A Few December Duluth School Board Notes

20 Dec

I didn’t attend this week’s ISD 709 School Board meeting, but from what I’ve heard about it, any hopes for a more conciliatory Member Art Johnston went out the window. His antics this time around had Superintendent Gronseth apologizing to the District’s new accountants for his incivility. It was the usual song and dance, with Johnston berating people who did not give him the answers he wanted to hear, and in turn claiming to be the victim in this whole mess. The sun rises in the east, the taxman comes on April 15, and Johnston blathers on.

Other than that, it was, I understand, a fairly routine meeting. As expected, the Board voted to increase tax rates; the alternative being a plunge into bankruptcy, the decision was an easy one, and the District’s finances should rebound in the coming year thanks to new levy money and state aid, most likely sparing the need for a repeat next year. The sale of the vacant Duluth Central property would, of course, help immensely.

It was also the last meeting for three outgoing Board members, who will now enjoy Johnston-free third Tuesdays of the month. We’ll take a moment to recognize each of them.

Ann Wasson served District One for two and a half terms, surviving a narrow re-election battle against Marcia Stromgren in 2009 before electing not to run this time around. She joined the Board in the 2003 wave election that dumped opponents of Duluth East hockey coach Mike Randolph, and promptly voted to reinstate him. Later, she became best-known as one of the Red Plan’s more active champions, always trusting the district’s experts and lashing out at Art Johnston for challenging them. She chose her words carefully, and when did speak, she usually did so with force, though never with a whole lot of nuance. Her work on the Red Plan done, she now heads into retirement.

Mary Cameron, meanwhile, will go down as one of the longest-tenured Board members in city history, having served sixteen years as an at-large Member. While she too was a Red Plan supporter, her activity on the Board went much deeper than that, and she was not one to fight battles in public. As the lone African-American on the Board in a very white city, she focused on Duluth’s ugly achievement gap, and was instrumental in getting two minorities into the superintendent’s office. While usually supportive of the administration, she did break away from time to time, usually on human resources issues; she has extensive experience in the field, and was not afraid to call out poorly implemented decisions (as in the Randolph case) or demand second chances (as happened this past summer in the case of axed principal Leea Power).

The last outgoing Board member is Tom Kasper, who served a single term as an at-large, and was the Board Chair this past year. Kasper is an interesting figure, and one whose story sums up the dysfunction of the School Board over the past four years. As a neighbor of the new East High School, he was initially fairly critical of the Red Plan, and ran in 2009 as something of a centrist candidate; he was interested in alternative plans, but unlike some of his fellow anti-Red Planners, he kept a positive tone and actively sought new solutions. Voters rewarded him with easily highest vote total for any of the four at-large candidates in the 09 election, in a field that included two incumbents and a fourth strong candidate. However, once on he was on the Board and the Red Plan came to be inevitable, Kasper became a reliable vote for the administration. Though he showed a little more willingness to listen to Art Johnston than the others, his patience was clearly waning before long. I think that probably says more about Johnston than it does about Kasper, but his term shows just how difficult it can be to hold the center. As Chair, he faced the unenviable task of trying to keep the debates civil, and I do think he could have exercised a little more authority to shut down the rantings of both Johnston and his sparring partners, Members Wasson and Seliga-Punyko. I got the sense that he was very tired by the end of his term. Even so, I give him a lot of credit for the effort, and think he took the most practical course available.

As with the City Council, I’ll have a post previewing the 2014 Board before the next meeting. Blogging will likely be sparse over the coming week due to travel plans and holiday festivities. Merry Christmas, readers!

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