Washing out the Lice and Beginning Anew: Duluth School Board Notes, 11/19/13

19 Nov

(After the election earlier this month, why shouldn’t my title be an analogy worthy of Harry Welty?)

The lame duck ISD 709 School Board gathered for its second-to-last meeting on Tuesday night at Historic Old Central High School, and the mood was as festive as it’s ever been. The Duluth East Sterling Strings, now under the direction of the excellent Ms. Elaine Bradley, were on hand to serenade the Board members, and those in attendance were free to enjoy some watery orange punch throughout the evening. The three Members-Elect who will be seated in January—Annie Harala, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, and Harry Welty—sat in a row in front of me, chatting freely. Member Seliga-Punyko was absent for a third consecutive meeting(!?), and one of the two student members was also gone.

The atmosphere in the room couldn’t have been any different from what it was like just three months ago, when the Board voted to approve a pair of levy questions for the November ballot. Ms. Marcia Stromgren and her video camera were nowhere to be seen, nor did Mr. Loren Martell make his way to the podium; in fact, there weren’t any citizen speakers at all. During the community recognition portion of the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford congratulated Stand Up For Kids for coordinating the passage of the two levies, and there was much applause. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Supt. Gronseth said how thankful he was that Duluth had passed the levies; he also thanked everyone who was involved in their passage, and previewed some of the plans to reduce class sizes and update curriculum with the new money.

The only real issue of substance came up during the Education Committee report, and revolved around a planned revision of the District’s head lice policy. A committee of teachers and community members, frustrated with aspects of the current policy, had come together over the previous week, and handed out draft copies of their revisions. The new policy lays out clear procedures for dealing with lice, emphasizes the goal of keeping students in the classroom, and aims to de-stigmatize lice as a sign of poor hygiene or cleanliness. (They’re not.) It reminds parents that it is their responsibility to check their children for lice with the catchy slogan, “once a week…take a peek!”

The Board members were all quite pleased with their work, and impressed at how quickly it came together. From what I could gather from Member Johnston’s near-inaudible mumblings, most of the concerns he’d had e-mailed to him had been addressed. Members Miernicki and Kasper echoed his satisfaction, as did Supt. Gronseth, who added that there will be some minor edits in definitions and formatting. The Members also acknowledged the other health-related issue to come up in recent weeks—the disclosure that as many as one-third of ISD 709 middle-schoolers may not be up-to-date on their immunizations—and promised a formal policy discussion in the coming weeks.

My summary of the remainder of the meeting could have been written in advance. There were the weekly issues with trying to get people’s microphones to work, and some resolutions were mis-numbered in the agenda. The Human Resources Committee report breezed through without any issues, and the Business Committee report involved the expected objections from Member Johnston. As usual, he expressed his concerns about long-term enrollment numbers and voted against the committee report because he thought several change orders to the last few Red Plan projects were being “improperly administered.” He kept his critiques very concise, though, and the Board wrapped up its business in short order. Once it was over, the Members and Members-Elect milled about for a while, chatting with the lice committee people (there’s no way to make that sound sexy, is there?) and one another, with even Member Johnston kindly agreeing to meet some of his future colleagues.

Compared to many recent meetings, this one was an absolute delight to sit through, and I’m happy to give the Board credit here. The passage of the levies lifted everyone’s spirits, and the lice committee people were very pleased with how quickly and thoroughly the Board had taken up their concerns. For the first time ever, I’m going to break out the “good governance” tag for a Board meeting. There’s good reason for optimism with the Board going forward.

Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat my warning to the City Council: it can be dangerous to rubber-stamp everything without some debate. In many cases here I’m not even asking for that, but rather a simple clarification: for example, why is the Board “rededicating” several streets on the west side to the City? I doubt there are any real concerns about this, but I also doubt that anyone watching has any idea what this means. On a related note, could someone perhaps briefly summarize the “updates” the district receives from various people during the Education Committee meetings? Some of them do sound genuinely interesting to people who care about the district, or education in general. It never hurts to explain the thought process.

To that end, I’m considering attending the committee meetings next month; it seems like this is where a lot of the lice discussion took place, and if immunization and taxation issues are going to come up at the December meeting, it would be nice to get a more thorough briefing. Okay, I also have an ulterior motive: the East hockey team has a home game the night of the next full Board meeting, so I may need to attend the earlier session to get my fill of ISD 709 affairs. But even though I’m afraid that I do find hockey a more entertaining spectator sport than school board meetings, I’ll keep up on ISD 709 issues, and the blogging will go on. Stay tuned.

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