Art in the Schools: Duluth School Board Notes, 7/16/13

17 Jul

The Duluth School Board packed into the board room on Tuesday evening, joined by a modest but quiet crowd. With a heat wave sweeping Duluth (to the extent that any heat wave ever sweeps through Duluth), only Member Miernicki wore a suit and tie; Member Kasper apologized for the Board’s casual attire during a photo-op with a Duluth East student who had done well at the National History Day competition. One of the Student Members was absent, as was Superintendent Bill Gronseth, whose place on the dais was taken by Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford. But Member Art Johnston was on hand, guaranteeing the audience a few fireworks as the night went on.

Once 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 minutes, which was a violation of district bylaws. This time around, the other members fired back. Member Seliga-Punyko said that, as had been explained to Member Johnston “several dozen times” over the past few years, a motion that does not receive a second simply dies, and does not need to be recorded. She cited Robert’s Rules of Order and the opinion of district legal counsel, and finished her salvo by noting that a Board member was wearing illegal campaign material.

Member Johnston, who had an “Art Johnston for School Board” shirt peeking out from beneath his Hawaiian shirt, invited Member Seliga-Punyko to call in the police to arrest him, as she had threatened to do several years earlier; it “would be exciting,” he told the crowd. He reiterated his point about the bylaws, to which Member Kasper attempted to reply by citing the opinion of Superintendent Gronseth, Business Services Director Bill Hansen, and legal counsel. Member Johnston huffed that these people were “not parliamentarians,” but voted to approve the minutes anyway.

During the time for public comments, Member Miernicki stepped down off the dais and addressed the Board as a community member in order to thank the late County Commissioner Steve O’Neil for his service to Duluth schools. O’Neil, who passed away on Monday after a battle with cancer, was a passionate community activist who had done tireless work to help Duluth students who lacked basic needs. Ms. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, a candidate in the upcoming election, thanked the school board for its community input meetings on school planning issues, and Mr. Dick Haney, a former teacher and physical wellness advocate, urged the Board to approve a trail easement across the campus of the shuttered Duluth Central High School.

The first topic to invite much debate was the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan, a long-range vision to improve district-wide academic achievement, school safety, and efficiency. Member Seliga-Punyko emphasized the importance of elementary school specialists and the arts in the Plan, which led Member Kasper to crack that he was glad she supported “Art” in the schools, giving Member Johnston a good laugh. For his part, Member Johnston said he supported the plan, though he had three concerns: he wanted to know why the Plan was on the District website and in the media before it had been passed; he wanted to add goals to reverse enrollment declines; and he wanted a plan to restore the balance of the district’s depleted general fund. Member Miernicki answered the first point to Member Johnston’s satisfaction, arguing that media coverage and web presence was necessary to bring in the community input the District desired. Member Wasson echoed this theme and also pushed back on the enrollment goal, noting that most every school district in Minnesota is shedding students. In a cautionary note semi-subtly directed at Member Johnston, she also said that “negativity” around the Board would be a problem in implementing a plan they all agreed was necessary. Member Johnston earnestly explained that he was not being negative by voicing a few concerns, and the Plan passed unanimously.

During the Human Resources Committee’s resolutions, a motion came up to rescind the layoff of a single teacher. Member Johnston, rather understandably confused by the wording of the resolution, thought it was an effort to cut the position, and Member Kasper hurriedly tried to correct him. HR Director Tim Sworsky clarified the wording, and Member Johnston grumbled about its confusing nature before voting to support the re-hiring.

Next up was the Business Committee report, which included the easement to create a trail across the old Central property. While all were supportive of the idea (aside from some mild worry about wetlands from Member Johnston that he figured could be worked out), Member Wasson motioned to table the vote until they could have more feedback from Mr. Kerry Leider of Facilities Management. The Board Members then spent a while agreeing with each other in their wishes for clarifications on the unsold site’s zoning, and Mr. Leider said he believed their concerns would be met. Member Johnston had some concern that delays would hinder any construction on the project this year, though he also admitted he wasn’t sure any real progress this year was realistic anyway. The Board tabled the measure 6-0, with Member Johnston abstaining.

When it came time to approve the entire Business Committee Report, Member Johnston singled out a series of measures for separate votes, all of which he supported, leading them to pass unanimously. This left him free to vote against the remainder of the report, which included several change orders (which he had criticized at the June meeting), though he did not belabor his point this time around. His maneuvering allowed him to hold his line on facilities spending while also voting to support various fundraisers, investments, insurance policies, and a community collaborative project. The Members then wrapped up a meeting that, aside from the spat over the minutes at the start, appeared more constructive than the previous month’s, albeit with a less controversial agenda on their plate.

Tuesday was also the filing deadline for this fall’s School Board elections, which will feature a lot of familiar faces. While Members Cameron, Kasper, and Wasson are headed for retirement, former Members Nancy Nilsen and Harry Welty are throwing their names back into the fray for the two open at-large seats. Member Johnston will pursue re-election, though he faces two challengers in his western Duluth district. Two of Member Johnston’s most loyal lieutenants, Ms. Marcia Stromgren and Mr. Loren Martell (both surprisingly absent from Tuesday’s meeting), are back on the ballot after failed past runs. (Mr. Welty is also a member of the old anti-Red Plan crowd, though I consider him a more complex figure than single-issue candidates like Ms. Stromgren and Mr. Martell.) With the District’s operating levy also on the ballot, the election should prove an interesting referendum on the work of the past few Boards.

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