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.

Meet Your 2014-2015 Duluth School Board

Last week I previewed the new City Council; here now is a rundown on the new ISD 709 School Board.

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp

1st District; Woodland, Hunters Park, eastern Lakeside, North Shore, Townships

1st term (elected 2013)

-A lifelong local education activist, Loeffler-Kemp cruised to the 1st district seat to replace retiring ten-year Board veteran Ann Wasson, a Red Plan champion. Loeffler-Kemp ran a very positive campaign, focusing on issues like class sizes and bullying instead of the Red Plan, which she believes the community must move past. She has been named Treasurer of the Board for the coming year.

Judy Seliga-Punyko

2nd District; Kenwood, UMD, Congdon, western Lakeside

2nd term (elected 2007)

-Seliga-Punyko is the last of the Board’s pro-Red Plan warriors, and has no qualms about lashing out at Art Johnston or other Board critics. Very committed to existing processes and the Board’s mission to students, regardless of community sentiment; she was the only Member to support a Board-imposed tax increase as opposed to sending the levies to the voters. Has also championed several pet causes, such as swimming pools in the new high schools. Was frequently absent from meetings toward the end of last year. Won re-election by a large margin two years ago. Has been chosen as Board Clerk for 2014.

Bill Westholm

3rd District; Endion, Downtown, Hillsides, Park Point, Chester Park, Duluth Heights, Piedmont

1st term (elected 2011)

-Westholm, a retired former Denfeld principal and district administration employee, won an unopposed race in 2011. He largely chose to avoid any mention of the Red Plan fracas during his first two years, and usually isn’t one to talk much, though he will ask questions on new proposals and is clearly well-versed in education policy debates. Will serve as the Board’s Vice Chair in 2014.

Art Johnston

4th District; western Observation Hill, and everything below the hill to the west (minus Bayview Heights, which is in the Proctor district)

2nd term (elected 2009)

-Johnston is the Board’s resident crank, and has taken it upon himself to serve as the voice of Duluthians who oppose any expansion of education funding. Takes no prisoners in vicious attacks on anyone who does not give him the answers he wants to hear. Lodged countless protest votes against the Red Plan over his first term, though his tactics tended to alienate the few potential allies he had, and his protests did not amount to a single legislative victory. It is hard to know how his role will evolve now that the Red Plan is largely in the past, though his re-election does prove he still has a strong base of support.

Harry Welty

At-Large

3rd term (first served 1996-2004; re-elected in 2013)

-Though it’s been ten years since he last served, Welty comes in as the most senior member of the Board. He’s been all over the intricacies Duluth education in his lifetime, though he is best known for his leading role in the anti-Red Plan crusade. Unlike Johnston, however, he ran a more conciliatory post-Red Plan campaign, and ambitiously seeks to work with the majority while still hearing the objections of the critics. Welty is very much his own man, and while his independence gives him a unique perspective, it also leads him to make some tone-deaf remarks. Time will tell if he can hold that center and help heal the Red Plan scars.

Mike Miernicki

At-Large

1st term (elected 2011)

-Miernicki, the jolly former Duluth East activities director, usually tries to keep the mood light at meetings, though his exasperation with Johnston shows through at times. Still, he tends to be a very agreeable and welcoming person without strong ideological tendencies, and has been named Board Chair for 2014.

Annie Harala

At-Large

1st term (elected 2013)

-Harala, a young Teach for America alumna, brings a fresh face to the Board. A Duluth native, she won her seat handily and stayed above the Red Plan fray with a push for more community involvement in schools. It remains to be seen how that plan will become reality.

Also of note:

Bill Gronseth

Superintendent

-Gronseth served for some time as an administrator in the District before taking the reins, and has been tasked with seeing the Red Plan through to fruition. He is relentlessly positive, doing all he can to stay respectful of Member Art Johnston. He took a gamble by putting the levies on the ballot, and was rewarded for his faith in Duluth voters; now, he has the less glamorous but no less difficult job of making sure that faith was well-placed.

Student Representatives

-Both high schools have a non-voting member on the Board; I don’t have the names of the new Members yet. The two 2013 representatives generally kept their quiet during meetings, though they did add their thoughts when high school student-specific topics came up, and one did have a memorable moment in which he scolded both sides of the Red Plan debate for their pettiness and incivility. (Naturally, the partisans in the room thought his words applied only to their opponents, and not to them.) We’ll see what the new ones can muster.

It’s a transitional period for the School Board. The past eight years or so have been consumed by Red Plan debate, but since that is all but over now, it will be interesting to see if those faults endure in any way, or if any new rifts will spring up. Big questions abound over the potential sale of the old Duluth Central, the restoration of the general fund and the allocation of new revenue achieved via the new levy imposed by voters this past fall. The new Board members will be expected to deliver on promises of smaller class sizes and new anti-bullying measures as well. We’ll see what this Board can muster.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2013

The results are in!

I’ll have a few more comments tomorrow once the city publishes district-by-district results and try to put everything in a broader context—complete with adventures in amateur map-making! I’ll also have more comments on the outgoing councilors and board members when their terms expire. For now, here are the results and their immediate implications.

Bolded candidates won. The numbers after the names are percentages of the vote, followed by the raw vote total.

City Council At-Large

Zack Filipovich 55.2 (9295)

Barb Russ 53.0 (8932)

Ryan Stauber 44.6 (7514)

Ray Sandman 14.2 (2398)

For a second straight election cycle, the DFL candidates march to a solid victory in the At-Large races. Stauber hung in there relatively well, but in the end was nine points behind the second of the two DFLers, a similar margin to his primary gap. The biggest surprise here was Filipovich leading the way: Russ had a large lead and a more obvious campaign presence after the primaries, and as Stauber is the only real conservative in the field and has some name recognition, I thought Filipovich might have a fight on his hands. Not so, as the recent UMD grad rolls into office.

City Council District Two

Patrick Boyle (I) 98.5 (2099)

As expected, the unopposed Councilor Boyle sails through, and also led the field in the District 2 County Commissioner primary. If elected to that position, the Council will appoint a replacement for the next two years.

City Council District Four

Howie Hanson 61.1 (1782)

Garry Krause 37.6 (1098) (withdrew from race)

37.6% is a fairly substantial vote total for a candidate who isn’t in the race, suggesting there were some misgivings with the otherwise unopposed Hanson, but he still heads into the Council after a stress-free campaign. My personal experiences with Howie have not been positive, but they were also in a very different context. I hope he proves a more skilled politician than he is a sportswriter, and I’ll give him a chance to prove he can be a good representative for this district, which could use some stability after running through an awful lot of councilors in the past few years. Due to the vacant seat, he’ll be seated at next Monday’s meeting.

City Council Big Picture: News flash—Duluth is a DFL town. With Stauber’s loss and Hanson replacing Krause, there is only one person on the Council now who really qualifies as a conservative in any sense of the word. Even in a liberal city, that’s quite the supermajority. I’ll have more on the dynamics of that sort of council tomorrow.

School Board At-Large

Annie Harala 56.9 (10648)

Harry Welty 39.3 (7342)

Nancy Nilsen 35.7 (6670)

Henry Banks 24.4 (4567)

No surprise in Harala’s big win, and as I suspected, Harry Welty’s uniqueness was enough to get him just past Nilsen. Welty comes into the Board following a somewhat ragged end to his campaign that included a weird ad and an awkward comment about gangrene in west side schools. As several letters to the Duluth News Tribune showed, a number of people do not trust this longtime Red Plan critic and former Board member. That said, I think he is a genuine person who simply has a habit of saying some tone-deaf things, and he probably deserves a fair amount of credit for getting otherwise skeptical people to vote for that second levy. If the other Board members approach him in good faith, he should be willing to work with them. Nilsen’s showing, which was decent but not good enough, shows Duluth’s continued mixed feelings about the Red Plan. Banks’s campaign had potential, but never did quite take off.

School Board District One

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 56.1 (3220)

Joe Matthes 43.5 (2497)

After clearing 50% in the primary, it’s no surprise to see Loeffler-Kemp win, and her new seat is the culmination of 20 years of work in and around ISD 709. Matthes, meanwhile, ran a pretty strong campaign for a newcomer running against such a well-known figure. He seems to have a bright political future, and I hope he stays involved in ISD 709 affairs despite the loss.

School Board District Four

Art Johnston (I) 54.0 (1624)

David Bolgrien 45.7 (1374)

After a contentious race, Johnston emerges victorious and earns himself a second term. With the passage of the levies, his worry that the Board’s actions would cost it major public support were proven misplaced. To that end, it will be very interesting to see how he re-invents himself now that the Red Plan is fading into the rear view mirror. Will he take the passage of the levies as an opportunity to fix the various problems he sees in ISD 709 and attack them in concert with other Board members? Or does he think the voters were swindled by the Board, and does he continue to try to obstruct most everything it does? It’s his decision.

ISD 709 Levies

Question One: Yes 65.6 (12211); No 34.4 (6403)

Existing levy re-approved

Question Two: Yes 50.8 (9436); No 49.2 (9130)

New, additional levy implemented

It was a huge night for ISD 709’s bottom line, as voters approved not just the existing levy, but also the second one, for which I did not have high hopes. With more cash in hand and additional state aid on the way, the District should be able to pay off its debts and move to bring down class sizes. Education activists can’t just rest on this victory, though; they need to continue to work with the new school board to make sure the money is going to the right places.

ISD 709 Big Picture: It’s a bit of a split verdict here; while not unexpected given the lingering legacy of the Red Plan, it does have some interesting twists. Two of the Red Plan’s biggest critics are now on the Board, but their greatest fears have not come to pass, and they now have a decent amount of money they can use to attack the problems related (and unrelated) to the Red Plan. It will still require some important decisions, and with Johnston on the Board, things will never be boring. That said, this ISD 709 grad is feeling good about the direction of the District for the first time in a few years. While Duluthians are clearly demanding strong oversight of the Board, they also want to move forward, and the approval of the second levy shows a majority are willing to put the Red Plan behind them and do what they can to make Duluth public schools the best they can be. It’s a big win for Superintendent Bill Gronseth, whose gamble has paid off.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

(2 advance to general election)

Patrick Boyle 34.4 (2389)

Jim Stauber 27.4 (1901)

Scott Keenan 26.9 (1868)

Cary Thompson-Gilbert 4.8 (333)

Boyle and Stauber, both sitting City Councilors, advance to the January 14 special election to fill the seat of the late Steve O’Neil. Boyle’s first place finish is no surprise; Stauber’s incredibly narrow win over Keenan, meanwhile, sets up a classic left-right showdown. Given the timing of the special election, there’s a healthy chance that turnout will have been better in the primary than in the actual election. That means that getting out the vote will be crucial for both candidates in January, as they look to build on their momentum. Stauber in particular will have to go to work if he wants to close the gap, as he doesn’t have a very large presence at the moment. Many Keenan supporters are up for grabs here; while Boyle would seem to be the favorite, his victory is not assured.

That’s it for now—check back for more tomorrow!

Duluth General Election Preview 2013

The Duluth general election is just over a week away. I’ve done a bit of driving around the city doing some completely unscientific counting of yard signs to see who appears to have an edge, but with local elections, it’s hard to get a really good feel on the situation without doing a lot of legwork. Turnout in the primary elections was low enough that things could still swing drastically on Tuesday the 5th.

Here is a Sample Ballot.

Polling Places and District Designations | Map

Here is a rundown on every race in the city; in this post, I try only to give neutral assessments on what each candidate’s election would mean for their respective bodies. Candidates are listed in the order of finish in the primary. Click their names to view their web pages, and if I missed a web page or if there’s a more detailed version than the Facebook pages I’ve linked to, let me know—I searched for everyone’s, but some didn’t generate results.

City Council At-Large

2 open seats

Barb Russ | Zack Filipovich | Ryan Stauber | Ray Sandman

Russ led the primary vote by a comfortable margin and has shown no signs of losing her momentum; she offers a crisply articulated version of Duluthian liberalism, and has a long history of community involvement. This likely sets up a showdown between Filipovich and Stauber for the second open seat; Filipovich had a stronger showing in the primary, but Stauber seems to have built some support since, and got himself a News-Tribune endorsement. Both are in their 20s, and their campaigns are a bit rough around the edges; Filipovich has a crisp image but is rather vague, while Stauber has more defined ideas but is rather scattershot in his presentation. While Filipovich appears more business-minded than your average liberal, this competition can easily be seen as a left-right competition; if Stauber loses, there will only be one Councilor who clearly qualifies as “fiscally conservative.” Sandman seems to have a decent base of support on the west side, but he also has a large gap to close, and his platform doesn’t really go beyond a vague call for living wage jobs.

City Council 2nd District

Patrick Boyle (Unopposed incumbent)

No excitement here, but Boyle is running for the Second District County Commissioner seat as well (see below).

City Council 4th District

Howie Hanson | The Ghost of Garry Krause

This race also appears to be a foregone conclusion, barring a massive protest vote from the residents of District Four in favor of the former Councilor Krause, whose name remains on the ballot despite his resignation in September. A Councilor Hanson would ostensibly tip the Council further left, though it’s hard to say much about him since he hasn’t had to run much of a campaign. If elected, Hanson would be seated immediately so as to fill the Council vacancy. All other people elected on Nov. 5 will be seated in January.

Edit from earlier version: I’ve updated the link above, which now leads to his Facebook page, instead of his blog.

School Board At-Large

2 open seats

Annie Harala | Harry Welty | Nancy Nilsen | Henry Banks

Harala was the top vote-getter in the primary by a decent margin, and has run a safe, positive, community-centered campaign since, earning plenty of endorsements. The wild card here is Welty; he leads the field in signage, has done a lot of legwork, and he’s also the only candidate who is attentive to the people still frustrated by the Red Plan, even though he supports the levies. I was going to say he’d run a textbook campaign until I saw his bizarre, paranoid ad in this past week’s Reader. (Judge it for yourself here–yes, this was a print advertisement.) This is what you get with Welty: doses of nuance and political acumen coupled with rambling attempts at honesty that, while well-intentioned, can be rather head-scratching, to say the least. His foil here is Nilsen, an unabashed Red Plan supporter who wants to finish the work from her first term on the Board. (I couldn’t find any web presence for her.) As with Sandman in the City Council race, Banks had a chance to give the Board some real diversity; his candidacy was slow to generate much momentum and remains on the vague side, but he does seem to have increased his presence in the past few weeks.

School Board 1st District

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp | Joe Matthes

Loeffler-Kemp cleared fifty percent in the primary, but Matthes has run a strong campaign since, with thorough answers at forums, a lot of door-knocking, and a News Tribune endorsement. Loeffler-Kemp has over twenty years of experience in school affairs, though, and that is quite the mountain to climb. Either way, this district has two of the stronger candidates out there, and the winner will have earned the position.

School Board 4th District

David Bolgrien | Art Johnston (incumbent)

Polarizing Board Member Johnston faces a serious challenge in this race; the third candidate in the very tight three-way primary has endorsed Bolgrien, a longtime education activist on the west side. Johnston has spent the last four years as a protest vote against anything Red Plan related, but now is attempting to walk the fine line of claiming he can be a voice of reason despite his burned bridges on the Board. Diverse voices are all well and good, but Johnston’s challenge is to prove he can offer something of substance and actually build a coalition on the Board to support his views. He is the only candidate in any School Board race who opposes the levies.

School Board Levies

“Yes” Vote Page

There are two ballot questions. The first renews an existing operating levy; its failure would lead to a budget shortfall, likely necessitating deep cuts and class sizes ranging up toward 50 students in a room. The second raises property taxes by approximately $4 per month on a $150,000 home. ISD 709’s stated purpose is to use this money to lower class sizes; if passed, Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims they will be lowered by 4-6 students across the board. Yard sign counts aren’t of much use here since there isn’t much of an organized “no” campaign; if forced to speculate I’d say the first question has decent odds of passing, while the second faces a bit more resistance.

The “yes” vote has built some momentum in recent weeks, with endorsements from the News Tribune, the Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Don Ness; and also thanks to yeoman’s work by some of the School Board candidates in their door-knocking for their own campaigns. Several people related to the Tea Party and longtime School Board critics have mounted some public resistance, however. They claim taxes in Duluth are high enough as it is, and that the Board’s behavior during the Red Plan means it is untrustworthy, and may not direct money where it is most needed (into classrooms to fight the large class sizes). The “Vote Yes” crowd counters this claim by pointing out the small size of the tax increase and across-the-board support for smaller class sizes from all of the pro-levy Board candidates.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

Patrick Boyle | Scott Keenan | Jim Stauber | Cary Thompson-Gilbert

Following the passing of Commissioner Steve O’Neil in July, residents of the east side of the Duluth will go to the polls to select the two candidates who will advance to the January 14 special election. The field for this seat is loaded, as all four bring plenty of experience to the table. Based on a lawn sign count and general knowledge of the east side’s proclivities, the two frontrunners appear to be Boyle and Keenan. Councilor Boyle is the O’Neil family’s desired successor and a liberal champion, while Keenan doesn’t really fit an ideological label, having shown streaks of fiscal conservatism and environmentalism during his two terms on the Council and during his tenure on many local boards. Outgoing City Councilor Jim Stauber is the most conservative voice in the field, though he isn’t exactly a confrontational one; if elected, four of the five members of the County Board would lean toward the right. He doesn’t have any noticeable lawn sign presence, though he does have plenty of name recognition, and with his son on the City Council ticket, the Staubers have the potential to have a big night. Thompson-Gilbert is the only candidate who hasn’t served on the City Council, though her husband (Greg Gilbert) has, and she has a solid résumé of community activism. Adam Jaros and Nik Patronas are both on the ballot, but have withdrawn their names; Jaros endorsed Boyle, while Patronas exited for health reasons.

That about sums it up. Get out and vote no matter who you support, and stay tuned for results and analysis after the election.

Comments on Duluth Primary Election Results

Ah, the joys of local politics: I turned on the TV to watch for immediate candidate reactions and such on the late local news, but everything had been pushed back due to President Obama’s speech. Turns out the network executives think the possibility of the U.S. blowing up some other country is more important than the fate of unserviced bond debts on city street repairs. Their loss, I suppose.

My pre-election comments on the candidates: City Council | School Board

Complete results are available here. Turnout was a bit on the low side (by Duluth standards), even for a local primary in a non-mayoral election year. You can look at past Duluth election results here.

City Council At-Large (Top four advance; numbers are percentage of vote, followed by total number of votes)

Barb Russ 35.8 (3943)

Zack Filipovich 28.0 (3081)

Ryan Stauber 20.8 (2295)

Ray Sandman 10.7 (1175)

Ray Whitledge 4.8 (525)

It’s no surprise to see Russ roll here, and with Filipovich in a comfortable second, it was a good day for the Duluth DFL. Stauber, though in third by a wide margin over Sandman, has to close a fairly substantial gap over the next two months, and as I explained in my initial comments, his campaign needs a much more polished and convincing pitch. It’s no great shock, but Whitledge struggled to garner much support, and since he was already such a niche candidate, I doubt his small number of supporters will sway the general election much. Conservative Duluthians will almost certainly unite behind Stauber now, and it will be interesting to see how much momentum they can generate, and who—if anyone—his supporters will pick with their second vote. Sandman made the cut, but has little hope of doing much else aside from conceivably playing a spoiler role.

School Board At-Large (Top four advance)

Annie Harala 25.8 (3028)

Harry Welty 19.1 (2246)

Nancy Nilsen 17.7 (2073)

Henry Banks 16.4 (1926)

Loren Martell 10.9 (1283)

Joshua Bixby 10.1 (1190)

Harala’s strong showing has her on the inside track for a seat on the Board; the margin was small enough that she isn’t a completely sure bet, but I don’t really see two of the other four finalists passing her. After Harala, it gets interesting. Perhaps it’s name recognition; perhaps it’s the strength of personal ties in a local election, but I was a bit surprised to see such a large gap between the two former Members (Welty and Nielsen) and the two insurgents (Bixby and Martell). I’d hazard to guess it will come down to a race between Welty and Banks for the second seat. Given her ties to the Red Plan, I don’t think Nilsen has a very high ceiling, nor is she likely to gain many votes from the supporters of Bixby or Martell—though, granted, she has surprised me somewhat already by finishing ahead of Banks in the primary. Banks has the DFL machinery behind him, which could help boost his turnout substantially. Welty, on the other hand, is by far the most likely to pick up any disaffected Bixby or Martell voters who didn’t already vote for him. On a night when most of the Red Plan critics didn’t do especially well, Welty had a strong showing, suggesting that the voters of Duluth did a pretty good job parsing out the intelligent critics with strong education backgrounds (Welty) from those who didn’t quite meet those standards (Martell). I ranked Banks ahead of him in my preview post, but with the semi-critical voice I supported (Bixby) out of the race, I am going to give Harry a chance to convince me. Ridiculous as he can be at times, I do think his heart is in the right place, and the Board could use a critic who is not Johnston-esque.

I voted for Bixby, but I’m not terribly shocked by his last-place finish. He’s new to the Duluth political scene, his campaign didn’t have a very big presence, and while I appreciated his nuanced stances, I can understand how some voters might come away unsure of what he actually stood for. I hope he continues his involvement in Board affairs, despite the loss. Martell, meanwhile, has been whacked in both elections in which he has run. We’ll see if he continues his monthly crusades at the Board meetings.

District 1 (Top two advance)

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 53.7 (1086)

Joe Matthes 26.0 (526)

Marcia Stromgren 20.3 (410)

As expected, it was smooth sailing for Loeffler-Kemp, who cleared the 50% mark in the primary and would probably have to get herself caught up in some sort of scandal to lose at this point. Considering the opposition, Matthes had a reasonably good showing, though his odds of moving beyond this point are low. I was most interested by Stromgren’s low total here; after all, she did garner 46 percent of the vote in the general election for this seat four years ago, albeit against an incumbent (Ann Wasson) whose hands were all over the Red Plan. As with Martell, I’d say the writing is on the wall for her future in School Board affairs. They raised their ruckus, but as cathartic as that may have been, their anger probably marginalized them in the eyes of voters who saw them as extremists. Once a person has that label, it’s difficult to shed it, and unlike Welty, neither one of them showed much in the way of political savvy.

District 4 (Top two advance)

David Bolgrien 37.6 (463)

Art Johnston (I) 33.4 (411)

Justin Perpich 28.9 (356)

The race I named the most interesting lived up to its billing, with roughly 50 votes between each of the candidates. Considering how polarizing Johnston is, the odds are that the Perpich supporters are more likely to jump on the Bolgrien bandwagon. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Johnston needed to win this primary by a reasonable margin to retain his seat, and is now in serious trouble. But as in the all the races here, it’s hard to know what increased voter turnout will do in the general election; has Johnston already hit his ceiling, or are there a lot of disaffected people on the west side who will come out of the woodwork to support him in the main event? There are a lot of votes potentially up for grabs amongst the Perpich people, and to win them over, Johnston would probably have to change his tone somewhat. I don’t think he has much interest in doing that, which means that School Board meetings could be a lot more boring come January. A lot more boring, and a lot more constructive.

***

Still, this is all idle speculation: the voters will decide things on November 5. We’ll see if there are any surprises in the meantime.

I had some ambitions of trying to tie the primary results to my “Duluth’s Future” post from a few weeks back, but I don’t think the results offer anything too conclusive, so I’ll wait until after the general election. There are some possible trends here, but nothing concrete. Stay tuned.

Duluth School Board Elections 2013: A Patient Primary Primer

Primary elections in Duluth take place this Tuesday. Here’s my take on the school board candidates (city council to follow tomorrow).

For my coverage of School Board meetings over the past few months, click here.

Figure out where to vote, and which races you’re voting for, here.| Pretty map

This is what your ballot will look like.

Now, some comments on the race and the candidates.

As anyone who follows Duluth politics knows, the School Board is riven by lingering controversy over its expensive Long Range Facilities Plan (the Red Plan), which got the city a bunch of shiny new schools and a bunch of very angry taxpayers who have voted against anything school-related ever since. Opponents of the Red Plan didn’t make much headway in School Board elections, however, leaving Member Art Johnston the sole critic on the current Board. As a result, he has waged a scorched-earth campaign over the past four years, doing everything he can to disrupt the final stages of the Red Plan (which was implemented nearly in full before his tenure began).

It is frustrating to watch Member Johnston’s antics, and I say this as someone who does not want to see the School Board be a rubber stamp machine. I want to see critics; people who will make very careful decisions with the paltry pot of money the Board has to work with, look for creative new solutions, and who will question the tendency of the Superintendent and the Board’s majority to move in lockstep. The problem is that most of the existing critics are so eccentric or embittered by the Red Plan rancor that they are hopelessly disruptive, and show few signs of being able to work with the rest of the Board. That makes for good theater, but it does not make for good governance.

Thankfully, after this election cycle, the Board could very easily have only one person left over from the whole Red Plan debate (Member Seliga-Punyko, who beat Loren Martell last election cycle). Everyone else who implemented it could be gone, as could the “interesting” cast of opponents…if Duluth can come through and vote against them all. This is the easiest path to long-term health for ISD 709. Love or hate the Red Plan, it happened, and Duluth has to decide what comes next, not repeat old debates.

At-Large

Current Members Mary Cameron and Tom Kasper have chosen not to seek re-election, freeing up two seats here. There are six candidates, two of whom will be weeded out in the primary. I list them here in a rough order of preference.

In the search for a new Board member who will question the status quo, Joshua Bixby may be the best bet. His campaign website is easily the most extensive out there, and includes Mr. Bixby trailing on about issues large and small. When addressing the Board as a citizen, he came across as articulate, insightful, and responsive to public opinion. He is a recent arrival to Duluth, meaning he wasn’t even here when the Red Plan debates started, and wants to move past that while also wrestling with the financial issues created by the Plan. I’m not sure I agree with him on everything, but I think his voice is a necessary one, and could be a very constructive addition to a Board that has been anything but constructive lately.

Annie Harala is another youngish newcomer to ISD 709 politics. Her campaign website isn’t all that detailed, though at least she has one, and it does get points for prettiness. I applaud her support of “community schools”—that is, schools that emphasize a holistic education and unite the school with the surrounding neighborhoods through a number of initiatives. She looks to be a safe choice.

Henry Banks, a man best known for his radio show “People of Color with Henry Banks,” has been involved in a number of community organizations over the years, though none of them focus explicitly on education. An African-American, Banks is certainly in tune with Duluth’s serious achievement gap issues, and with Member Cameron’s impending retirement, he is the only potential minority School Board member. Beyond that, though, he’s hard to pin down; he doesn’t have a website yet (Facebook page here), and there isn’t much substance detailed there.

Even though he is not a new figure, I actually have a decent amount of respect for Harry Welty. I think he tries to assess things fairly, even if he is sometimes wrong in said assessment; he is well-informed and, tendency for hyperbole aside, seems to be a genuine person who is capable of working well with others. Sure, he has a huge ego and a talent for grandstanding, but he can also appreciate nuance and can be self-deprecating at times, too. (His long-running website will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about his life and his stances on ISD 709 issues.) I’m not voting for him in the primary, but if you think a member of the old Let Duluth Vote crowd deserves a voice on the Board, though, Harry has the strongest credentials.

Nancy Nilsen, a Board member from 2006-2010 who helped push through the Red Plan, is one I’d throw out as old news. I really don’t care whether or not she was right, or how well-prepared she is due to her work on other matters. She was a part of that whole mess, and the District needs to move on.

Loren Martell is a regular member of the anti-Red Plan crowd. To his credit, he’s done his homework on district finances, and he’s managed to get an audit of the District; I’m curious to see the results. However, even if the audit vindicates his stance, that does not suddenly qualify him to make decisions over the futures of Duluth students. His speeches in front of the Board can be painful to listen to, and that has nothing to do with their content: he rambles, casts about charges, and generally fails to sound coherent. (At the first few meetings I attended, I chose not to mention his appearances before the Board in my write-ups because I honestly thought he was somewhat “slow,” and that picking on him would be in poor taste.) At any rate, he gives little indication that he knows anything about what a school board does beyond his stance on a facilities plan that has already happened. He sounds like Art Johnston 2.0, only without Art’s penchant for good quotes. Maybe he’s been goaded into anger and incoherence due to his frustrations with the Board; not having followed Board affairs closely during my four years out of Duluth (2008-2012), I don’t know. But that frustration is the exact reason I can’t endorse him: everyone touched by that bitter debate is tainted. It’s time to move on.

District 1

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has, quite simply, devoted her life to education. She has served in just about every PTA or parent-advisory position imaginable, and as she lives in the neighborhood, I remember seeing her at just about every school function while growing up. As with all the candidates here, her platform is a bit vague, but she is a relentlessly positive person, and no one will doubt her work ethic. Judging by an informal lawn sign count, she’s the favorite here, and since I’ve supported a couple of younger, newish people in the at-large races, I’ll use my vote in my own district for someone who has a little more experience. One word of advice on the lawn signs, though: “informed” and “involved” are acceptable ways to describe a candidate, and in her case, very true. Describing oneself as “interested,” however, seems laughably self-evident. Is anyone running for the School Board really not “interested” in the position? (Facebook page here)

This district has two pretty strong candidates, though, and Joe Matthes is the other. He is a newcomer to Duluth politics, a 20-something with a couple of young kids. He is a union rep who has experience on the labor side of things, and to date he is the only candidate to leaflet my house (he lives down the block, though I don’t know him personally), and his literature hits all the right notes. (Facebook page here) I would have no qualms voting for him; it’s unfortunate he is in the same race as Loeffler-Kemp.

Marcia Stromgren is a member of the anti-Red Plan crew, and not even a terribly interesting one at that. She is good at complaining about things but offers little of substance, has no web presence, and her campaign signs appear to put emphasis on the “tax payer.” (Hopefully her efforts to save taxpayers money will not lead her to target English classes that might teach Duluth students that “taxpayer” is, in fact, one word.) On the flip side, her intriguing headgear would brighten up the Board meetings.

District 4

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

It’s hard to see many huge distinctions between the two challengers here. Justin Perpich is a recent Duluth arrival with a young child, while David Bolgrien is a longtime volunteer and PTA member. Both have a pretty similar emphasis in their campaigns, as they try to bring positive messaging back to District Four. Bolgrien appears a bit more antagonistic toward the incumbent, and he also endorsed Nancy Nilsen on his Facebook page (ostensibly because she is also a west-sider, though that gives some idea of his loyalties in the Red Plan debate). Because of that, I’d tip my support toward Perpich, who also has a website here that puts a little more substance behind his campaign. Still, I’d support either one against the incumbent.

These two men are, of course, taking on Art Johnston. Here is his website, “Truth in Duluth.”

I’ve probably made my opinion on Member Johnston abundantly clear in my posts on School Board meetings. My critique effectively boils down to the same one I made of Mr. Martell: just because he has a different opinion does not mean he is well-qualified to represent that opinion. His eternal disruption has yet to achieve anything of substance, and only reinforced the bunker mentality among the rest of the Board. It is time to move on.

I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again: it’s time to move on. On Tuesday, we’ll learn just how much Duluth agrees with that sentiment.