then with secondary.
The elementary phase is being described as more urgent, because of the over-capacity issues in some schools like Congdon Park Elementary. Administrators pointed out that the overcrowding in Congdon is preventing them from lowering class sizes. Our poor school board, however, is crushing under the weight of this Superintendent’s big push to clean the slate of all his ambitions before he leaves. Implementation of the first phase of boundary reconfigurations is destined to be put off for a year.
Another item I want to briefly mention came towards the end of the evening. It was listed this way in the Facilities Management and Capital Project Status Report: “Facilities has a UMD intern working at no cost to the District on a project to determine feasibility and financial benefit/payback as related to solar-panel installation.”
Dave Spooner, the district’s Facilities Manager, is a very dedicated public official. Dave found a nice, young intern to work for free. Solar is clean and green and many in the world are increasingly worried about carbon emissions and climate change. What’s not to like, right?
I have to ask the question none of our representatives asked: After running up a bill of $481 million on a long-range facilities plan that was supposed to give us GREEN SCHOOLS, the greenest in the state, why are we just now looking at solar?
The Red Plan’s original proposal contained the following statements: “Both the district and community believe in doing what they can to reduce environmental impact through sustainable design. This includes new construction as well as modifications to existing facilities. For this project, the design team will be guided by programs developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), in particular the LEED for Schools Rating System.”
As a school board candidate, a few election cycles back, I ran into a LEED certifier. He’d worked in the schools during the Red Plan construction and looked them over closely. He told me the district gained some energy efficiencies from the work that was done — from new boilers, insulated windows, etc — but he added the schools could not get LEED certification. He pointed out that the middle schools, especially, with their big aquatic facilities, were especially problematic. He said ISD 709 could still get to LEED, but it would take considerable further investment, for such things as installing removable covers over the large, heated pools, and active solar.
We were told the schools would be LEED certified, silver-level, but the promise of certification was rescinded after the Red Plan began. This is the way the promise was diluted in a 2012 publication of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce: “The schools were constructed to the standard of LEED…‘fully designed around LEED and beyond LEED,’” a spokesperson for Johnson Controls elaborated. “While the school district will realize the cost savings and environmental benefit of LEED,” the promo piece concluded, “it will forgo seeking the LEED accreditation for cost savings.”
The claim that our school board opted not to get LEED certified, just to prudently save $200,000, should make the whole town either laugh or cry. During this meeting’s discussion, the district’s CFO downplayed the potential payback from solar, given its “potential costs and upkeep.” When I questioned the Facilities Manager, he assured me Duluth schools are now performing better in terms of energy usage than most school districts in the state. But solar panels would be required to achieve the standard we were originally promised. And if we’d gotten what we’d paid for, we’d already have them.
Discussion of a revision to the school board’s Committees bylaw took up the largest block of time during the Business meeting. Cathy Erickson, the district’s CFO, again explained the intent of the revision: “What this policy change does is that it provides flexibility to the school board to determine the committees and the committee structures. Also what it does is that it clarifies under procedures, under ‘C.’” The “C” being referred to is a tenet under the under the fourth heading of bylaw 213, which currently states: “School board members are welcome to attend and participate in all standing committee meetings.”
“If we’re having assigned committee meeting members (through this revision,)” Erickson further expounded, “then other members should not participate.” In other words, administration is recommending removing the “WELCOME” mat from committee doorways.
The policy revision also “clarifies,” as Erickson said, “that there is a Committee of the Whole meeting that gives the Board (opportunity) at any time to set a standing Committee of the Whole meeting.” If I followed this clarification correctly, administration was recommending, in a round-about way, making Committee of the Whole meetings a regular, monthly, standing affair.
“In the past there’s been conversation about what is a Special Meeting versus what is a Committee of the Whole meeting,” Erickson explained, “and we wanted to clarify in this policy that when you hold a Special Meeting — that’s when action is going to be taken. When you hold a Committee of the Whole meeting — that’s when discussion happens.”
Our worthy CFO continued, using language that will likely bore any reader not already nodding off, and likely confused more than one Board member: “From a policy perspective, this is just creating that policy. And then, through this, there is a sample resolution that comes along with it, because if we’re abandoning this policy, at the same time you’re gonna want to create those (new) standing committees-- then, by resolution, whatever you want them to be. And then you can start holding, or hosting, those committee meetings and the committees that would be set up by the Board.”
“Hosting” is, without a doubt, the best word. Our school board always feels like it’s hosting a party in the boardroom. Sally Trnka — Chair of the soon-to-be-defunct Business Committee — corrected one of Erickson’s other word choices: “We’re not abandoning (this policy,)” Trnka argued, “we’re evolving.”
Would Darwin agree?
Erickson outlined the mechanics of the new policy, if the Board decides to create standing committees only committee members can attend: “The determination of the membership of the committees would be done by the Board, but the appointment of those members…would (still) be done by the Board Chair.”
Trnka asked why language about the negotiations committee had been removed from the bylaw. Erickson said she “took that out, in case there wanted to be (a discussion about) what the definition of a negotiations committee was.”
The current definition was conjured up a decade ago, under Dixon’s administration. An actual negotiations committee was eliminated, and the whole Board supposedly became the committee. School board members were no longer directly involved in negotiations. Rather, from that point on, the Board’s role became limited to “setting parameters.” The same language regarding negotiations was inserted into bylaw 213, when the Gronseth administration created it to replace policies 8015, 9020, 9025, 9030, 9035, 9040 and 9045, in 2017.
Erickson expressed confusion as to why the language was still even in the policy, given there is no standing negotiation committee. Answer: Keith Dixon was a master of word mirages. He inserted the language into the policy, to soft soap the fact that he tossing Board members out of the actual negotiations, and subsequent administrations liked the mirage of a committee that really wasn’t a committee.
Our current Super weighed in about the benign intent of the policy changes now being proposed: “I just want to make sure that you’re using your time efficiently--that you’re working on things that you want to work on, that you need to work on…We’re trying to be more efficient and effective.”
“And I love meetings.” Our district’s CFO inserted, seemingly not facetiously. She added, however, that she didn’t understand the way information is currently being parsed between committees: “Grants and grant proposals are actually a business function, and they’re run through (the) Education (Committee.) I don’t know why that happened and why that’s there, so my thought process was cleaning this up.”
Member Oswald pointed out that the policy “should include a provision that all school board meetings be recorded.” She elaborated that recording meetings was important for transparency and that it had a tempering effect on Board behavior.
Erickson agreed that the committees meetings should be recorded, “whether it’s video or audio,” but added that she felt language requiring it should be included in the resolution rather than the policy. “Then we would have to address that with every committee,” Member O countered. “I would rather have a blanket thing.” During discussion on the subject, the Superintendent pitched for using audio, citing the expense of video-recording, and the Board seemed to lean that way.
It’s safe to predict that audio, less alluring than video, will lose some audience. Audio is also harder to examine and report from than video. Recording committee meetings that will no longer have set times, or a set place, only in audio mode will be a negative for transparency.
Commenting on committee meetings now potentially being attended by just three members, rather than the entire Board, member Oswald observed: “I have seen, and experienced, how politics gets involved, and that’s not right. Not fair. And I would hope that if we do choose, as a Board, to go with three members on a committee, that those committee assignments be given out equally, or distributed equitably, so we all have a chance to participate — because I have seen Board members shut out.” Later in the meeting, she added that it would be “ok” to trust committee members, but “I don’t think that means we should have blind compliance, either…We still need to know what we’re talking about, and what we’re voting on, because our public still relies on us to do that.”
Member O once again put her finger on the truth. The chief danger of this arrangement is that some Board members will be left out in the cold and deprived from bringing their constituents’ concerns into every discussion. The resolution on the table would create two new standing committees: A Business, Finance and Human Resources committee and a Policy Committee. If only three people are on a committee and there are seven Board members, someone is going to left out of both committees.
Administration seems to believe this problem will be addressed by a Committee of the Whole meeting every month. This meeting, however, is supposed to include everything previously contained in the now-dissolved (and always lengthy) Education Committee, as well as a review of “reports” from the two standing committees, and any “miscellaneous items” not included in those two committees. I don’t know about our representatives, but I may bring a cushion for my chair to this one every month.
The ancillary danger in this whole scheme is that some of the controlling members of the school board, who have for years displayed a disturbing lack of curiosity about the real nuts and bolts of district operations, will be now be exposed first hand to even less information. Subsequently, they will tend to rubber-stamp even more than they currently do.