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I’ve seen a lot of Duluth school superintendents come and go. When I began running for the Duluth School Board we had a super each year for five years straight.
Mark Myles put a stop to that and served four years. I joined him for his last two.
In my second go round 12 years later, I served four years with nervous Bill Gronseth. I even had a two-year honeymoon with Bill’s mentor Keith Dixon, defending him in print from early critics. Then he pulled the Red Plan.
That leaves Julio Almanza who had a different pedigree. Born in Mexico, educated in inner city Chicago, I served with him for six years.
Julio had to walk a tightrope from the beginning. He took over after teachers hostile to Myles’ charter seemed poised to take over the school board. He was the choice of the four newcomers who had been afraid they would be cut out of the hiring process. The fifth vote for Julio wasn’t me. It was Mary Cameron, who was eager to see a superintendent of different complexion.
Julio’s resume intrigued me. An administrator for the St. Paul Public Schools, he also served on the South Washington County school board. I thought this combination might offer enlightened leadership.
After his interview Julio sought me out for a private chat. He told me that he approved of my stepping down as the board chair. I was amused. My voodoo resignation had made national news. Shock jock Howard Stern thought it was a hoot. Paul Harvey reported it on his nationally syndicated radio news program, shocking my wife’s Iowa family. Both wrongly reported that I’d put a curse on teachers.
If you Google Snowbizz.com (two Zs) “Who do the Voodoo” you can read a freshly written (circa 1999) 3,000-word recap.
As the unofficial board historian I kept copious notes. With a target on my back I wanted to share my side of the story on the new medium called “the Internet” before that year’s election.
I kept my correspondence with a Missouri lobbyist private. She was trying to get Missouri to pass a Minnesota-style charter law. We traded back-room negotiations. I explained how pissing off the union resulted in the slaughter of our Charter supporters.
I kept this and much more in a three-ring-binder. I loaned it to Julio to get him up to speed and let him look into my head.
The binder was also my scrapbook containing news clippings, children’s thank yous for reading Dr. Suess books to their classes and letters from taxpayers.
Julio would try to project studied neutrality, but my side of the board didn’t believe it for a minute. He wrinkled his face a bit when returning my notes. He disapproved of the politics but if he was neutral the parents of charter students didn’t see it.
Julio wasn’t as aggressive as Mark Myles, who made me cringe once as he told our local legislators they were shortchanging children. With the union nipping at his heels Mark shared all the union newsletters with board members, which fostered a seige mentality.
I put Frank’s screeds on the Internet, where they remain to this day.
Julio later turned off the tap. When I asked him why he just gave me a mischievous smile. He thought silence was golden.
A lot of things changed, foremost among them 9/11 and, to the union’s delight, our sponsorship of Edison. But it wasn’t gone. It was simply freed from the school board’s – and thus the union’s – control.
If Julio wanted quiet he wouldn’t get it from me. I began writing a school board diary on the Internet. It was partly a response to letters-to-the-editor critical of my board allies.
These letters seemed to be the work of the board’s pro-union board members. They asked Julio, to ask me, to stop publishing my diary. When he asked, I just gave him a mischievous smile.
Julio was stubborn like the kid who refused to be picked on for speaking Spanish in a Chicago school yard. This was the golden age of print news and the Trib had two reporters covering education. They were ready to rumble.
When Julio got a proposal to close five elementary schools two furious reporters pitched camp in his office and refused to leave until the schools were named. The editors sided with publicizing public data.
For Julio it was a case of getting into a pissing contest with a skunk. The Trib’s headlines prompted 1,000 angry parents to pack the Ordean auditorium to give the school board hell.
Sly Julio neglected to give us board members a microphone to shut us up. I bummed a pencil from my colleague Laura Condon and wrote “Where do we get the money?” on notebook paper to show to the crowd.
Laura regretted lending me her pencil.
But all issues of education paled compared to the crises that brought Julio’s superintendency down. He had the audacity not to renew a part-time hockey coach who treated his second-string players like losers.
Julio sat without a job for a year until Duluth’s Mayor Herb Bergson fired his administrative assistant with a post-it note on the door. By now a columnist for The Reader I recommended Julio be given the job.
That’s just what the Mayor did.
Before one of our school board meetings I started singing the 1960s novelty song “Bottle of Wine.” Julio joined in as we warbled: “Bottle of Wine, Fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober. Leave me alone. Let me go home. Let go home and start over ... ”
I liked Julio.
Harry Welty sings for his supper at lincolndemocrat.com.