The Duluth School Board Levy: A Manifesto

30 Sep

Disclaimer: when I launched this blog, I used its first post to say it wasn’t my intent to make this thing a call to arms for any particular cause. Today, I’m going to violate that principle for a cause that is, I believe, worthwhile. I’m going to do what little I can do to get the voters of ISD 709 to pass the operating levy that will be on the ballot this November.

Two of the biggest levy proponents out there are ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth and at-large school board candidate Harry Welty. I don’t really know either of them personally, though I sometimes read Welty’s blog and had a mini-dialogue with him last week, and Gronseth was the assistant principal at my high school once upon a time. But while both men have the same goal and seem to respect one another on some level, they are coming from radically different places.

Gronseth’s PR campaign for the levy has been relentlessly positive. A gaudy handout touting all the successes of ISD 709 came out in a recent Duluth News Tribune, and if you read it, you’d think there wasn’t much of anything wrong with the District. At Board meetings, Gronseth will acknowledge challenges, but will quickly try to turn them into opportunities for improvement, insisting the District is on the right path. I don’t think this is some cynical spin operation: Gronseth genuinely believes he can help guide this District to a better place, and that sort of positive message can be a real asset to a District trying to move past a divisive era. His pitch attempts to show the voters of Duluth that the District is moving past the Red Plan rancor, and that voters can have confidence in its administrators to keep the momentum going.

Welty, on the other hand, sees a rather different picture when he looks at ISD 709. His blog collects plenty of horror stories of troubles that afflict the District: a paltry general fund, sagging graduation and enrollment rates, a glaring achievement gap, classes with over 40 students, and anarchic west side schools. His campaign theme is “honesty,” which for him involves acknowledging everything that is wrong with the District, and then confronting it head-on. Without the levy, he argues, it will be near-impossible to do so. There is no scenario in which “starving the beast” leads to more sensible financial policy, and should the levy fail, the task of trying to build a decent District will take a herculean effort.

Both of them are part right and part wrong. Gronseth is right to see some real positives: for all of the turmoil, the test scores and post-secondary success of kids from the east side schools remain strong, and the recent turnaround at Laura Macarthur Elementary proves that demography need not be destiny, and that west side schools can succeed with strong leadership and innovative teaching. Having seen some truly dysfunctional public schools during my time in Washington DC, I can assure Duluth that its schools still have a long way to fall before they’re a total train wreck. But at the same time, Welty’s worries can’t just be swept under the rug; his concerns don’t come from nowhere, and as I argued last week, a longtime critic like him might be able to reach out to voters who are otherwise jaded with the District.

There are drawbacks to each man’s approach. Gronseth’s shiny packaging could easily come across as untrustworthy spin tactics, especially for voters who think the District took them for a ride with the Red Plan.  His unqualified optimism can appear naïve, and perhaps ignorant of the unfortunate but very real divisions that have sprung up over the past few years. Welty’s use of the sinking ship metaphor runs some risk of making the whole thing sound like a lost cause, especially as he repeats stories of struggling classrooms and announces his sympathies for voters who won’t support the levy under any circumstances. Both Gronseth and Welty are on to something, but neither one quite paints a complete picture.

You know what I would love to see? These two men go door-knocking together in support of the levy. It’s a naïve wish, perhaps, but these two men really do need each other. It will be hard to put a positive spin on Gronseth’s stint as Superintendent if the levy fails, and Welty has said quite clearly that his job will be a miserable one if he’s on a Board that has to make deep cuts.

There are risks for each of them. Gronseth has to admit that not everything is quite right, and while he’s done a good job of inviting citizens to learn about the levy and made himself available to speak to groups, this is a rather self-selecting approach; he’d have to go out there and meet face-to-face with people who do not like what he stands for. Welty might alienate his old Let Duluth Vote base, which includes (though is necessarily not limited to) a bunch of people who hate the notion of working with the Board so recently after the Red Plan was rammed through.

Still, if we take both men at their word (and I do), the risks are worth the potential rewards. Gronseth could prove he believes in community engagement in the fullest sense of the term, not just inside a pro-education echo chamber. Welty would show just how much he believes the good of the schools transcends any past divisions, even if it comes at some risk for his political career.

It would have been a real coup for ISD 709 if Art Johnston would have been willing to join this sort of effort. I had my criticisms of Johnston before he came out against the levy, but they had more to do with style than substance: I think he is a legitimate representative of a portion of the community that is understandably upset with the Board, and there is something to be said for holding true to one’s convictions. In the moments when Board debate ranges away from Red Plan affairs, he has come across as a well-informed, thoughtful man who raises some real questions. His stint on the School Board had real potential, and for a moment at the August meeting, when he found it within himself to praise Gronseth for putting the levy to a vote and noted how significant it was that the two of them had found common ground, I thought he might yet fulfill that promise. He could have transcended the pettiness of some of his critics, and such an act of humility might have bought him some good will in the eyes of other Board members, leading him to perhaps actually pass a thing or two. He could have even upped his odds for re-election, as he would’ve had an answer to the biggest criticism thrown at him: that he is too intractable, too zealous in his pursuit of purity, too willing to alienate people who were willing to work with him if only he’d concede a tiny bit of ground. (And I’m not just talking about Gronseth here; I’m talking about people like Welty and Loren Martell, with whom he has plenty of views in common.) Alas, Johnston has allowed his distaste for some small tax increases to overpower any desire to work with others, even though (according to Tom Kasper) he once thought those taxes might be necessary evils in order to stabilize the district’s general fund. Looking at the likely composition of the next School Board, he is doomed to remain a voice in the wilderness, even if he is re-elected and the levy fails. He will have been proven correct, but is that really any consolation to a man who truly does care about the fate of the schools?

So, there is my plea to the individuals most able to sway voters to the ‘yes’ side of the levy, if they so choose. Let’s see some real leadership here. I’ll try to do my part. I’m going to write a letter to the News Tribune that will make my pitch for the levy the only way I know how, with a story of my love for the schools that gave me a world-class education, and my sincere wish that, should I someday raise a family here, my children can have as good a time in Duluth public schools as I did, if not a better one. I’m going to email this post to Gronseth and Welty, and even Johnston. (What do I have to lose?) I want to believe in Duluth’s future. Is anyone with me?

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5 Responses to “The Duluth School Board Levy: A Manifesto”

  1. Scott Grindy (@sgrin20) September 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Having Welty and Gronseth go door-to-door together would take nothing short of a miracle. It also would be one of the most brilliant political moves I’ve ever heard of. They’d get a great news story out of it, along with a joint editorial in the DNT.

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