On Tuesday night, I joined a horde of wilting Duluthians in the Board Room. Historic Old Central High School has no air conditioning, and even though the temperature cleared ninety, the room was full of red-faced people. Many of the school board candidates and usual suspects were lurking around, and several hijacked my normal spot by setting up their own video cameras, forcing me to a sideline seat by the media. An MIA Member Cameron apparently fled to the beach, while Member Johnson celebrated the weather with a Hawaiian shirt, and the middle five people on the dais were color-coordinated in light blue shirts. The mood at the start seemed light, with Member Johnston sharing a joke with Superintendent Gronseth, but with a major debate about which levy options to send to voters on the table, the ending was certain to be different.
For once, Member Johnston did not have a beef with the previous meeting’s minutes, and the District moved on to celebrate the installations of educational gardens at a number of schools. After that, it was on to public comments, and the first four speakers were all candidates in the upcoming election. The first was the only real newcomer to Board affairs, at-large candidate Joshua Bixby, a middle-aged, well-polished man with salt-and-pepper hair who looked like he was fresh off a round at the country club. (Surprise! he lives in Congdon Park.) He asked the Board to support a voter-approved levy in order to restore trust, voiced his pleasure with the dialogue at a business committee meeting, and made the sensible suggestion that standing committee meetings be opened to the public, as Board members often have their minds made up by the general board meetings, rendering public comments nothing but a “moment of catharsis.”
Next up was Mr. Loren Martell, who sounded far more coherent than usual and celebrated the Superintendent’s recommendation that the levy appear on the ballot. He took a shot at Student Member Thibault, who was quoted in a recent News-Tribune article as saying the District should impose a levy without a vote, and grumbled about the civics lessons the Board must have taught him. Mr. Harry Welty came forward next, and in a display that can only be described as Harry Welty-ish, attempted to have a dialogue with Superintendent Gronseth involving head signals, was left confused by the Superintendent’s response, and trailed on in support of a vote on the levy. Ms. Marcia Stromgren rehashed her normal litany of complaints, and Mr. Tom Albright, a volunteer pushing for the passage of the levy, thanked the Board for its thoughtfulness.
The Board then breezed through Education and HR Committee business in record time. Sup. Gronseth gave a progress report on construction at Congdon and Myers-Wilkins Elementaries, and said he had shut down his office today after temperatures cleared ninety. Member Johnston, delivering the Education Committee report in Member Cameron’s absence, said the Committee had looked at pictures of blizzards during its meeting to try to keep cool.
When the Business Committee agenda came up, Member Johnston again broke several issues off from the rest of the agenda for separate discussion and vote. First came some funding for online programming for students who are homebound or at the alternative high school; he wanted to make sure the funding had been pre-allocated, which it had, though only as an estimate. Member Westholm pressed District staffers on the possible fuzziness of online education, and asked if there were models for the program; Assistant Sup. Crawford and Unity High School (the alternative school) Assistant Principal Adrian Norman responded by painting a picture of an interactive program tailored to fit each student’s needs that will be carefully watched in its pilot year. Satisfied, the Board approved the Virtual Schools contract and some AmeriCorps funding, 6-0. After that came the usual complaints by Member Johnston over change orders; he groused that they were voting on projects that had already been started or even completed. Member Seliga-Punyko insisted that the Board did indeed approve these projects in April, and asked if Member Johnston would have them tear up the sidewalks and playgrounds now. Member Johnston insisted that he was simply making a point that this “is not the way you do business,” and was the lone vote against the change orders.
After that, it was on to the main event of the evening: the levy plans. The School Board had three options to vote on:
1. A $300 levy imposed by the Board without a vote, which would also lock down $1.1 million in extra state aid.
2. An existing $212 state equity levy for larger districts, which could either be tabled indefinitely (effectively re-approving it), or rejected.
3. Two ballot questions in the November election, the first of which is a $600 levy that would match the current operating levy and also include (as part of the $600) the $212 equity levy, and the second of which would raise the levy another $200. The passage of the first leg would guarantee the $1.1 million in state funding, but its failure would cost Duluth the entire package, aside from the $212 equity fund (assuming it is not rejected).
The imposed levy was up first, and Member Seliga-Punyko took the stand to make a case that summed up her six years of work on the School Board. It was, effectively, an argument for representative democracy, and what she saw as the school board’s right to do whatever it thinks is best for the district, regardless of public opinion. She listed off a number of other bodies (some elected, some not) that can raise taxes without voter input, and asked why school boards are held to a different standard. “Why would you put the district in jeopardy?” she asked, shuddering at the thought of cutting $7 million in funding if the $600 levy were to fail at the ballot box. She envisioned a District in which all arts and athletics are gone, with 50-plus students in every classroom, and insisted that students came first; the issue was “not about the confidence of the voters, but being a responsible governing body.”
Student Member Thibault echoed Member Seliga-Punyko’s comments, while Member Miernicki respectfully disagreed. There was much confusion about the language of the resolution, freeing Chairman Kasper to deliver the line of the night: “we’re muddled in bureaucracy. Imagine that!” Sup. Gronseth told of his meeting with state legislators on Monday, which left him encouraged that lots of people are on the same page, and he said Duluth needs to move past its past issues and have hope and faith that the community will support it. (The words “hope” and “faith” were thrown around so often tonight that I wondered if I had perhaps accidentally wandered into an Obama rally.)
In a moment of rare agreement, Member Johnston thanked the Superintendent for his words, and offered his support for the ballot measure. He said that imposing the levy would jeopardize later motions and increases, and was responsible to students, taxpayers, and District staff over the long-term. He said it was “symbolic” that he and the Superintendent could agree on this. Chair Kasper agreed, admitting it was a big risk that he did not support lightly, but insisting that responsibility had to be given back to the taxpayers. The imposed levy failed, 5-1, with Member Seliga-Punyko the lone vote in favor.
The meeting degenerated from there, as the discussion over the equity levy swiftly became a mess; no one really knew what was going on. Members Johnston and Miernicki misinterpreted Sup. Gronseth’s intent, leading the Superintendent to hastily try to explain it all: the measure is not board-authorized, but state-authorized, and tabling it would accept the funds, not delay a decision. Member Johnston said that accepting this funding would “confuse” voters, make them think the Board was raising taxes, and “was a sure way not to get this money.” Member Seliga-Punyko lashed out, claiming this was “an excuse” to vote ‘no’ designed by people who are trying to bring down the levy,” “including a Board member.” Member Johnston asked that Chair Kasper reprimand her for impugning him, which he did. Member Seliga-Punyko also asked why this was even up for a vote, which Sup. Groseth answered by saying that it was the only way to have a debate about it. The normally quiet Member Wasson did her best to cut through the confusion and get the simple message: this is not a tax increase, and merely a stopgap to guarantee a few dollars if the levy does indeed fail at the ballot box. Over Member Johnston’s “begging,” the Board approved the equity levy, 5-1.
Angered, Member Johnston voiced his displeasure when the Board opened discussion on the 2-part ballot measure levy. He said the $212 equity levy “does nothing for us,” and thought the confusion of a two-part ballot question would only be “another nail in the coffin” for a measure that faces an uphill battle. He tried to peel off the second question so as not to “muddy the water,” but the rest of the Board voted against him. Member Wasson asked Business Services Director Bill Hansen if the explicit line “this is not a tax increase” could be put on the $600 levy, but was disappointed to hear a “no” in response. Member Johnston continued his parliamentary wrangling by announcing his support for the $600 levy despite the fact that he would abstain from the vote to put it on the ballot due to his opposition to the additional $200 question. After the meeting, Member Seliga-Punyko could be overheard doubting his good faith. The measure passed, 5-0.
Next up was a state-funded bond, and although the bond before the Board had nothing to do with the District’s credit rating, Member Johnston rolled out a series of quotes from Moody’s Analytics’ recent decision to downgrade the District to perhaps the lowest rating in the state. His point really was a good one: the bond downgrade is a real issue, and does indeed show that some of Member Johnston’s concerns over the years were well-founded. But when Sup. Gronseth reiterated that the District’s rating had nothing to do with the bond in question, Member Johnston yet again had to get in the last word. There is no such thing as a time and a place for Member Johnston: he must make his own righteousness clear at every turn, an act that is, frankly, the epitome of “muddying the water.” Nothing is made clearer by interjecting on every single point and going off on tangents, no matter how much they may prove him right; even though he usually adds the necessary caveats, discourses such as this one are not the mark of someone genuinely concerned about the District. They are the mark of a man trying to score political points for his platform so that he can tell people he was right. He claims to support the levy, but will claim vindication if it fails; he insists the public is well-informed about Board matters and will see through the confusion, but no one did more to advance the confusion than he did.
By the end of the meeting, the heat of the discussion and the room was driving everyone nuts. When Member Johnston belabored one particular point, a red-faced Member Miernicki threw his head skyward in exasperation. Chair Kasper twice announced there were no more lights lit and moved to a vote when other Members’ lights were quite obviously on; upon being shot down, Member Wasson shook her head and sighed as if to say “to hell with it.” Chair Kasper’s request that Member Johnston clarify a statement led to an obstinate “I said what I said” from Member Johnston. Member Seliga-Punyko’s mumblings were audible from my seat in the audience. Once the Board moved on to less contentious issues involving election judges and such, Member Miernicki began to second measures before they had been read in their entirety. Chair Kasper told the Board he has “four months and nine days” until his term is up, “not that he’s counting.”
In spite of the dysfunction, the winner of the meeting was Sup. Gronseth, who kept his composure as all of his proposals passed. We will have to wait until November to learn how real that victory is. He avoided the easy way out—Member Seliga-Punyko’s path—and has staked his legacy on the $600 levy. If it passes, the District is in decent shape, and he is the man who moved Duluth past the Red Plan rancor and into a new era in which things might actually get done. (The $200 extra levy is a cherry on top, and while I will support it, I don’t have a lot of faith in it.) If it fails, the losses will be catastrophic, and no one’s hands will be clean. Not Member Seliga-Punyko’s: even though she tried to avoid this path, her support of the Board’s past heavy-handed tactics will have come home to roost. Not Member Johnston’s: while he may try to say “I told you so,” his behavior has always prioritized his own purity over any sincere care over the direction of the District, and his endless parliamentary nitpicking did nothing but cloud matters further. And certainly not Sup. Gronseth’s, whose chumminess and leap of faith will appear naïve.
I’m on my knees in prayer already.