A Light at the End of the Tunnel? Duluth School Board Notes, 4/22/14

23 Apr

Spring was in the air for the ISD 709 School Board’s April meeting; it wasn’t even dark out when things got going. (Hey, little things like that matter in Duluth.) A number of students were on hand to do their public meeting duties for government classes, and after a prolonged absence, Ms. Marcia Stromgren was back at augmenting her home video collection of school board meetings. The TV broadcast had some sound issues that required Chair Miernicki to stick a little sign up in front of his seat, but otherwise, it was a fairly routine night at Historic Old Central.

There was an unusually large amount of wrangling over the minutes, and things also got interesting when Members Johnston and Welty tried to get a review of several Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP) change orders on the agenda. Frustrated by their inability to do so, they had apparently resorted to a grumpy flyer distributed at the Business Committee meeting the previous week. An exasperated Member Seliga-Punyko tried to immediately call the question, saying the process was “déjà vu” of endless arguments over the previous five years, and that District practices had clearly been “examined by lawyers” and found proper. Only Member Loeffler-Kemp sided with her, though, freeing Member Johnston to say that he simply wanted a discussion in public, and that “people don’t have to agree with me.” Member Harala stepped in to say the Board needed to “sit down and decide how to get things on the agenda” and suggested they give the Administration time to be able to give a proper presentation on the question at hand. The Board agreed with her by a 5-2 margin, and after a brief back-and-forth with Member Loeffler-Kemp, Member Johnston decided to withdraw his attempt to discuss how things get on the agenda until next month.

Thus thwarted, Member Johnston took to the stand as a citizen speaker to explain his interest in these particular change orders. He said there were “at least five” LRFP change orders totaling at least $11.2 million that the Board never voted on, cannot be found in meeting minutes, and that six current and past Board Members were “unaware” of them. Of the $19.3 million increase in LRFP funding passed in March 2012 by the Board, he claimed that $8.7 million—a whopping 45 percent—went straight to Johnson Controls. Member Johnston announced his intent to bring these mysterious figures before the state auditor, the attorney general, and the state Department of Education. After he finished, the issue wasn’t mentioned again.

Otherwise, the early stages of the meeting were upbeat. The Board recognized the Duluth Aviation Institute for its support for science education in 6th grade classes, and Superintendent Gronseth told tales of his new acting career. He also said a survey exploring the possibility of late starts for weather delays will be going out soon, and there was some celebration of Earth Day by both he and Member Loeffler-Kemp. Member Harala took the Board and viewing public on a tour of the Education Committee report; highlights included a presentation on the District integration plan, whose funding cycle had undergone a large change; presentations on Head Start; and new policies on the process for adding athletic programs, though Member Harala lamented the lack of Quidditch among the proposed programs. The whole report sailed through without any real debate, though several Members recommended that citizens with any interest in the topics come to the committee meetings to learn more. (Okay, okay, I’ll get there someday.)

Member Welty introduced the HR Committee Report by saying they’d set a record by going for an hour and a half in the committee meeting, but with the teachers’ union contract pulled for further consideration, we were spared any such repeat on Tuesday. It too breezed through without any trouble, though one suspects that the special session to discuss this contract, tentatively set for May 1, will be a bit more of an adventure. (Member Welty, for one, has expressed some reservations.)

Two Business Committee items inspired the longest debates of the night. The first was a resolution to further re-zone and subdivide the old Central High School site so as to make it more marketable for sale. Member Johnston raised some doubts; first, he wanted to know if there had been any offers over the past three years (none, though there had been “many” conversations), and later, he worried the District might flush more dollars into the site in “pre-development” to make it more marketable. He recommended simply lowering the price to hurry the sale along. Supt. Gronseth countered that there was “no lack of interest” and that zoning and the recession were the biggest obstacles. Several Members thanked DEDA and the City for their support, while Chair Miernicki expressed optimism and pointed to BlueStone Lofts as a sign of how quickly a mixed-use development can take off and succeed. Member Johnston was on the fence until the end, but ultimately voted to support the resolution, and it passed unanimously.

Next, it was on to the monthly discussion of enrollment numbers, though this time it was more involved than ever before. Member Johnston, as usual, pointed out some losses, grumbled about the attitude of some in the Administration who seemed to not think it terribly serious, and insisted it should be an agenda item. Member Welty concurred on this last point, nodding to Mayor Ness’s goal for increasing city population as a similar ideal worth striving for. (Just so long as they didn’t cheat and try to annex something, Member Johnston added.) Supt. Gronseth pointed to some positive trends, including several projections the District had beaten and a preliminary OK for the District’s new online programs. Members Harala and Loeffler-Kemp emphasized the importance of positivity and focusing on the many good things happening in schools to draw people back, a point Member Johnston conceded, and said his goal of 9,000 students in five years was in fact an ambitious and positive goal. In a rare spurt of loquaciousness, Member Westholm talked of the cycles of enrollment, improvements in the lowest grades, and a “light at the end of the tunnel.” He also added that uncertainty over which schools would be open, not the quality of the education, was the primary cause of the “exodus,” particularly in his own Piedmont neighborhood.

Member Seliga-Punyko seized on this point to emphasize the instability of the last 20-30 years, with school closures being proposed all over the place, and said the LRFP would rectify these troubles now that no one was on the chopping block, and that facilities finally supported curriculum. Member Johnston then pointed out that the District has been slashing curriculum, and that it needs money it doesn’t have to fix this, while Chair Miernicki pointed out that something is always being cut, no matter what. Member Seliga-Punyko blamed the financial situation on unfunded mandates for special education; if the state and federal government put in a fraction of what they claimed they would, she said, the District wouldn’t be in this financial conundrum. (This freed Chair Miernicki to say that Jesse Ventura had once gotten something right as governor of Minnesota, in his demand that the federal government fund its mandates.) This rubbed some people the wrong way since it seemed to blame special education; while that was obviously not Member Seliga-Punyko’s intent, it’s worth pointing out that unfunded mandates, while awful and deserving of further lobbying at higher levels of government, are reality. It would be wrong to budget for this money when we all know it’s not coming.

After a brief discussion of a re-roofing project at Congdon Elementary, the Board wrapped up its business. Student Member Manning thanked the rest of the Board for its comments on curriculum and mandates, and there was talk of getting Board Members into schools whenever possible. Member Loeffler-Kemp also plugged a neighborhood meeting at Lester Park Elementary on April 29 at 5:30 to discuss the future of the old Rockridge Elementary site.

All in all, it wasn’t a very conclusive meeting. The pulling of the teachers’ contract left the Board without anything terribly controversial on its plate, and while Member Johnston’s accusations at the start of the meeting are certainly worth watching, it’s probably best to await the Administration’s reply before speculating any further on that front. That left us with an interesting talk on enrollment, though the talk has yet to really amount to much. After his flame-throwing at the start of the meeting, Member Johnston was in a relatively agreeable and constructive mood, while Member Welty held his silence more than usual. Most of the topics touched on tonight will be up again in the not-so-distant future, and perhaps for more newsworthy reasons.

This is life with the Post-Red Plan Board: there is still some clear lingering animosity, and everyone has their own theory on what caused recent financial troubles and enrollment declines. Still, there is also a sense from all sides that there’s a lot of other work to be done now, and there is an ongoing tension between acknowledging the difficulties and being the salespeople they all need to be to improve District enrollment. It’s a balancing act, and it’s easy to wobble off into woe-is-us moaning or smarmy blind optimism. As Member Westholm noted, there are good reasons to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and to therefore follow the track that has made Don Ness such a popular mayor: a positive, consensus-building agenda that brings many parties to the table in the pursuit of a somewhat vague but certainly brighter future. As with the Ness agenda, there’s a lot to be said for this; staying in the tunnel of backbiting negativity only increases perceptions of dysfunction, and no amount of yelling will magically turn on the lights. But positivity alone won’t get anything done. The District does need careful reviews of existing practices, due diligence on new proposals, and to make sure that, in the words of a famed philosopher, the light at the end of a tunnel is not in fact a train.

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