We Now Speak Ojibwe: Duluth School Board Notes, 2/26/14

The ISD 709 School Board convened on a frigid Duluth night for its February meeting Tuesday night, and got right down to business. Chair Miernicki called upon himself as the first citizen speaker, and left his seat to address the Board as a citizen. He did so to acknowledge the passing of local businessman and political activist Charlie Bell, and in particular thanked Mr. Bell for his efforts to push through the renovations to Public Schools Stadium, in addition to his work on other pro-education campaigns. After returning to the dais and thanking himself for his comments, he called up the next speaker, a bus driver who came forward to decry the District’s management of disciplinary issues on school buses. She called the disciplinary procedures “inconsistent,” noted a time lapse in school action, and noted at least one serious case that had gone unpunished. She requested supervisory helpers on troubled routes and an updated, clearly established policy in the district handbook. Next, four speakers pushed the implementation of an Ojibwe language immersion kindergarten class starting next school year; two addressed the Board in Anishinaabe, and two talked up an immersion program at UMD that had been a positive experience for their relations.

During the Superintendent’s update, Supt. Gronseth celebrated the District’s climbing graduation rates and falling achievement gap. He announced that the District was accelerating a 4-year plan to better align curriculum with state and national standards, and hoped to have a plan in place by the summer. The Board also thanked a representative from Kwik Trip for a donation to the District.

Member Harala then delivered the Education Committee report, explaining each of the items in detail. The Board decided to table the addition of several weather-related make-up days to the school year, as there are still negotiations going on there, and there is also a very real chance that more school days will be canceled in the coming weeks. Four other items on the Education Committee report inspired some debate, though all were approved unanimously.

While he supported the measure, Member Johnston had some qualified critiques of the plan to establish an online schooling program through the alternative Unity/ALC High School. He reminded everyone that computers are not replacements for teachers, and worried that, if not implemented properly, the program would leave “a whole bunch of students somewhere out in the ozone.” He added his worries about over-emphasis on “digital stuff” and talked about getting “kids outside boxes and playing in snow.” Chair Miernicki agreed with Member Johnston (prompting some humorous shock on his part), saying he’d seen how Unity teachers can turn lives around, and Member Harala also agreed with these general sentiments.

Member Westholm took a few moments to talk up the Scott Anderson Leadership Forum, for which the Board had filed a grant application. Member Welty had some good things to say about a plan to re-do the Administration’s organizational structure, and brandished several intricate charts while ribbing Supt. Gronseth about his position on said charts. Members Seliga-Punyko and Harala had some minor questions that Supt. Gronseth handled, and after that, it was on to the Ojibwe language program. Member Seliga-Punyko wanted to know what would happen if not enough students signed up, or if funding sources dried up. Supt. Gronseth replied by saying that kindergarten classes could handle relatively small class sizes, and said there were numerous streams of revenue available. (Right now, the District will pay only for the teacher.) Member Seliga-Punyko also wanted to know when the District will choose a school for the program, and suggested it would be best to use one of the less full schools, such as Myers-Wilkins or Laura MacArthur; when called forward, Supervisor of Indian Education Edye Howes said that decision process would begin immediately after approval. She also told the question-filled Member Seliga-Punyko of her experience visiting a K-5 immersion school that saw over 90% of its students pass standardized tests. Member Loeffler-Kemp thanked Ms. Howes for the research and focus on the budget that had gone into the planning process, and its unanimous passage brought a spurt of applause out of the crowd.

The HR Committee Report sailed through without any holdups, and the Business Committee report was also handled with relative ease, despite its length. Member Welty had a few questions for Business Services Director Bill Hansen on the financial report, but their technical nature had Chair Miernicki suggesting the two of them meet one-on-one. Member Johnston said he’d like to hear these questions, and suggested they save some time by having the discussion at a committee meeting; without really coming to a conclusion on that front, the Board moved on. Member Johnston had a question on why district enrollment figures varied by 700 between the weighted number used by the state (WADM) and a number in a District report on special education; in a tedious exchange, Mr. Hansen attempted to explain that this was due to weighting, as WADM uses lots of fractions to account for part-time or lower-grade students, thus making the number of raw, enrolled students seem smaller than it really is. Despite his continued confusion, Member Johnston voted in favor of the Business Committee report for a second straight meeting, and it passed unanimously.

The closing comments involved further confusion from Member Johnston; he wondered why he hadn’t heard anything about graduation rates and learned about them from the newspaper, but was eventually informed by Member Harala that an email had indeed gone out the previous week. Student Member Manning informed the District that he’ll be bringing together a forum of students to allow them to dialogue with the Board, and Member Johnston invited him to use any connections he has with the school papers (which Member Johnston reads) to comment on District affairs. Member Johnston also asked that the busing issues mentioned by the citizen speaker be put on the agenda, and also repeated his request to do something about the plight of the paraprofessionals.

That brought an end to a long but fairly agreeable night with the Board. The meeting was bogged down by some procedural issues and a few questions probably better suited for different venues, but I’d rather see the Board err on the side of meticulous tedium than glib rushes to approval. Everyone more or less agreed on everything, but there were still some good questions, and the Board did a good job of keeping the concerns of a variety of groups on its radar. The proponents of the Ojibwe language program reaped the results of that tonight, and while it’s just one small issue in front of a Board with countless things on its plate, it means the world to one particular constituency. As long as it keeps the big picture in mind and asks the right questions, these sorts of programs can be real winners for the District.


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