Art Johnston vs. the World: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/18/13

19 Jun

For whatever reason, this very old post still generates a lot of traffic. My thoughts have evolved some since. For my more recent posts on ISD 709 affairs, check out the school board tag here.

In my continuing coverage of local politics, here is an account of a recent Duluth school board meeting.

First, some background information: in the face of declining enrollment, Duluth launched a huge school consolidation and reconstruction project, the Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), colloquially known as the Red Plan, in 2007. Most people agreed something had to be done; the debate centered on how to implement the changes, and quickly spiraled into bedlam. The LRFP was highly controversial due to its large price tag and because it did not go to a referendum. (It is my understanding that the school board is by no means required to hold a referendum, but many citizens were so upset with the size of the measure that they thought it constituted an attack on the democratic process—and now, years later, there are still people who come to each school board meeting to berate its members.)

The school board pushed the measure through just in time for the economy to crash. Many of the shuttered schools remain unsold—buy yourself an old high school on Craigslist here!—and the district has failed to meet its enrollment projections. But far more significantly, anger over the LRFP has been a major factor in the failure of several school board levies. Class sizes have skyrocketed into the 40s, teachers have been axed, and a number of students have open-enrolled in neighboring districts. While the large class sizes are not okay, I do think the apocalyptic views of Duluth schools taken by some critics are over-the-top; the facilities are indeed excellent, the curriculum is still fairly strong, there are many great teachers and administrators who haven’t gone anywhere, and Duluth East, at least, still seems to send just as many (if not more) kids off to top-end colleges. But all is not rosy in ISD 709, and Tuesday night’s circus before the Board revealed a community still torn apart by a nearly-complete process that began six years ago.

It was a fairly full house for the meeting, which is held in what appears to have once been the cavernous cafeteria of Historic Old Central High School, a building that now houses the district’s administration and several alternative learning programs. (HOCHS is not to be confused with the Unhistoric Old Central High School, the one that is now for sale.) All seven school board members were on hand, along with Superintendent Bill Gronseth and the two non-voting student members, one from each high school. Seven of the ten people seated at the front of the room wore glasses, of which Member Westholm won the hotly contested award for the most professorially-perched spectacles.

In the audience, ten to fifteen of us had no obvious business before the Board; our number included school administrators, candidates for the Board in this fall’s elections, and the media. A handful of people who had been first incensed into action by the LRFP were on hand; whatever the merits of their initial critiques, their presence now seems to be little more than an exercise in self-righteousness, their shtick so exhausted that one must struggle to take them at all seriously. (At one point, I thought Silly Hat Lady had actually let a worthwhile suggestion slip into her endless bloviating, but when the topic in question came up in the Board’s discussion, it was clear they were already miles ahead of her.)

About twenty people dressed in red were there to support the clerical workers’ union, and their leader made an impassioned plea on behalf of the district’s overstretched secretaries. But the most visible and vocal crowd in the hall, their number somewhere around 25, was on hand to decry the decision not to retain Ms. Leea Power, a school principal.

Ms. Power had moved her family to Duluth the previous summer, and after a year working at the alternative high school had been appointed principal of Piedmont Elementary. Roughly a week later, the Board turned around and made a motion to terminate Ms. Power’s contract. The reasons, which went unsaid until after the Board voted to cut Ms. Power due to data privacy regulations, included issues of communication, leadership, time management, learning attitude, professionalism, and building trust. Her supporters, naturally, disagreed. But there was an added element that fueled the debate over Ms. Power: she is black.

Without going through the whole racial history of Duluth (a topic on which I am no expert, to be sure), it is safe to say that African-Americans face some unique issues in an otherwise very homogenous, white community. At one point, Member Johnston said the racial achievement gap in Duluth is one of the largest in the state of Minnesota, and that Minnesota’s gap is the largest nationwide. It is rare to find a black person in a prominent position in Duluth, and a number of audience members saw Ms. Power as a much-needed African-American in a position of authority. Of Ms. Power’s supporters, all but three or four were black, and their lead speaker, Ms. Sharon Witherspoon, quoted Martin Luther King several times. Member Cameron, the lone African-American on the Board, said she thought many of Ms. Power’s alleged shortcomings were correctable, given proper training.

The longest plea on Ms. Power’s behalf, however, came from the white man sitting at the far end of the dais, Member Art Johnston. Member Johnston, an older man whose hair style suggests he enjoys going for long walks along the lake before Board meetings, was one of the members elected immediately after the LFRP rancor, and his opinions on his colleagues seem to range from bitter frustration to outright contempt. In his three-plus years on the board, he has perfected the art of making a scene. He claimed the accusations against Ms. Power were full of “hearsay and contradictions,” produced a ream of letters supporting her, and ripped through a list of procedures he believed the district’s HR Department had violated. The HR Manager, Mr. Tim Sworsky, described his accusations as “appalling” in their ignorance of HR processes, and Member Johnston fired the charge right back at Mr. Sworsky. He predicted lawsuits, NAACP involvement, and called Superintendent Gronseth’s letter recommending Ms. Power’s dismissal “pretty pathetic.” He finished by saying the Board was “destroying this person’s educational career” and said the “looks in people’s eyes” as they debated the topic were “very concerning.”

One of those people with a troubled look behind his glasses was Member Kasper, who struggled to find the words to explain that he supported Ms. Power’s dismissal; though he did not do so lightly, he trusted the Superintendent’s judgment. Member Cameron, while not endorsing all of Member Johnston’s rhetoric, said the HR Department practices needed some work. No one else said a word. The Board voted to terminate Ms. Power’s contract, 5-2, with Members Johnston and Cameron providing the opposition. The ball is now in Ms. Power’s court: will she move on from Duluth, or will she pull a Mike Randolph and fight?

The Board went on to recognize a west side elementary school that improved its test scores markedly, and Member Johnston had fun slowing down the proceedings to point out any number of bylaws that were in danger of being violated. (While I certainly do not condone the violation of bylaws, the notion of choosing one’s battles seems to have no place in Member Johnston’s worldview. His obstructionism drowned out his most salient criticisms, and made one wonder if he has at this point simply resorted to disrupting as many things as he can.) There was a healthy, consensus-building discussion about possibly closing the high school campuses during lunch hours, in which the student Members played their largest role of the night; it was a rare moment of constructive engagement by everyone up on the dais, and the sort of dialogue one wished one heard more often at local board meetings.

The meeting concluded with the consideration of the budget for the upcoming year, and Member Johnston was once again at the top of his game. He harped on several change orders to a handful of ongoing LRFP projects, and insisted that any savings from the LRFP should be put directly back into classrooms, rather than paying off long-term debt created by the facilities plan. He noted that he has never voted to cut a single teacher, and claimed the Board could reduce class sizes “right now” if it wanted to.

Superintendent Gronseth was the only person to respond to Member Johnston’s charges, though he said he was “at a loss” over where to start, since he disagreed with Member Johnston on so many fronts. Many of the issues, he said, had been belabored to death, and he said the District was slowly moving in the right direction, particularly when given the impending repeal of many state-level mandates. All parts of the budget passed, 6-1, with Member Johnston being the lone ‘no’ vote. Member Johnston concluded the meeting by asking why Superintendent Gronseth had not responded to a past request for some sort of follow-up, and asked if he would like the state to weigh in on the issue. The Superintendent paused before quietly replying that his door is always open.

It would be easy to dismiss Member Johnston as a lunatic on the fringe, which is exactly what his colleagues seem to have done. But it was hard to fight the notion that, if not for Member Johnston, the Board would simply be a rubber stamp machine. Perhaps there is greater debate behind the curtains, but one wouldn’t know it from the meetings, and the other Members may not be aware of how opaque their processes can seem to the rest of the city. Whether justified or not, the LRFP process did damage the Board’s image, and the Board’s reaction appears to consist of ignoring this fact rather than doing anything about it. Half of the Members were basically mute throughout the controversial proceedings on Tuesday night, giving little indication of how they arrived at their votes. I understand their hands were tied somewhat by the Data Practices Act when discussing Ms. Power, and that many of Member Johnston’s complaints over LRFP money have likely been rehashed time and time again. But at this meeting, only a few people tried to defend their agenda. Member Seliga-Punyko rightly noted the long-term declines in district enrollment that long predate the LRFP, but it would be naïve to claim this is the sole reason for Duluth’s current bind. Superintendent Gronseth also made some effort to counter Member Johnston, but—with all due respect to the Superintendent, who was an assistant principal at East High when I was there, and about whom I have heard nothing but praise from observers other than Member Johnston—he needs to expand beyond his arsenal of education platitudes if he actually wants to convince anyone. The District needs a much stronger sales pitch, and needs to have the courage of its conviction to refute every little point Member Johnston makes. Otherwise, even those of us who are skeptical of a man who seems to be nursing a longtime grudge will wonder why the Board refuses to counter him, and whether he might be right about a thing or two.

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4 Responses to “Art Johnston vs. the World: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/18/13”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Case Studies in Conservatism | A Patient Cycle - June 29, 2013

    […] the other end of the spectrum, we find people like the Member Art Johnston of the Duluth School Board. Like Krause, Johnston is a reasonably effective public speaker who can put together a solid sound […]

  2. Art in the Schools: Duluth School Board Notes, 7/16/13 | A Patient Cycle - July 17, 2013

    […] again, the fun began during the approval of the minutes from the previous meeting. Member Johnston complained his motion to offer a completely different budget was not in the […]

  3. Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later | A Patient Cycle - August 28, 2013

    […] as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to […]

  4. A Meeting that Cannot Be Summarized Pithily: Duluth School Board Notes, 3/18/14 | A Patient Cycle - March 19, 2014

    […] Board then took up a reconsideration of last June’s vote to move ahead with a plan to close high school campuses during the lunch hour. Chair Miernicki […]

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