Debating Duluth’s Gap: School Board Notes, 5/20/14

After a busy week of public commentary on school affairs, the ISD 709 School Board gathered for its May meeting Tuesday night. The opening stages included a heap of awards for former Student Member Eric Thibault, now a senior at East, and a somewhat amusing scholarship in which a single student from each high school was drawn from a large glass bowl containing the names of every senior in the graduating class. After these pleasantries, the Board got down to work.

The expected hot topic of the meeting was the concern about Denfeld curriculum I explored in Sunday’s post, and Superintendent Gronseth moved quickly to answer some of the worries. He first said that staffing decisions were far from final, and also brought on some applause when he said Denfeld would offer Spanish 5, in part thanks to federal funds for which the school qualifies that East does not. He also pointed out that East was currently slated to lose more courses than Denfeld, and pointed out some investments in music that will relieve some of the stress (though they do not appear address the single biggest strike against the District’s music programs, the 6-period day for 8th graders).

There were five public speakers, and all addressed the Denfeld curriculum issues. Four were parent-student combinations of Linda and Maria Puglisi and Andrew and Hans Slade, respectively; the fifth was another student, Lucy Billings. They all hit the same general notes, though all articulately, hammering the lack of equity between east and west and the steadily dwindling opportunities. They put a heavy emphasis on the enrollment gap between the schools; as Hans Slade noted, the 13 out of roughly 1000 Denfeld students who wanted to take German 5 actually made for a better ratio than the 20ish out out 1500 at East, but because East was so much larger it could field a class, while Denfeld could not. Andrew Slade worried about the perception these differences would have on families moving into Duluth, calling it an “achievement gap as serious as any other,” while Billings added that one’s “address should not determine the quality” of one’s education.

The Board floated a few possible solutions, though there were no concrete steps taken at this meeting. Several of the speakers mentioned teleconferenced classes—classes via Skype, essentially—as a solution; the District has tried this in the past, and Supt. Gronseth gave it mixed marks, and added that, while not ideal, online and post-secondary enrollment options also existed. Member Welty also proposed moving students back and forth between campuses a bit more, though this already happens to some degree, and would pose considerable logistical challenges if expanded. In the end there were few solid answers, with Supt. Gronseth adding that holding a small upper-level class in one subject would inevitably drive class sizes up somewhere else. The only concrete short-term answer, it seems, is to drive enrollments in these classes up to sustainable levels. (Obviously, this is difficult in, say, German 5 due to the prerequisites required, but my last post has some suggestions on this front.)

The Education Committee report was largely uneventful, consisting mostly of notifications on grants, field trips, and outside funding. The HR Committee was similarly quiet, with only a brief clarification: the numerous teachers who were being “terminated” are simply people who receive yearly contracts to teach less than half a load, most of whom are re-hired on a similar contract the next year, and often are retired former teachers coming back to lend a slight hand.

The drama was all reserved for the Business Committee, where Members Welty and Johnston pulled a pair of bylaw changes that increased the number of people needed to call a special meeting from two to three. This concerned these two Members for obvious reasons, which Member Welty came out and said explicitly: as the two of them were often in the minority on the Board, they worried it was a maneuver to limit their power. Member Welty said he felt “targeted,” and that these were strong signals the Board thought he “could not be trusted.” Chair Miernicki though this was “escalating” things and not very constructive, and there was some directionless talk about the number of meetings the Board had. Member Johnston demanded a reason for the change seven or eight times, being unsatisfied with the repeated answer: the Board was trying to standardize the number of people it needed to hold meetings, and to conform to a state statute.

Member Westholm thought this made things very clear, while Member Johnson countered, not without reason, that while state law sets parameters that the Board couldn’t exceed, it was entirely within the Board’s power to be more responsive to minority rights if it so chose. He said he’d written to the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) for clarification and awaited a response. He made several efforts to table and amend the resolutions; at first he had little luck, but the disinterest by the Board majority in awaiting the MSBA’s response troubled Member Harala. She reminded the Board of its relationship-building efforts over the previous several months, and thought rushing this measure through went against what they’d been working toward. Member Welty also said he’d happily abide by the MSBA’s interpretation, but the majority preferred to press on, and the changes both passed, 4-3.

Next came the monthly detour into WADM enrollment numbers. Member Johnston used this as a launching-off point for further discussion on Denfeld’s enrollment, and eventually was told he could get the data he wanted. There was the usual back-and-forth with Member Seliga-Punyko again insisting that the enrollment declines were natural population decline, and Member Johnston hinting something else (Red Plan fallout) was also part of the picture. While he invited people to disprove him if he was wrong, he complained that the committee meeting had mostly been spent “bashing me” instead of having a serious conversation. This led to an apologetic exchange between he and Chair Miernicki, in which Member Johnston made it clear the “bashing” was limited to one particular Member (Seliga-Punyko, presumably). Still, he returned to his main point, saying enrollment figures were only good—contra the contentions of Members Westholm and Loeffler-Kemp—by very low standards. (I’m reminded of a favorite line of mine, which I present not as a comment on this particular debate, but simply because I like it: optimism is the product of low standards and a long time horizon.) He said he wished the Board would be “more civil” and “police its own members” in this regard, while claiming that everyone in the room, including the Board and the administration was “dysfunctional.” Member Loeffler-Kemp took “personal offense” on behalf of the administrative staff, saying they’d always been a help to her. It was life as usual in WADM. After a few other minor questions, the entirety of the Business Committee report passed 6-1, with Member Johnston in opposition.

Member Johnston asked for a committee of the whole on Denfeld’s curriculum questions in the closing comments, saying the east-west disparity was the biggest thing on the Board’s table at the moment. Chair Miernicki concurred, and suggested that numerous student groups could be brought into the conversation. Member Welty grumbled about the lack of financial information he’d been receiving; while Chair Miernicki and Supt. Gronseth questioned this characterization, he did get himself further meetings with Business Services Director Bill Hansen, and shared his now-familiar warnings about standard operating debt without a change in course. Member Seliga-Punyko had a whole heap of questions for Supt. Gronseth that he promised to answer in greater detail later on, including questions about classes being lost at East, the transfer appeal process between high schools (which she seemed to suspect of worsening the enrollment gap), the future of the music programs, and where the District would direct additional state funding.

The Board wrapped up the meeting with a few last words on Denfeld, as Member Johnston bemoaned the “despairing remarks” about Denfeld despite its “noble history,” saying it was “imperative” the school did not slide further behind, and asking to know what caused the numbers disparity. After some sympathetic on the troubles with perception, Member Harala had the beginnings of an answer, and it was an important one: the Board does not operate in a vacuum, and there were many factors beyond their purview at play. She suggested a meeting with the City Council to work through some of the issues, and emphasized the importance of trust over suspicion. Chair Miernicki concluded everything with suggesting the District gather data on where students live to further their understanding.

Despite the lack of obvious steps taken, it was an important meeting for the Board, and it offered the beginnings of an honest discussion on the east-west dynamics of this city that I’ve been pining for over and over again on this blog, and on all sorts of issues. Duluth is not a one-size-fits-all city, and anyone with any vision for it has to take its constituent parts one by one. Once again, I was especially impressed by Member Harala, who showed some leadership in standing up for a minority she does not necessarily agree with, and for being the only Member who outwardly acknowledges the scope of the challenges facing the district without reverting to Red Plan-era ideological lines to frame her views. There are intelligent and caring people on both sides of that divide, and in the end, they do have a common goal here. I may have a long time horizon, but I’m not going to abandon my high standards, and even then, I still find some room for optimism: for all that divides the ten people on the dais, discussion seems to be lurching closer and closer to something resembling a transparent reality, from fiscal issues to Duluth’s divisions. Let’s hope that process continues.


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