Onward and Upward with Art Johnston’s Scorched-Earth Campaign: Duluth School Board Notes, 9/24/13

The ISD 709 School Board gathered for its monthly meeting for an unusual 4:30 start on Tuesday. The time, apparently, was not agreeable for Member Seliga-Punyko, who was absent; Member Westholm was also MIA at roll call, but snuck in fifteen minutes after the meeting had started. Many candidates in the upcoming election were on hand, including several of those who had lost in the primaries.

As usual, Member Johnston held up the minutes, this time catching a misprint and complaining that his point of order at the previous meeting, in which he asked Chair Kasper to reprimand Member Seliga-Punyko for impugning him, was not in the minutes. Member Miernicki pressed him on this contention, wondering what exactly Member Johnston had found so impugning about her words and reading back Member Seliga-Punyko’s quote, which did not mention Member Johnston by name. Member Johnston dodged the question, simply insisting that his point of order had to be in the minutes. It was not entirely clear what Member Miernicki’s motive was, except perhaps to extract a concession that the reprimand was not warranted. (One can only imagine what sort of reprimand would have been necessary had Member Seliga-Punyko been in attendance at this month’s meeting, given Member Johnston’s subsequent actions.)

The Board then congratulated an East High School student for an award she’d won on a paper about the dangers of texting and driving. The sole community speaker was Mr. Dick Haney, who came before the Board for a second time to ask them to approve an easement for a bike trail across the property of the former Central High School. In his report to the Board, Superintendent Gronseth talked about the positives at the start of a new school year, particularly the opening of the new Congdon Park and Myers-Wilkins Elementaries; he was pleased to announce the District was now “out of the construction business,” and could focus directly on student achievement. He invited the public to learn more about the levy options on the ballot in the upcoming elections, and said he was happy to speak to any groups with questions. Chair Kasper thanked him, and Member Miernicki waxed about the sense of community he saw at the opening of the new schools.

By in large, the Education Committee report consisted only of test score reports and grant announcements. Member Johnston, however, took a moment to show what a constructive voice he could have been on this Board had he not chosen to chain his reputation to his scorched-earth campaign against the Red Plan. He singled out the test score disparities between East and Denfeld High Schools, and Ordean-East and Lincoln Park Middle Schools, wondering why gaps in scores ranged from 33 to 50 percent, and asking what could be done about it. He also congratulated Laura MacArthur Elementary for its drastic improvement, and Supt. Gronseth agreed, and congenially told Member Johnston that efforts to fight the east-west achievement gap were ongoing. It would be interesting to hear more about those efforts, which are a serious issue for Duluth schools; it’s a topic that deserves a real debate. Sadly, Member Johnston thinks that raising hell over things that have already happened is a better use of his time.

The Human Resources action items sailed past the Board, 6-0, but the Business Committee report was another issue. First, a few items were hauled out for discussion; Member Westholm had some questions on snow removal contracts answered to his satisfaction, and Member Johnston relayed some concerns from parents about the cubbies being installed at Congdon, which Facilities Management Director Kerry Leider attempted to answer. As usual, Member Johnston pulled out a few items for his support, and as usual, he tried to make a motion to not approve change orders on the Long Range Facilities Plan, which was not seconded.

Next, the District looked to certify the maximum funding levy, which sets an upward bound on the amount of money the District is able to levy for taxes at the December meeting. This is standard procedure for school boards, and is the action recommended by the state Board of Education. Member Johnston, however, decided this would be a good time to inform the public that passage of the first levy question on the ballot would result in a six percent tax increase for Duluth taxpayers. He grumbled that he’d been told the District was going to “hold the line,” and that it was “inappropriate” to now raise taxes.

Supt. Gronseth, sounding as upset as he ever has, said the only “inappropriate” thing here was Member Johnston’s “unfortunate” comments. The tax hike, he explained, had nothing to do with the levy on the ballot, but came about due to the District’s inability to sell old school properties. Rather than further draw down the much-diminished general fund, the District was looking to raise property taxes somewhat, and could make up for it by under-levying once the properties have been sold. He said Member Johnston was “trying to confuse the issue.” The Superintendent’s alarm was understandable; the obvious conclusion to be inferred Member Johnston’s sudden stand on taxes was “if you don’t want your taxes to go up, don’t support the levy,” which, as both men know, would have grave consequences for school funding. This is what Member Johnston wants, now that he has reversed his past stance and come out against the levy.

(If he were to read this post, Member Johnston would likely claim that he simply ‘said what he said,’ and was trying to be transparent, and nothing more. Such a claim would, of course, be hopelessly naïve of how public perception works. Member Johnston might then claim that he has no use for politicking, as he has from time to time, yet he also often acts as the ultimate politician, manipulating words so as to divorce the “truths” he claims to uphold from a broader context. And, as later events proved, his interest in transparency is highly selective.)

Predictably, Member Johnston fired back, claiming he was the only person “talking reality,” and that the levy’s passage would mean a tax increase. Business Services Director Bill Hansen answered that it was still in flux, and Chair Kasper grew peeved at Member Johnston, as he repeatedly tried to throw questions at Mr. Hansen without waiting for the Chair to recognize speakers. Supt. Gronseth reiterated the fact that the first question on the ballot levies the exact same amount of money as the existing levy, and said Member Johnston was making things even more confusing as he pressed on and brought bonds into the issue.

At this point, the long-silent Member Wasson exploded. She said the District employed finance specialists who knew what they were talking about, and said she had some things to get off her chest now that her time on the Board is coming to the end. “To muddy these waters is absolutely crazy,” she said, and was “no good” if “we are at all serious about our jobs as School Board members. I’m appalled.” She said she was sure a certain, unnamed member would “find a way to have the final say, as he always does,” but she “guaranteed” that Mr. Hansen and Supt. Gronseth “have the right answers.”

In response, a simpering Member Johnston played the victim card, accusing the rest of the Board of “lacking in positive energy” and that they were acting as if “putting on a light [indicating his desire to comment] is something negative.” (Curiously, he did not ask Chair Kasper to reprimand Member Wasson, even though her attack was far more scathing than Member Seliga-Punyko’s at the August meeting.) He then asked whether the money making up the gap left by the unsold schools would come from the general fund or tax certifications; Mr. Hansen, reminding the Board that things were still in flux, said he anticipated it would come from the tax certification, as had been obvious from the beginning. This response did not satisfy Member Johnston, and he would repeat his initial question three times over the next few minutes, each time receiving a slightly different wording in response from a patient Mr. Hansen. The agendas at play were clear enough: Member Johnston wanted a soundbite in which a District employee plainly said taxes would go up; the District representatives were unwilling to oblige him.

Chair Kasper, the closest thing Member Johnston has to a sympathetic ear on the Board, then called him out for confusing everyone, including himself. He said that, in their many discussions over the years, the two of them had often agreed that a tax increase was a sensible way to avoid diminishing the general fund further. Tellingly, Member Johnston did not deny the charge, but instead whined that he’d thought those discussions had been confidential, a claim Chair Kasper quickly dismissed. It is a curious stance for Member Johnston, considering he purports to support transparency in the Red Plan debate, and a revealing one: he has reached the point where he is so zealous in his fervor to make his point that he wants to sweep his past ideas on what might actually improve the district’s financial situation under the rug. A man who once supported higher taxes as the least bad option has been born again as a man who refuses to see them budge—not out of some great philosophical change, but because he feels so wronged by his colleagues who either supported, or are simply aware of the reality of, a plan that already happened. He has no alternative proposal, and knows he will not sway the Board. I am genuinely curious to know he thinks he is achieving for the good of the Duluth schools.

Finally, Member Miernicki managed to get a word in edgewise, and pointed out that many people had turned on their lights to say positive things. He said that Member Johnston was “dealing with conjecture,” and that the “ping-pong match” between him and Mr. Hansen wasn’t going anywhere. He called the question, a parliamentary procedure designed to end the debate; his motion to do so passed, 5-1, ending the absurd charade.

The levy certification also passed, 5-1, and the Board also passed a utility easement at East High. Poor Mr. Haney, who’d endured the entire circus, then finally learned the fate of his trail easement; it passed, 6-0, though Member Wasson added that the District was waiting on the City Council to pass some zoning changes. An exhausted Board thus wrapped up its business. In the closing comments, Student Member Thibault proved himself the sanest person in the room, as he lectured the entire Board for its “name-calling” and “whispering,” its “childish” and “unprofessional” outbursts, which “damage the District’s reputation and hurt the community.”


In case you didn’t notice, Harry Welty was kind enough to respectfully acknowledge my post about him, and a couple of subsequent posts on his blog referenced my points. This one seems particularly appropriate in the aftermath of this meeting. This post is already long, so I’m not going to try to continue the dialogue now, but I will do so later in the week.


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