Drug Testing Debate and Unity All Around: Duluth School Board Notes, 1/21/14

The ISD 709 held its first monthly meeting on Tuesday night, and the Board members all looked pleasantly dapper and fresh as they opened the new term. (No silly tiffs about illegal campaign t-shirts when everyone goes formal!) Chair Miernicki began by welcoming everyone and introducing the two student Members of the Board, Paul Manning of East and Kobi Tremble of Denfeld. (Manning, in addition to having a rather awesome name plate introducing him as ‘P. Manning,’ spoke more in this meeting than his two student predecessors on the Board combined across every meeting I attended last year.) The Board congratulated Mr. Ken Williams, who had recently won a national award for his work in District transportation, and celebrated US Sen. Al Franken’s visit with the East Robotics Team on Monday.

Of the five community speakers, three were members of AFSCME Local 66, and demanded answers over why the District cut out two days—the MLK Day holiday and Tuesday’s staff training day—for paraprofessionals. They complained of the late notice of the cuts and about decreases in training, and worried the District budget was being balanced on the backs of its lowest-paid workers. They presented the Board with a petition demanding further action. Two other speakers confronted familiar District budget complaints, with one taking some time to chide the Board for oppressing him with its uncivil eye rolls.

After Superintendent Gronseth plugged the “Think Kids” informational meetings on the District budget, the Board delved into a lengthy Education Committee report. Member Harala delivered it, and did a superb job of actually explaining the items on the report in a concise and helpful manner. (I’ve complained about the opaqueness of these items in the past, so this really was a laudable development.) In turn, the informational items presented to the Board prompted plenty of good discussion.

The first was a progress report on the new Unity High School design, which is a blended program that uses online curriculum. Everyone was happy to hear positive reviews and see its numbers on the rise, and Member Welty asked a number of questions that gave the program some context. He was especially curious about the idea, floated by Asst. Supt. Crawford, that the District could eventually enroll students online from outside the Duluth area, thereby boosting District enrollment. Member Johnston praised Unity, and also highlighted its role in a substantial decline in out-of-school suspensions in the District. Member Seliga-Punyko asked about its staffing, which led to explanations of the individualized teaching methods used to meet each student’s level.

The next discussion was perhaps the most anticipated of the evening, as the Board took up a committee report on a possible design for random drug tests in Duluth schools. There was some confusion over whether the District actually was on this, likely exacerbated by media coverage that included ACLU plans to fight the measure. Supt. Gronseth tried to explain that it was just a “conversation about chemical health issues” and “not a formal proposal.” Chair Miernicki added that they had simply sat down with the Superior District—which does have a random testing program in place—and had a conversation.

Member Westholm thought the idea was “worth looking into,” though he had reservations over cost, implementation, and legal challenges, saying there is “nothing worse than an unenforceable policy.” Member Johnston echoed these qualified concerns, and commented on the murky conclusions of studies done on the issue; “we do have to talk about drugs,” he said, “but I’m not sure this is the best way to do it.” Member Harala added that the District should compare itself to other districts with unique drug prevention methods beyond Superior, citing Deer River as a good example, and worried that the program might single out certain populations. Member Johnston later repeated this concern, and said he felt this approach likely missed the most at-risk students, who are often not involved in extracurricular activities. (The Supreme Court only allows testing on students who are involved in such activities or have otherwise consented to tests.) Student Member Manning demanded to know where student input might come in on the proposal.

While the critiques were all carefully measured and not unequivocally opposed, Supt. Gronseth did push back on a few of the points, saying people “shouldn’t make assumptions” about people with chemical health issues, and that any look at the research “had to be objective.” He said further action would only come about after a lengthy review that would include considerable community input. Member Seliga-Punyko also expressed some support for testing, saying it would give students a way out of peer pressure and help them to say ‘no.’ Member Loeffler-Kemp jumped in to insist that mental health concerns had to play a role in this discussion as well. Though the testing proposal is still on the table, it appears it will have to jump through a substantial number of hoops to get anywhere. (I’ll save my own comments on random tests for a later date, if this does eventually get off the ground.)

Next up was a discussion of course offerings, in which District Curriculum Coordinator Kevin Abrahamson fielded questions. (His title was the subject of jokes all night long after he was introduced as the “Curriculator.”) Student Member Manning had some questions about a music-related course, and Member Seliga-Punyko made her frustration with the middle school six-period day very clear, saying it forced students to choose between music and foreign languages, which had lasting impacts as students went into high school. Member Welty had a few small questions as well, and after that, the Education Committee report passed unanimously.

The very brief Human Resources report quickly followed suit, and the Board moved on to the Business Committee, where Members Welty and Johnston pulled several items for discussion. The longest discussion involved projected enrollments; while there was the predictable back-and-forth between Member Johnston and Supt. Gronseth and Chair Miernicki on declining enrollment, it had none of the Red Plan-related overtones it normally has, and this time around Member Johnston dug a bit deeper and added some useful nuance to the debate. There was some complaining by Members Seliga-Punyko and Welty about the state’s revised weighting of students by grade, though Business Services Director Bill Hansen pointed out some of its benefits. Member Harala asked for a presentation on the effects of treatment programs such as Woodland Hills on District enrollment numbers, and was promised one.

The Members rounded out the Business Committee report with some minor discussions on declining state grants (related largely to AmeriCorps funding), school board compensation, loading dock issues, cracking chairs at Denfeld, and an unclear discussion on retirement funds that was worth watching but out of the District’s hands. It then moved to a vote, and for the first time in two and a half years, Member Johnston supported a Business Committee report. It passed unanimously.

In the closing comments, Members Harala and Loeffler-Kemp both talked up MLK Day events in which students had participated, and Member Johnston asked that the Board discuss the plight of the paraprofessionals in a committee meeting. Most of the discussion was about Minnesota School Boards Association conference that all seven had attended the previous week (a drastic improvement in attendance since his previous stint on the Board, said Member Welty). While the meeting wasn’t perfect (too few people of color and too many lawyer talks, complained Member Johnston and Chair Miernicki), they all had some positive takeaways. Member Johnston especially liked the discussions on alternatives to suspensions that break the pipeline to prison, and an intriguing one on “character education” as an alternate measure of success, and also (unsurprisingly) one on respecting the opinion of the minority view on the Board. The Board, he explained, needed to be “unified, not uniform.”

On Tuesday night, the Board met that ideal with flying colors. Every single person on the Board contributed something of substance, a feat that the previous Board never came close to matching in the meetings I attended. I’ve flamed Member Johnston on this blog many times over the past few months, but tonight he was not a bitter Member beholden to a Manichean worldview, but a thoughtful critic who raised careful, legitimate critiques in good faith. I can get behind anyone who does that, whatever his past. The newly seated Member Harala also consistently impressed me with her questions and insights, and it was refreshing to hear from a Student Member who was willing to push others on the Board. Member Miernicki makes for an affable Chair, and once he and Member Welty figure out the microphone system, the meetings should run smoothly. It was about as encouraging a first meeting as possible.


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