Tag Archives: art johnston

Duluth Election Dissection 2017

8 Nov

Another year at the polls has come and gone. Now, as is my wont, I’ll play Monday morning (Wednesday evening?) quarterback for the campaigns. Sadly, I no longer have easy GIS access (unless I have any volunteer GIS slaves out there?), so I won’t have pretty maps like I did two years ago, and will spare my readers the Microsoft Paint maps I made four years ago. You’ll just have to make do with some descriptions of the precinct-by-precinct results.

It was a fairly predictable night in city council politics, as is generally the case. The school board, meanwhile, saw a more dramatic change in direction. Voter turnout was low, even for a non-mayoral off year election. Rates ranged from about 40 percent on the east side to less than 20 percent in a handful of downtown and west side precincts, for a city-wide total of 27.9 percent.

Council Stability Continues

In the at-large city council races, the two incumbents, Zack Filipovich and Barb Russ, carried the day. The end results mirrored the primary. Filipovich’s ground game and ability to lock up labor support separated him from the pack, and he ran comfortably ahead of the field. Russ was the candidate among the four least likely to inspire strong emotions; while the other three all had their ardent supporters and vocal critics, everyone seemed more or less fine with Barb Russ, and that was enough to edge her past the two challengers, Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove. The end result was a vote for continuity, and for two incumbents who may not inspire the activist base of the Duluth left, but are certainly acceptable to most of them and know the ins and outs of local politics.

Kennedy had a core committed supporters, and while there were some strong symbolic acts associated with it, as in her trek from one end of the city to the other, that attention was largely limited to a core of high information voters, and I never got the sense that she generated attention beyond that outside of a couple of core neighborhoods. (For example, I received multiple leaflets from every other candidate on my ballot, but never saw a thing from the Kennedy campaign.) Updegrove generated some strong early momentum, but in the end his campaign didn’t seem to move past generic talking points associated with the leftward wing of the Democratic Party, and while that platform will do reasonably well in Duluth, it isn’t at a point where it will win, either. For me, at least, this was a noticeable juxtaposition with the likes of Russ, who was deep in the weeds on housing policy specific to Duluth. Following the lead of her ally Filipovich, she did the necessary retail politics to pull out the election.

In the Second District, Joel Sipress cruised to re-election over political newcomer Ryan Sistad. It’s possible for a 23-year-old to run a successful campaign—see Filipovich’s effort four years ago—but Sistad didn’t have anywhere near that level of polish. While Sipress’s politics may not be all that different from those of an Updegrove, he has a keen knowledge of how to play the political game, focusing on neighborhood issues and emphasizing his service to a district in a way that other staunch members of the left do not. They have something to learn from him, though the caliber of one’s opponents also makes a difference.

Finally, in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett eked out a win over incumbent Howie Hanson. As the most suburban district in the city, the Fourth is fertile ground for the fiscally conservative platform Hanson ran on; frankly, I think anyone else running on Hanson’s issues in this district probably would have won. But Hanson is a recent adopter of many of these issues, and anyone who has watched him in action knew that he (to put it politely) wasn’t always the smoothest ambassador for his positions. Van Nett brings some newfound diversity to the Council (two out of its nine members are now at least part Native American), and with her emphasis on building consensus and cooperation instead of hard policy stands, she’s one of the more blank slates to enter the council in recent years.

The geography of the votes was also fairly predictable. Filipovich won most of the precincts, while Kennedy collected a handful downtown and on the hillsides, plus Irving out west. Upedgrove led on the UMD campus, which is often an outlier, while Russ didn’t win one. Filipovich and Russ, whose vote totals tended to move in concert, did their best on the east and west ends of the city, and also cleaned up in Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where they likely benefited from not having anyone to their right and were likely considered the least bad options by Duluth’s more conservative neighborhoods. Kennedy’s strength of support was in the center of the city, though she also did passably well on the west side. Updegrove, in contrast, was at his best on the east side but ran poorly on the west side, which was probably his undoing.

In the Second District, Sipress cleaned up pretty much everywhere, with Kenwood being the only precinct in which he was (slightly) under 60 percent. Predictably, Howie Hanson did his best work in Duluth Heights and Piedmont in the Fourth District, while Van Nett owned Lincoln Park. She rolled up her margins in those lower-income precincts down the hill, and stayed competitive enough in Piedmont and the Heights to take down Hanson.

In the end, the results here are pretty clear. While this election removed one of the two semi-conservative councilors in Howie Hanson (if one could even call him that), it also rejected a move further left in the at-large races, in effect staying the course. There was perhaps a slight leftward drift given Van Nett’s breakthrough and the failure of the conservatives to get a candidate to the final four in the at-large race, but there are enough asterisks with Hanson that I don’t think the end result signals any sort of sea change in Duluth politics.

The Great School Board Slaughter of 2017

There’s no real way to spin this one: the 2017 school board elections were a decisive mandate for the DFL-backed candidates, the current district administration, and the present direction of the Board.

The slaughter was most extreme in the two district races. In the First District, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the incumbent perhaps most strongly aligned with the district administration, had no trouble dispatching of Kurt Kuehn. But even more eye-opening was Jill Lofald’s demolition of two-term incumbent Art Johnston in the Fourth District. Johnston has withstood intense opposition before, but this time he suffered a 15-point loss. Things were somewhat tighter in the at-large race, but Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham still comfortably outpaced incumbent Harry Welty and newcomer Dana Krivogorsky.

Heading into Election Day, I wasn’t sure if running as a unified ticket with Welty and Johnston, who have their supporters but also their share of baggage, would help or hurt Krivogorsky and Kuehn. In 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard not to see it as a mistake, as Krivogorsky’s careful attention to finance charts seemed to get lost in her association with the other campaigns. Ten years after the Red Plan became reality, beating that same old drum has exhausted Duluth voters. Longtime readers will know I think Johnston and Welty have raised important points over the years, but the rhetoric here has become so repetitive and so personal that I can see how even many who are not thrilled with the nonstop positivity of the DFL candidates would sour on the same old act. Johnston seemed tired, Welty’s blog posts degenerated into a lot more snipping at opponents, and Loren Martell’s columns in the Reader lately might have come out of a Loren Martell Column Generator. Casting protest votes that never achieve anything concrete gets old after a while, and I’ve long maintained that when the focus is more on the candidates themselves than the causes they represent, it’s probably a sign that their time has come and gone. This district needs newer, more constructive critics of the board’s recent direction.

This victory may prove short-lived for the new, completely post-Red Plan school board. Budgetary issues loom large, and unsold buildings still sit vacant. ISD 709 can’t afford many more cuts. The pessimistic case would say that these new, ever-so-positive board members are naively barreling into a future they are ill-equipped to handle. The optimistic case holds that removing the old Red Plan warriors may be a healthy thing: instead of assuming the same old battle lines, perhaps we can now have more open and honest debates on the issues in front of the board. It’s possible to be critical without being abrasive, as Alanna Oswald has shown us, and some clearer air could do everyone some good. Perchance to dream.

The precinct results still reveal some measure of the old east-west divide in Duluth school politics: the combined total for Trnka and Gorham cleared 60 percent in nearly every east side precinct, while the totals were much closer on the west. Still, Welty and Krivogorsky only combined for the majority in three precincts in the city: the two in Duluth Heights and in Irving, which is traditionally the most anti-Red Plan in the city proper. Normanna and North Star Townships, which they also carried, are similarly on the far fringe of that issue. Factoring in Johnston’s defeat, the east-west divide was actually less pronounced in 2017 than it has been in recent years: Lofald’s win was so thorough that Johnston was only within ten percentage points of her in Irving. Meanwhile, in the First District, Loeffler-Kemp swept the deck in the Duluth precincts in the First District, and Kuehn was fairly competitive only in the low-vote townships and Rice Lake.

Street Tax Success

Duluth voters voiced their support for a sales tax dedicated to street repairs by a margin of over three to one. This was the clear message I expected them to send, but by an even more decisive margin than I might have guessed. No one much likes it, but we have to take our pills, and frustration with potholes seems to unite Duluthians regardless of their political leanings. Another tax increase isn’t the easiest thing to swallow, particularly for voters on fixed incomes—I can only hope that the other shoe doesn’t drop when it comes to a future school board levy—but with a clear need and overwhelming popular support, mayor Emily Larson has the vote of endorsement she needs to move this through the state legislature.

Side Notes

I’ll end with a special shoutout to Jono Cowgill, the new District Four representative on the Minneapolis Parks Board. The MURP Class of 2016 is doing big things. Who’s next?

The State of Duluth Politics, March 2017

23 Mar

Longtime readers will know that this blog grew up on coverage of Duluth politics. While my current job is politically sensitive enough that I’d rather play it coy on many issues in front of the city these days, I will aim to venture a few comments here and there going forward. This past week is as good a chance as any, following the State of the City address; names are starting to pile up for this fall’s elections too, and as usual, I can’t resist the urge to comment on the ISD 709 school board.

Mayor Larson’s Coming-Out Party

Emily Larson delivered an eye-opening State of the City address on Monday. For the most part, Larson hasn’t set out to be a show-stopper, either during her time on the city council or in her rise to the top spot in City Hall. She’s a team player and a listener, and the first part of her address was devoted to recognizing the everyday work done by city employees to improve Duluth. But Monday night also hinted that there may be more to Emily Larson.

Her State of the City was an ambitious, effective speech. She hammered home three key themes: combating the opioid epidemic, creating affordable housing, and reducing energy emissions. It was a clear, broad vision, and while I’m sure many of us could lobby for certain other things getting higher billing, she does understand how these all interconnect. Her remarks on housing were particularly strong, both for the ambition of her plans and in the acknowledged nuance of housing policy and the market forces that drive it. Her comments on climate change drew the largest cheers from a staunchly liberal crowd, but this wasn’t some diatribe about the direction of national politics; while she acknowledged all of that, she repeatedly made it clear that the way forward required a focus on local action, on controlling what we can control, and shutting out the broader noise. “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach,” she said, quoting from a constituent letter. (Whether or not she reads a certain local blog that rather likes this topic, it’s refreshing to see that sort of consistency of vision.)

On Monday night, Larson showed she has the acumen necessary to keep together the broad governing coalition built by her predecessor, Don Ness. This is harder than people think, especially when it’s such a wide-ranging coalition that includes both the Chamber of Commerce crowd and an increasingly vocal activist left. Even though I’m fairly certain I know Larson’s opinion on the issues that have divided these two groups over the past year–oil pipelines, non-ferrous mining, earned sick and safe leave—she’s a smart enough operator to know not to waste her political capital on those debates. She puts herself in positions where she doesn’t need to fight tooth and nail to get her agenda done; she just provides the energy to spur it along, and builds complete movements. Unlike too many politicians who preach unity while ignoring half of their constituents, she actually does want to keep everyone on board. (Whether they will all be willing to stay there may be a different story.)

In contrast to Ness, Larson has never been deeply involved in the Democratic Party apparatus; perhaps for that reason, I had yet to give much thought about her as a candidate for higher office. But in this speech, I saw someone who has the charisma and the political skill that could allow her to make that run. With the climate change push, she’s even taking on an initiative that could be scaled up to another level, although she would certainly need to be even more nimble to succeed in a political environment such as the Minnesota 8th Congressional District. If she has the desire and can continue to balance the competing interests in her coalition, I think she has the skill to pull it off. Duluth has itself a powerful mayor, and while the form of power may not match a traditional definition of power, it is power nonetheless.

The Moribund Right

There will be little resistance to Larson’s agenda. To the extent that there are any cracks in the Ness-Larson coalition, they’ve come from people on the leftward flank of that coalition who aren’t fans of the business class, not from a challenge to the right. One doesn’t have to go too far back in Duluth political history to find a long tradition of fiscal conservatism, with recent proponents such as Jim Stauber, Garry Krause, Todd Fedora, and Chris Dahlberg. They were never a majority, but they had a consistent voice, and exercised some influence. Nowadays, with the partial exception of Jay Fosle—a somewhat more complicated figure—that species is all but extinct in Duluth politics.

To some extent, this reflects broader shifts in the American right. Older, civic-minded moderate patricians have much less of a place in the Republican Party now than they did a few years back. In some ways, Chuck Horton’s run for mayor presaged the Trump candidacy; while I wouldn’t draw too tight a parallel, they both tap into a stream of testosterone and had a white working class following. That sort of politics has a fairly low ceiling of support within Duluth proper, though, and (again, with the semi-exception of Fosle) doesn’t seem like much of a winner.  At the same time, the Ness Administration was pretty disciplined fiscally, so there wasn’t much ground to attack it on that front. There’s a lot less ground to occupy here. The only recent attempt to run a distinctive campaign on a nuanced, Duluth-specific conservative platform front came from state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, and she was running in a race she couldn’t win.

I doubt, however, that the Duluth electorate has changed that much in the past five years. Especially now that a few city councilors are taking a much harder leftward tack, I think there’s a clear opening for some center or center-right candidates to do well in elections here. The fourth district (Duluth Heights, Piedmont, Lincoln Park), which elected Garry Krause not that long ago, has an election for what will be an open seat this fall, and would be an obvious target. And while the at-large field is crowded with two incumbents (Zack Filipovich, Barb Russ) plus a few other left-leaning figures, it’s not hard to imagine a more distinctive voice running through a crowded field to at least make it past the primary. After that, a strong candidate would at least have a fighting chance, especially if there’s any division among the DFL ranks over whether to support the comparatively moderate incumbents or not.

For now, however, there are zero candidates stepping in to take that chance. I’d like to see someone try, even if I may not agree with said person on everything. One-party rule of any variety is cause for concern, and elected bodies should approximate the full range of views within a city. We’ll see if any viable takers emerge.

Meanwhile, Back at the School Board

Speaking of moribund…

When I started covering school board meetings on here nearly four years ago, I was very critical of the anti-Red Plan crowd, which at the time consisted of Art Johnston and a few hangers-on. They sounded devoid of ideas, and more interested in reliving a war that had already happened.

How the tables turn. Johnston, who benefits from having allies to keep him on point, has added Harry Welty and now the dynamic Alanna Oswald to his effort to needle the administration; over at the Reader, Loren Martell’s columns have become increasingly lucid. Agree or disagree with them, the school board minority is now putting creative ideas forward for dealing with the district’s issues, and has a new wave of energy. As for the majority and the administration? Well, current district teachers are now writing letters to the DNT editor filleting Superintendent Bill Gronseth’s job searches in other communities. At this point, I’m honestly not sure what the ISD 709 establishment stands for other than opposition to whatever it is that the minority supports. That’s a curious way to govern.

Four of the seven school board seats are up for grabs this fall. Since he was re-elected over a strong opponent with a favorable political climate four years ago, I suspect Johnston can have a third term in his far western district if he wants it. On the far east side, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the most steadfast opponent of the minority, is up for re-election. Two of the three at-large seats are also up; Welty will run for re-election, and I’d expect that Annie Harala will be back for another cycle, too. They’re both fairly strong incumbents, as Welty enjoys name recognition and the general tide of public sentiment, while Harala won very comfortably four years ago. At the time, she ran as a post-Red Plan unity candidate, and while she made some efforts to bridge gaps near the start of her term, she’s become a full-on member of the majority over time. That race will say a lot about the ISD 709 school board electorate, though the ability of the minority to recruit a capable candidate is paramount to making it competitive.

If the current minority can hold Johnston and Welty’s seats and pick up just one of Harala and Loeffler-Kemp’s, they’ll no longer be a minority. That would change the tenor of the board room debate in unpredictable ways; it could make things far more contentious between the board and staff, but it could also open up what has long been a stultifying debate. Are Duluth voters willing to take that chance?

Even more so than at the city council level, I think this has the potential to be a huge election year for the school board. There hasn’t been any noise about candidates here yet, but depending on how people play their cards, we could be in for a dramatic shake-up. I’ll be watching things here very closely.

Art Johnston Prevails

13 May

The exhausting saga of the attempt to remove Art Johnston from the ISD 709 School Board is finally lurching toward conclusion. It was a miserable one to follow, with an unsympathetic protagonist pitted against a vindictive, bumbling board. In the end, the Board majority found either its conscience or its sanity, and withdrew the attempt to remove the eternal thorn in its side. The bringers of the suit appeared resigned; Chair Judy Seliga-Punyko called it “frustrating” that Johnston had filed a lawsuit, while Annie Harala said the effort to remove him had been the right idea at the start, but became a “distraction.” Yes, if only Johnston had just rolled over and accepted his fate like a good little boy. It’s not like he ever fought back before, right? What on earth did they expect?

At the risk of saying I-told-you-so, this is what I wrote immediately after the incident last June:

[T]his seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, [and] drags out old fights in the negative PR…”

Yup.

There will probably be one more chance for the Board to demonstrate less maturity than its students next week. The majority will move to censure Johnston in what could have been a defensible move at the time of the incident, but eleven months on, it merely looks like grubbing for a few points of extra credit after failing the exam. Johnston will again do his panicky eight-year-old impression, moaning about the bullies—even he has been poisoned by the obnoxious education-speak and victimization game that makes this comparison of the Board to a playground all too easy—and will likely fit in his victory lap. The censure either will or won’t happen, and everyone’s lives will somehow go on, no matter what. After that, there are some loose ends to tie up, most notably the financing of Johnston’s defense, and perhaps some lingering questions about his partner’s status, but the crusade is largely over now.

With any luck, the end of this case will be the last gasp of the Red Plan Wars. Yes, its legacy will linger, and no doubt a few hangers-on will continue to belabor old points. This inconclusive end seems a fitting coda for all of the needless division of the past decade. The leaders of the anti-Johnston campaign appear exhausted; I’d be surprised if Bill Westholm has the energy for another campaign, and Mike Miernicki has already announced he will not seek a second term. Miernicki blamed the negativity for his exit, though self-awareness of his own role in fostering such negativity appears lacking. His story has been a sad one to watch, a case of an otherwise likable man totally out of his element and unable to handle any pushback. Yes, Mern, the world would be a happier place if it were more like your ideal one, but that simply isn’t the case, and we all must adjust to reality.

Seliga-Punyko probably comes out looking the worst of anyone here after her relentless campaign came up short, and her lame attempt to fault the costs of Johnston’s lawsuit for failing to see his removal through is the ultimate white flag. It was a poor choice on the part of the Board to make such an imperious and divisive figure its chair, and I can only hope that some of the Board’s junior members realize they have been taken for a distracting ride by the Board’s mother hen over the past year. Her political future will be interesting to watch. Superintendent Bill Gronseth, after flirting with an escape from all the madness, is now committed to Duluth for the long-term. He has been too much of a passenger in this whole affair in his refusal to exercise any authority, but that does give him a chance to be the one who now collects the pieces and gets people to move on. The Board is in need of some leadership out of its Superintendent.

I am most curious to see how the victorious minority now responds. It is a real win for Johnston and Harry Welty; perhaps the first of any substance they can actually claim in their sometimes noble and often floundering attempts to stand up to the overpowering majority. If they can be magnanimous after this success and return discussion to the pressing issues facing the district—class size, charter school questions, traffic concerns, and so on—without belaboring old grievances too much, they’ll be in great position to seem like the winners of this whole mess, and the momentum could carry them into the November elections. If bitterness over their treatment over the past months rules the day, then we can expect more of the same, and their victory over this past week will be nothing but a hollow settling of personal scores. They’ll spin a narrative in which they’re the defenders of liberty or some such thing, hiding the fact that they have so far been mediocre and largely ineffective legislators. Being a gadfly is all well and good, but anyone who thinks that this is an end unto itself completely misunderstands what Socrates was up to.

Ideally, when the censure motion comes, someone will have the guts to stand up and say that it’s time to drop all of this and move on. Ideally, the Board will then do exactly that. They won’t be reconciled, no, but they’ll at least re-emphasize the fact that they have a mission that is higher than their own petty infighting. But, then, expecting the high road out of people on the ISD 709 Board hasn’t been a winning proposition of late. Perchance to dream.

Duluth News Roundup: March 2015

15 Mar

Over the past couple months, this blog has neglected any mention of Duluth affairs unrelated to the exploits of one particular hockey team. Time to fix that. I just spent a weekend back home, and Duluth is basking in sunny repose in mid-March, a rare feat that had everyone out enjoying the brownness of it all. (Why do these nice springs only happen when I’m elsewhere?) So, let’s see what’s been in the headlines over the past couple weeks, shall we?

Surprise! Art Johnston Is Suing ISD 709

Okay, maybe nothing much has changed. I saw this coming from a thousand miles away back when the School Board launched its shortsighted inquest into its most stubborn member, and everything has, depressingly, played out according to plan.

I go back and forth on what I think will happen if this does play its way through the courts. Harry Welty, who is the only person providing any insight beyond the most basic talking points, thinks Art has a very strong case in that his freedom of speech has been violated. That said, it’s not hard to see Harry’s biases here, and as the tone of his blog has shown recently, he can’t be trusted to be objective when he has an obvious stake in the outcome. From my very limited perspective, I’m not sure the Johnston camp has a good counterargument to the most salient point against him—that he used his influence as a school board member gave him undue power and a conflict of interest in representing his partner, Ms. Jane Bushey, in discussions with district administration. (Johnston supporters are quick to point out that no police report was ever filed against Johnston’s alleged “assault” of Supt. Gronseth, and I agree that it sounds like a fishy and trumped-up charge, but the “bullying” of Ms. Bushey is just as unsubstantiated at this point.)

I’ll agree with Art and Harry that the state’s law allowing school boards to remove members seems way too loose. I’d support the effort to change that, and bring it in line with the standards used for other elected bodies. But unless his lawyers can prove unconstitutionality, a fight that would involve some very high-level courts, the School Board was within its right to exercise its power of removal so long as it found “proper cause.” The Rice Report as written gave them proper cause, and while Art and Harry have questioned Atty. Rice’s character, they’re going to have a hell of a time proving that. This leaves them with the possibility of questioning some of the testimony she relied on to develop that proper cause. Harry enjoys making dark allusions to the actions of one school administrator, but this would tip the case into a number of accusations in the shadows and he-said, she-saids. Is that really a winning case, especially when the other side actually gets to tell its story? I’m not very convinced. And frankly, if the accused party needs character witnesses, she’ll have some good ones. I could be one of them.

I still think it was dumb of the School Board to go down this road against a mostly powerless Member, as Art will only drag this out in the courts forever and make it an even greater PR nightmare. I don’t know why any sentient voter would support any of the seven incumbents based on their conduct at the moment. But I also don’t think this debacle will prove the vindication that the anti-Red Plan camp seems to hope it will become, either. The whole affair is a pox on everyone’s house.

I should’ve gone into education law. Seems like an awfully lucrative field.

Howie Backs Out

As you might guess, I am crushed, simply crushed, to learn that Howie Hanson has withdrawn from the mayoral race.

It’s actually a pretty shrewd move on Howie’s part, and one that lets him get out of the race with dignity before it gets too heated. His odds were low, and this was not the stage for him. This allows him to dedicate himself to his seat on the City Council. Not having watched much lately I don’t know if he’s getting better or if it’s Same Old Howie, but he means well, cares for his residents, and, as one voice among nine, cannot do too much damage.

This leaves Emily Larson alone in the race at the moment, though we still have eight months before the election. Names like Yvonne Prettner-Solon and Chris Dahlberg continue to drift about, but they’ll need to decide fairly soon if they want to have the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. In the end, Larson may be the biggest winner from Howie’s very early entry into the race, as her quick answer allowed her to really get ahead of the pack and get her name out there. I still think this election is hers to lose.

Let’s Sell Some Weed…Or Not.

There was some controversy this past week over the creation of marijuana dispensaries in Duluth; the Planning Commission is going full speed ahead here. The City Council, on the other hand, hasn’t been such a big fan in the past. There were a number of proposed sites—near the airpark, Garfield Avenue, Lincoln Park, somewhere in or around Morgan Park. Not coincidentally, these are all on the west side. For the sake of the west side’s image, I hope it ends up in the airpark or on Garfield Avenue.

The defenders of these sites say they’re all heavy-industrial areas anyway, which is true to an extent, but complexities of land use tend not to come into people’s minds when house-shopping. Saying “there is a pot dispensary in Lincoln Park” is probably enough. Granted, that might not be a turn-off for some people…but, let’s be real. Any rehabilitation of Duluth’s west side isn’t going to be led by a rush of people chasing a marijuana dispensary (unless Duluth goes all rogue and tries to become the Boulder of the North, but I don’t think that’s on the table right now). It’s going to need stable families to set down roots and repopulate the schools. Stick it by the airport or on Garfield.

Chartering a School

I’ve talked about this some before, too, but it’s coming to fruition: Duluth’s Edison charter schools are building a high school on the Snowflake Nordic Center site.

My objection isn’t to educational alternatives (which I support in principle, from private and parochial schools to homeschooling), nor necessarily to the idea of charter schools (though there is growing evidence that, in time, they tend to just become destinations for white flight). It’s to the scale of the project. In a metropolitan area the size of Duluth, subtracting 600 students from local high schools is going to cause a fundamental disruption. Of course, the school will draw from numerous districts; ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims most Edison students nowadays go to Marshall, and now seems unconcerned, but I have a sneaking suspicion over who will be the real loser in this new setup: you guessed it, the school that draws from the area of Duluth right by the new school. Denfeld. The poor get poorer.

Time will tell, of course. But the supporters of the Edison project are, in my mind, far too blithe and/or naïve over the likely effects of their new high school. This area is too small, and we are all interconnected. You do not live in a vacuum.

St. Louis River Corridor

Lest this post get too down on the west side, here’s cause for some potential excitement: we have some nice plans for the St. Louis River corridor redevelopment, most of them involving trails. In fact, if there’s a criticism, it’s pretty much all trails; the question becomes one of how to integrate all of these trails with the existing built environment, and how to capitalize on the new attractions. Still, there’s lots of encouraging stuff here, from skiing to rock climbing to horses to river access. There is plenty of ongoing investment in west side amenities. The question is, will genuine economic opportunity follow? Or is this just a cosmetic repair on the surface, one that ignores a collapsed economic base and a declining housing stock? I don’t have the answer there. Time will tell.

For all my grumbling, it was good to be back. Nothing quite matches a Minnesotan’s delight as the coming of spring after the long, cold tunnel of winter. Enjoy your spring, Duluth. I hope to be back again before long.

Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality

24 Nov

Sunday brought the news that Marion Barry, the “mayor for life” of Washington, D.C., passed away at the age of 78. He was a living legend by the time I arrived in Washington, serving on the DC City Council long into his old age. Most people know him for his 1990 arrest for smoking crack. It was an especially awkward incident at the height of the inner city drug epidemic, one that epitomized DC’s dysfunctional government and broken culture, a sorry statement on life in the shadow of the Capitol.

Still, Barry was much more than the Rob Ford of his day. His popularity, from his first election to his final days, was genuine, as anyone who actually bothered to talk to people in Southeast DC would have learned. He was a real Civil Rights movement leader in his early days, and he did things to break down glass ceilings for African-Americans in DC. He had charisma, a winning charm that even allowed him to do well in snow-white Northwest in his first election, and his followers were rewarded handsomely.

I am always hesitant to walk on ground where racial questions loom so large, especially as I write on the night of the Ferguson verdict. But the style of politics Barry practiced transcends race, and has been around since the dawn of time. It is a style that substitutes charisma for institutions, and steamrolls any sense of genuine equity beneath a cynical patronage machine. In the end, the man became bigger than his project, and few things he does can outlive him. Perhaps it seemed the only method available in a city that had long before lost its compass; there in the heart of our imperial capital, where so many succumb to the desire to allow ends to justify means. It allowed him to rise above the rest, yes, but in the end, we are left with a distinctive character but little else. He was hardly alone even among DC politicians in harnessing the political machine; witness Jack Evans, of opulent Ward 2, who uses an absurd campaign war chest to bully any potential opposition into submission.

Barry had his moment, but did not know when to let go, and justified his political comeback in brutally honest terms: he needed power to keep himself sane. It had consumed him. By the end he was a dinosaur from a different era, still playing the same old cards as the DC he once led slipped away. The city’s African-American majority has disappeared behind the forces of gentrification, and will not be coming back anytime soon, barring a drastic change. The new DC is not necessarily a better place, but it is in need of a new champion, not someone whose politics revolves around himself.

***

An over-inflated sense of one’s own role is a common affliction in politics, and it is one I have diagnosed at times in Art Johnston, the embattled Duluth school board member. As the thousands of words spilled on this blog have shown, I’ve struggled to make sense of Johnston over the past year and a half. For the past seven years, he has fought a long and often very lonely battle against a school facilities plan and a number of other perceived failings of ISD 709.

The attorney hired by the District to investigate several accusations against Johnston has delivered her report. This past week, the Duluth News Tribune received the redacted version, which tells of Johnston’s alleged transgressions. The ultimate verdict is about what one might have expected. The supposedly racial comment, which always seemed the least plausible of the charges, was not substantiated. In a heat of rage, he did indeed loudly confront Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Board Chair Mike Miernicki at the Duluth East graduation in June, demanding to know why his partner, Jane Bushey, was being shuffled off to a different school. Having seen Johnston’s episodes when particularly incensed by Board proceedings, this is entirely plausible. It is out of line, and makes it easy to understand others’ discomfort in him. Is this bit of discomfort enough to supersede the will of the voters and axe a man from the School Board? That seems extreme.

We’re not done yet, though. The most interesting of the charges coming out of this is the alleged conflict of interest, in which Johnston sat in on many meetings on Bushey’s behalf. It was never entirely clear if he was there a school board member or a spouse, leading to some very understandable discomfort. Harry Welty, Johnston’s erstwhile Board ally, claims it would have been easy for the District to pitch Johnston from these meetings if it so desired; while true, this does not justify Johnston’s actions there.

We don’t have the full account, and may never actually have it. I’ll agree with Welty that the investigating attorney does indeed seem to have her narrative wrapped up awfully tightly. On the flip side, I’m not nearly as skeptical of her professionalism as Johnston’s defenders, whose willingness to believe the worst in people knows no bounds. (It’s been a while since I’ve been accused of having an overly rosy view of humanity.) The self-styled defender of truth in Duluth and his staunch allies remain incapable of getting out of the cave in which their truth exists.

Still, in the end, I’m left exactly where I started when these accusations first came out. I remain sympathetic to Johnston’s willingness to raise serious questions and (based on what I know) would not vote to remove him, but believe he himself has become too toxic to ever be an effective voice for his cause. This is bigger than him, and while the board’s majority may not act justly and should face the consequences at the ballot box, any defender of fiscal sanity or underrepresented voices should also be ready to move on. Johnston’s mediocre accusers may be the ones pulling the trigger, but he handed them the gun all too willingly. I am left only with a few questions for everyone involved, save Johnston, as my experience suggests he is unwilling to listen to somewhat divergent viewpoints, even when carefully qualified. (Nor do I really blame him for lashing out at this point in the saga; what else is he supposed to do?)

To the board majority: is this worth it? Let’s say you do go through and axe Johnston. What comes next? The fight for his cause will go on, you know. Don’t kid yourself; there will be some blowback, no matter what. He has a loyal following and a mouthpiece in a weekly local paper in Loren Martell. Do you really want the next election to be a referendum on this decision? You may find Johnston obnoxious and tiresome, and at times terribly wrong, but is a single voice in the wilderness really a serious threat to your agenda as a board member?

To Harry Welty: well, it’s pretty much up to you to try to get as many answers as you can during the hearing on December 2. Still, let’s say the Board does go through and remove Johnston. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Do you really want to escalate this war, with so many pressing issues at stake in the district? Obviously justice is a worthy ideal, but it also runs the risk of turning into a hopeless circus act. Think Mike Randolph 2.0, since I know you weren’t too fond of some of the perhaps unexpected consequences of that whole affair. Tread carefully.

***

I’m not naive. I know politics is personal, and that it will inevitably lead to results like this. It’s part of the game. But, as I sit here watching things go up in flames in Missouri, it puts things in perspective. For all the madness, for all my acceptance of messy reality…there are situations that just cry for someone to rise above it all. Neither of the men detailed in this post ever did so. I don’t expect it, but the Answer to Everything does allow for it, from time to time. Perchance to dream.

A November Weekend in Duluth

9 Nov

I made it back up to Duluth this weekend for the first time since my August departure, just in time for the first dusting of a snowfall. It’s coming. The city looks resolute under the steely November sky, and even in a short absence there are things to get excited about. The Maurices headquarters is going up, with the new downtown transit center soon to follow, while my old running route along Seven Bridges Road is open again; out in Lincoln Park, Frost River Trading Company, in conjunction with Bent Paddle Brewing, is buying up some property with the hopes of rehabilitating a dreary stretch of street that nonetheless has great potential. Ah, the transformative power of beer.

Here are a few things that came up amid a weekend of schmoozing and perusing the local news:

Linda Krug Steps Down. City Council President Linda Krug resigned from the Council presidency on Thursday, sparing us a fight over her possible forced removal. I applaud her willingness to take one for the team and avoid that sort of drama, and her acknowledgment, however halting, that she’d erred when she shut down Councilor Julsrud at the previous meeting. That can’t have been easy, and hopefully that puts this controversy to rest. Emily Larson now takes over the top spot for the remaining four meetings this year, and will presumably be elected to serve for the whole of 2015 as well. The vice presidency is now vacant, so we’ll see who steps forward to become next in line. Councilors Julsrud and Filipovich appear the likely candidates.

The Art Johnston Investigation. An investigation of the alleged abuse by the polarizing school board member has finally produced a document, which is not available to the public. Harry Welty, predictably, is unimpressed. His account says attorney Mary Rice more or less allows calls the charges against Johnston plausible, without quite going so far as to endorse them fully. The rest of us are left waiting for other sides of the story, which we probably won’t ever get. It’s now up to the Board majority to decide if they want to act on the accusations. If they do, they probably have the votes to boot Member Johnston, but run the very serious risk of looking like a kangaroo court, and if there’s no public evidence to support their actions, it will look very sketchy indeed. That will inevitably be very ugly and a bad PR exercise. If they don’t act, then they’ll just look like they wasted a bunch of money on a lawyer for no good reason.  This whole thing is so dumb.

The IRRRB Is Getting a New Boss. This isn’t Duluth news, per se, but it certainly affects large parts of northeastern Minnesota. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (“I-Triple-R-B”), for those unfamiliar with it, is a state-level agency based out of Eveleth that has no equivalent in the country. In place of a large property tax (which would ruin mines during bust cycles), northern Minnesota mines are taxed based on production, with the proceeds going to the IRRRB. It is then charged with distributing those funds for economic development purposes, both in support of mining and to diversify the local economy. (As you might guess, those two goals can come into conflict.) Aaron Brown knows the details better than I do, but Tony Sertich’s decision to step down opens the door for some new leadership. The IRRRB can leverage incredible financial power and has some successes to its name, but it has its share of flops as well. The new director will have a chance to harness a lot of resources for good of the region, so we’ll see which direction Governor Mark Dayton goes.

Be Glad You Weren’t in Duluth in 1918. It sucked. Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dan Hartman, former Duluth City Councilor and current director of the Glensheen historic estate, on the city in 1918. Lots of young men got shipped off to war and killed, or came back to Duluth wounded and damaged. Then the Spanish flu hit in October, prompting a total quarantine of the city. The local papers kept a running scoreboard of new cases and deaths before eventually being too overwhelmed by it all. And then, to add to the fun, the Cloquet Fire broke out a few days after the flu hit, frying all of Cloquet and many outlying areas around Duluth, too. It was perhaps the greatest natural disaster in Minnesota history, a catastrophic inferno that appeared on the front page of London papers alongside World War I news. Refugees packed into a few structures, like the Armory—which is a great thing to do if you want to spread the flu even more. Yeah, it was miserable.

High School Hockey Transfer Drama. The Duluth News Tribune detailed the story of Cam McClure, a Denfeld senior and transfer from Marshall who was initially denied eligibility by the MSHSL. (Transfers who do not change residence normally have to sit out a year, but this can be waived in certain circumstances, including learning disabilities and financial difficulties in paying for a private school.) Junior Luke Dow, a Marshall-to-East transfer, is in a similar boat. This may not seem like news, and if the players’ reasons for transferring don’t hold up under scrutiny, there’s no good argument for not enforcing the transfer rule. It is worth noting, however, how rare it is for this to be enforced so strictly. Metro-area students transfer about willy-nilly with no questions asked, but in Duluth, for whatever reason, we’re seeing a crackdown this year. Either ISD 709 sucks at handling transfers, or something else is going on. Both players are fighting for their eligibility, and a ruling is expected on Tuesday. (Practice opens Monday; my preseason AA rankings, which could shift some depending on Dow’s status, will come out Wednesday.)

Seriously, Proctor? Seen on the drive up I-35: a billboard that reads: ‘Proctor. Close to Duluth, but far enough from it.’ Thanks for the support, neighbors. True, Duluth has some weirdness (witness the above political feuds), but, well…you’re Proctor. Do you really have that much to boast about? Oh well; all in good fun, I suppose. Just don’t think we’ll forget it the next time we try to annex a township that you’re coveting, too. (*Evil laughter.*)

October Duluth News Roundup

25 Oct

A quick tour of stuff that I’m following from afar in Duluth this month:

Latest Developments (Pun Intended)

The big news this week was of a new development planned at the corner of 21st Avenue East and London Road, a large apartment complex that caters to young professionals. Mixed-use apartments warm my urban planning heart, and it will be a welcome change for an otherwise rather bland, suburban-like stretch. Still, I doubt it will go up in its currently planned form: it seems awfully large for that spot, and the traffic in that area is already a bit stressed at times. I will also continue my grumbling about the boxy, cookie-cutter contemporary apartment buildings: is a little detail or nuance too much to ask for? (Perhaps I just spend too much time in Uptown Minneapolis these days, which is overflowing with such structures.) The last potential obstacle is the likely necessity of tax-increment financing to fund the thing, but I can certainly see it succeeding.

Between this new project and BlueStone, plus plans for the Lester Park Golf Course apparently working their way toward the sort of 18-holes-plus-new-houses compromise I’d hoped for, lots of the remaining developable urban space on the east side is being snapped up. Market forces (well, the market plus TIF) are clearly driving things here, though there’s some new stuff happening out west, too. The Lakewalk has been extended to Lincoln Park, and visioning events for the St. Louis River corridor are under way in earnest. There’s cause for a lot of excitement with all of this new development energy, though I’m sure there will be some clashes along the way, too.

The Mayoral Marathon Gets Under Way!

Let the succession fun begin! Northland News Center put out a long list of people who might join Howie Hanson as potential successors to Don Ness in next year’s election. It’s a very deep list, and is a who’s-who of Duluth politics. I’ll offer a handful of comments on most of them here:

Yvonne Prettner-Solon, should she enter the race, would be an obvious force to be reckoned with. The outgoing Lieutenant Governor would be the only person in the race with the status to escape Ness’s shadow. That hardly guarantees a win, and she will presumably have some re-connecting to do after four years in St. Paul. She will have to adjust to local-level administration, which is a different animal from her state legislature and governor’s mansion experience. Still, no one is better-positioned to harness the full power of the local DFL machine, if she does it right.

Among other DFLers, Emily Larson seems the best-positioned to pick up the Ness mantel. She’s similar to Ness in that she is fairly young and an upbeat, happy face for Duluth. She usually avoids controversial positions (for good or ill), and is a tireless worker. A vote for Larson would likely be a vote for continuity—and, given Ness’s success, that would put her among the frontrunners. West side state representative Erik Simonson, on the other hand, represents the traditional labor bastion of the DFL. His candidacy would test the staying power of labor in a city that is edging away from that old industrial identity, but he could also muster a broader coalition.

The list goes on. Roger Reinert has proven effective in the state senator, though I’m not sure he has the dynamism to surpass Prettner-Solon or Larson in a primary. Jennifer Julsrud is another prominent name who is playing coy so far; she has the potential to be a formidable politician, though she could perhaps use a bit more polishing on the City Council. Daniel Fanning joins Larson in the liberal optimist club, but does not have her elected experience, and someone coming straight out of Ness’s inner circle may be a bit too close for comfort. The same could be said for CAO Dave Montgomery, who is not a Duluth resident anyway. I’m not sure I see a road for Jeff Anderson out of this crowded field, either. There will be a lot of jockeying in the coming months.

Outside of the DFL, by far the most intriguing name is Chris Dahlberg. When Howie Hanson leapt into the race, I said there’s a serious opening for a west-side, fiscally conservative candidate that Hanson did not quite fill; Dahlberg might just be that candidate. The St. Louis County Commissioner, despite a lack of statewide exposure, came very close to sneaking in and stealing the Republican Party endorsement to run against Al Franken in this fall’s Senate race. His campaign for Senate was pretty much boilerplate conservatism, but that’s necessary to win a Republican primary; one would presume he knows he needs a bit more than that to win in Duluth. If he can manage a message that caters to Duluth’s particularities—a big if—he has a shot. Jim Stauber, on the other hand, is an also-ran at this point in his career.

It Wouldn’t Be a Duluth Update without Me Grumbling About the School Board

I don’t particularly feel like enduring the latest meeting, leaving me with two contradictory accounts. Jana Hollingsworth, who has covered these meetings with enviable detachment in the News Tribune, comes down pretty hard on Art Johnston for an exchange between him and HR Director Tim Sworsky. Harry Welty, on the other hand, puts all the blame on Sworsky for inciting the incident over Johnston’s marital status. I don’t see much room for anyone to claim moral high ground here. Whatever the merits, Johnston’s strong reaction only fuels the image his accusers would like to paint of him: a loose cannon, perhaps prone to irrational or even violent outbursts. Maybe that’s what Sworsky wanted when he picked at this scab, though in School Board affairs, I usually find it easier to suspect tone-deafness than genuine malice. Harry rails against the supposed lead witness against Ms. Bushey, but he seems to have already convicted this woman for an unrelated incident some ten years ago. (In general I enjoy reading Harry’s assessments of people, but once he’s formed an opinion on them, it seems like he’s unlikely to budge, no matter the evidence.) Meanwhile, the school district has yet to receive a single bill from the lawyer investigating Johnston’s alleged abuses. The saga goes on.

In case the ten billion TV attack ads relentlessly insulting your intelligence weren’t enough to remind you, we do have an election in just over a week. State and national elections are not my primary focus on here, so I won’t be writing about them half as much as I did about local ones last year. (For the most part, I endorse analysis coming from Aaron Brown.) I will, however, venture to explain why I don’t pay excess attention to national politics, and will offer up a few comments once all the votes are in. Stay tuned.

Melodrama in the Board Room Bubble: ISD 709 Notes, 7/15/14

16 Jul

When I was at Georgetown, we students made frequent use of the term “Georgetown Bubble.” Crazy as it may seem, many Hoyas don’t take much advantage of DC; it was very easy to get so caught up in campus life, with heaps of homework and extracurriculars and all of the shopping (and partying) one could ever desire within a few blocks of the front gates. The Georgetown Bubble had a tendency to make small things seem big: campus protests became people’s raison d’etre, and one could practically feel the stress in the air in the library; at the same time, people were often ignorant of the DC beyond them, and all that it encompassed.

The Georgetown Bubble, however, has nothing on the ISD 709 Board Room Bubble, which was on full display on Tuesday night. The Board Members and various hangers-on, positing themselves as saviors of the District no matter which side they were on, battled back and forth, overtly and covertly. The PR operations were in full swing, and even though long stretches of the meeting were fairly routine and even productive, I couldn’t fight off a sense of disgust with it all. I guess I’m just hoping that someone somewhere can truly rise above the fray, but I’m just not seeing it. I shouldn’t be surprised, really, but the board room drama is at such odds with so much of the other stuff going on in the district, which plugs along at a mundane rate—not a great one, mind you, but one that hardly squares with the uniformly celebratory or uniformly apocalyptic language one hears at Historic Old Central.

But, on to the meeting. This time around, we learned just how deep the bench for Superintendent was: Supt. Gronseth was in Baltimore receiving an award on behalf of the District, Assistant Supt. Ed Crawford was revisiting his roots in France, and Deputy Clerk Bill Hansen was at a family function. This left Director of Special Services (whatever on earth those might be) Laura Fredrickson sitting in the Supt’s chair on the dais. She settled for delivering the basic Supt. Report toward the start of the meeting, and otherwise held her silence.

There were four citizen speakers; Ms. Melanie Grune thanked the Board for reaffirming the tenets of civility last month, while the other three all spoke in defense of Member Johnston, who is the subject of an investigation over alleged “abuse.” The first two were eloquent and, refreshingly, posited their concerns within a broader context. Mr. James Youngman worried about use of levy money in a city whose median income is well below that of the state, and emphasized teacher development, while former Board candidate Henry Banks demanded more information on administrators’ salaries and pleaded with the Board to quit its infighting for the good of the students. He said the Board needs questions and a healthy dialogue, and recommended a local mediator in place of a Twin Cities attorney.

Mr. Loren Martell, meanwhile, once again displayed his complete lack of tact in an attempt to shame several individual Board Members for their roles in the Johnston affair and wound up doing a lot of talking about himself and the trouble he’s seen. This whole thing has become incredibly personal for him, which is both impressive (he has put in an astonishing amount of work and sacrificed a lot) and rather sad (someone please put me out of my misery if I ever allow my life to become so tunnel-visioned). It is also why he struggles to convince people who don’t already agree with him to join his cause. As always, catharsis is good fun, but if he thinks antics like that will inspire soul-searching instead of defensiveness, he hasn’t learned the first thing about human nature. His supporters hear what they like to hear (there was a burst of applause at the end), but anyone outside the Board Room Bubble just hears a ranting nutcase. This is a shame.

Once formal meeting business began, though, things were surprisingly tame—in fact, they were so tame that it seemed like everyone was forcing it and trying to act like good, model Board Members. It’s nice to celebrate the people who put in time and work on things, and many of Member Johnston’s questions do add clarity for those of us who are not in the Bubble and don’t get to committee meetings. Maybe half the time these questions and comments seem legitimate; with the other half, there’s a veneer of fakeness and a not-so-subtle agenda underneath.

As usual, Member Harala gave a thorough Education Committee report, whose highlights included an overhaul of social studies curriculum and updates to the bullying policy, both of which are required by state mandate but enjoyed widespread support anyway. Mr. Mike Cary, the new Director of Curriculum, explained some of the revisions on that front, while Member Johnston posed a favorably received suggestion to create an annual report on bullying statistics and actions taken in response to complaints. The Board will hammer out the details of that proposal over the coming month, with further community involvement—as always, plugged heartily by Member Loeffler-Kemp—along the way.

The Human Resources Committee moved along fairly quickly, with Member Johnston asking some very basic questions on wage increases proposed for hourly and substitute district employees. He also pulled item 2B, prompting a “to be or not to be” joke and a much longer quotation of “Hamlet” from Chair Miernicki. (If I may add: “to die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death, dreams of ISD 709 Board meetings may come, and there could be no worse torture.”) He used this to propose working in the same language he’d suggested in the bullying policy for the District’s anti-harassment policy.

The Business Committee report featured the discussions most relevant to the Johnston investigation, including a resolution establishing that board members are not ISD 709 employees and thus not subject to the Data Practices Act. (Pet peeve alert on the language used in the resolution: “IMPACT” IS NOT A VERB.) Member Johnston said this resolution didn’t really matter since he would have waived his right to privacy anyway, but made it clear he was “confused” by it, and why it had come into being. He said one of the attorneys retained by ISD 709, Kevin Rupp, had written opposite language in a similar case in Farmington, and demanded “immediate” answers to a series of prepared questions he had prepared for his accusers. Chair Miernicki (one of the accusers) immediately called the question, however, and Member Johnston went along with it; the question-calling and the resolution both passed unanimously. Member Loeffler-Kemp tried to get in a passive tense non-answer to the question about why it had come up afterwards (“questions were asked…”), but Chair Miernicki cut her off, too.

Member Johnston also jumped on a new insurance contract to point out that the District’s insurance might cover both his and the District’s bills in the investigation (I fail to see why this is odd?), and used this to go into a broader tangent about how “lawyer-happy” the District is. He was also peeved that no one could tell him how much the lawyers were being paid, though he was sort of, kind of promised those answers in time. Both he and Member Welty are suspicious of the lawyers being used, which is understandable to a degree, but one also gets the sense that they know very little of the legal procedure, and there are probably more tactful ways to learn about that than via questions at a Board meeting. Normally, I like the transparency here, but this is one place where a thorough, behind-the-scenes answer is much better than any political capital out of a “gotcha” one.

With the re-zoning of the old Central High site recently completed by the City Council, Member Harala had one quick question: what would happen to all of the stuff the District had stored there? (It would be sold at auction, according to Facilities Manager Kerry Leider.) Mr. Leider also fielded a series of follow-up questions on loading dock and roofing issues from Member Johnston, all of which had basically the same response: they’d been resolved at the contractors’ expense. Member Johnston, continuing with his suggestion-filled night, planted the idea of allowing citizen speakers to come forward to speak on specific issues, instead of just at the start of the meeting. That wrapped up the proceedings, and everyone was free to head back out of their little bubbles and into a beautiful summer night.

And that’s it, really. I have nothing new to say on the Johnston affair that I haven’t already said, and probably won’t until we get real answers. If it sounds like my patience is waning with all of this, well, it is. I guess I’m spending a little too much time in the Bubble myself. For reasons unrelated to that waning patience, next month’s Board meeting will be my last for the foreseeable future. I’ll probably have my own little cathartic moment and get a few things off my chest, but only for one a few minutes before moving on. There is comfort in the Bubble, with clear battle lines and villains to be vanquished, but in the grand scheme of things, there’s a much bigger district out there, one with far more compelling drama than anything that happens in the board room. Sooner or later, someone might discover that, and perhaps take a few people along to explore it as it is, and not as part of an ideological war. Perchance to dream.

Art Johnston Under Siege: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/17/14

18 Jun

With a meeting that fell five minutes short of four hours, the ISD 709 School Board endured a grueling, painful marathon on Tuesday night. I’m only going to comment briefly on the meeting at the end of this post. Part of me is very frustrated that I have to do this, and that the circus surrounding one man overpowers the interest in the far more pressing affairs looming over the District. But it’s impossible to understand everything else that happened on Tuesday night without the overall context.

That looming bit of context, of course, was last week’s headline news: Member Art Johnston is under review for alleged improper conduct. I was unable to attend the special meeting due to the frustratingly short notice given to the public, and I have some reservations about saying too much, given that my only sources of information are hearsay and a paper of which I have a rather ambivalent opinion. Still, my initial reaction was much in line with the Duluth News Tribune’s editorial over the weekend: is this really necessary?

There were eight public speakers in Member Johnston’s defense, and in addition to a lot of other noise, they put forward one key criticism, best articulated by Ms. Denette Lynch: it seemed like a very poor use of the District’s resources to investigate something that seemed like a personal dispute between Member Johnston, Chair Miernicki, and Supt. Gronseth. The majority of the group came from the familiar crowd of Johnston supporters, that curious coalition of the sincere anti-Red Plan crowd and people who are affronted by any spending on education whatsoever. Member Welty had to talk one out of displaying his large “Fire Gronseth” sign, and the crowd of Johnston supporters, numbering perhaps twenty, whooped and laughed and cheered throughout the speeches. (Chair Miernicki made no effort to stop them, which would normally bother me no matter the topic, but given the delicacy of the power dynamic at play here, it was probably the right decision. Indeed, after five months of being rather unimpressed with Chair Miernicki’s leadership, I thought he started to come into his own on Tuesday night.)

Two speakers did stand out from the crowd. One, DFL activist Brad Clifford, put forth a broader defense of minority rights and the benefits of debate and dissention, quoting several prominent liberal politicians and saying the votes of the citizens of District Four (in favor of Johnston) ought to be respected. The other was Ms. Jane Bushey, Member Johnston’s partner, whose emotional speech jived with the general outline of the Reader account. She said “lies, accusations, and assumptions” from a Duluth East administrator had led to a request that she be moved elsewhere in the district, which HR had unquestioningly accepted. “I just want to do my job,” she said, condemning the “bullies” who were out to get her. Member Johnston’s conflict of interest in the affair and “abuse related to a staff member” constituted two of the charges against him, and are apparently the reason he sought out Chair Miernicki and Supt. Gronseth for a scolding at the Duluth East graduation.

Another charge that got plenty of mention was the alleged assault, as people indignantly wondered where the police report was. The problem here, I gather, is the awful legalese used in the accusations. In my reading of the charges, no one is technically accusing Member Johnston assault. He’s being accused of something that falls under the umbrella of “alleged assault or otherwise improper conduct.” Ditto for the “racist” accusation: the complete claim is “alleged racist or otherwise improper comments.” These are horrifically worded categories that—I presume—make the accusations sound far worse than they actually are. Knowing what I do of the incident, Member Johnston is accused of the “otherwise improper” actions. Any other claim couldn’t stand on two legs, and I doubt Supt. Gronseth and Chair Miernicki are dumb enough to push that far. Instead, they thought highly charged comments and apparent conflict of interest were enough to cross the line and launch the inquest.

The “otherwise improper” categories are obviously a legal grey area. Without knowing more, I still stand by my initial assessment: this seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, drags out old fights in the negative PR, and works against the general trend of the past few months, in which Member Johnston had been more agreeable than in the past.

Still, two things struck me over the course of this meeting: the number of times that I agreed with the thrust of Member Johnston’s questions and comments (which was fairly often) and the fact that, in spite of that, he still had me cringing in exasperation every time he turned on his light. Before the meeting, I had some pre-written language ready that would have mounted a much more vigorous defense of his rights. But, after Tuesday’s display, I had to throw it out. I cannot use it in good conscience.

Part of this is a style problem. Brevity is not one of Member Johnston’s strong suits. He trails on and on, repeats himself unnecessarily, and when he doesn’t get answers he wants, he will continue to ask questions, knowing full well he won’t get the desired response. He seemed to relish every such opportunity on Tuesday, thus leading to the meeting’s absurd length. It’s his way of proving a point. It isn’t uncivil, per se, but it comes across as domineering and tiresome. It lacks all perspective, and it wears people down and makes them feel like they’re being scolded. Sure, he makes occasional overtures to finding common ground, but his comments are suffused with such a lack of trust of anyone else that it’s hard to find them wholly sincere. Again, this is not all his fault, but one wonders at what point the well becomes too poisoned to be of any use.

Moreover, he has an ally on the Board in Member Welty who, despite similar voting patterns, comes off entirely differently. He’s eloquent, and manages to maintain a sharp focus on the issues that most concern him (namely, the threat of standard operating debt) without belaboring the point. A well-honed opposition message has considerable potential, and based on Member Welty’s success, might even stand to do well in elections in places other than the most anti-establishment district in the city. It just isn’t correct for Member Johnston to act as if he is not part of his own problem.

Member Johnston’s failures don’t absolve the rest of the Board of its shortcomings. On Tuesday night, it came to light that he and Member Welty were having trouble getting things on the agenda, while majority Board members were not. While the Administration deserves some leeway in agenda creation if the items in question have already been beaten to death, the “minority rights” argument does pull significant weight. I voted for Harry Welty; I like good debate and serious questions. I do find it frustrating that the Administration can’t answer all of his questions, particularly the ones pertaining to the District’s long-term finances. He needs some people to work with him.

Sadly, the only one he has right now is someone whose personality has grown so large that it overwhelms everything else that happens. Despite the loss of an agreeable vote, I suspect Member Welty might actually be able to make more headway without the specter of Member Johnston’s outbursts looming over the Board. Member Johnston may think he’s shedding light in dark places, but in the end, his relentless questioning only serves to obscure the most pressing issues. He has got to learn how to choose his battles. His reaction is a microcosm of the whole anti-Red Plan movement that got him elected in the first place: it’s an eclectic group unified only by its opposition to something, and when it finds itself stonewalled by an imperious majority, we’re left with a lot of cathartic primal screaming that drowns out substance, leading to inevitable fracturing as everyone beats their own drums. The movement stays in the headlines, yet it achieves not a single one of its objectives. They’d rather go down kicking and screaming than be so audacious as to imagine a different paradigm. The few who hazard steps in that direction, like Member Welty, find themselves rather lonely.

In a rather fitting paradox, a discussion over The Civility Project’s nine tools of civility introduced for re-affirmation by the Board illustrated this problem best. Member Welty made a few reasonable critiques of the “subjectivity” of the whole thing, but concluded by saying he hoped it would help the District “find its better angels.” Member Johnston, after hitting a few similar notes, piled on from there, condemning left and right before attempting to haul Ms. Anita Stech, an advocate for the Civility Project, up to the podium for questioning, asking this poor woman to play judge and jury on past incidents in which he thought members of the Board had been uncivil to him. I agree that the project could be fairly empty in content if people are too locked into their views to take its points in good faith. But to expect a couple of community volunteers to wade into this mess is self-serving, and misses the point completely. (The parties in question would also be accused of partisanship the second they weighed in. Do we seriously want some self-appointed Civility Police roaming the city? Do people honestly think that would end well?) The whole special resolution was a reminder of a guideline, not a binding legal contract. (On the other end of the spectrum, Members Westholm and Seliga-Punyko raised some silly objections to Member Johnston’s ultimate attempt to include “honesty and care for other Board members” on the list, worrying about hijacking the civility people’s message. Thankfully, the majority of the Board saw that this was not worth fighting over, and passed the amendment 5-2 before the whole thing was approved unanimously.)

Perhaps this critique singles out Member Johnston when someone such as Member Seliga-Punyko is just as partisan, if not more so. She, however, has the luxury of being in the majority; she can bask in her victories without undue stress. To be an effective legislator, Member Johnston can’t just throw bombs; he needs to be able to work with his fellow Board members. To his credit, he’s tried at times. But he can’t revert to old form—not even when he gets accused of things on potentially trumped-up charges. That’s the burden of being the principled member of the minority: no matter how tempting it is to lash back, one must rise above the fray. If he can, excellent; let’s put this tiff behind us and build a better District. If not, I can’t say I’ll shed any tears if he gets the boot from the Board. He may not be the man who pulls the trigger, but he most definitely will have supplied the ammunition.

One last point: Member Johnston also seems to labor under the pretension that the incivility directed toward him is among the causes for the District’s enrollment struggles. Sure, the negative headlines don’t help, but on the list of reasons why people don’t enroll their kids in ISD 709, the plight of one cantankerous Board member is very, very far down the list. Another useful point to minority members who want to advance their cause: never over-inflate your own role in the drama. Your critics may want to make you (and not your platform) the story. Don’t let them. In doing so, you hand them the win. It’s not about you.

***

So, what did the Board do on Tuesday besides play out a drama over the representative of the Fourth District? It passed a budget, for one thing. Member Welty voted against it because of his lack of information on the long-term picture, and there was some aimless talk over whether it is better to use increased assets to rebuild the reserve fund (as Member Welty suggested) or simply injected straight back into the schools (Member Johnston). There was the aforementioned flap over how to get things on the agenda, with the majority voting down Johnston and Welty 5-2 in their effort to change things.

There was a constructive discussion in the Education Committee report on the evolving policies for students who have been bullied or sexually harassed, and Member Westholm was pleased to announce that staffing levels were the most stable he’d seen in all his years. (That’s a long time.) Member Johnston, upset with how an Administration re-shuffle had opened up the curriculum director position, voted against that particular item, which otherwise passed 6-1, and he got in his usual shtick about enrollment numbers. There was a repeat of the debate over the number of people needed to call a special meeting, with the same result as at the May meeting. Member Johnston also asked why a large number of Piedmont teachers had apparently applied to transfer schools, and Supt. Gronseth replied with a long list of reasons, from changes in leadership to opportunities in administration that had opened up. That wrapped up the meeting, a few minutes shy of 10:30. Why I do this to myself, I’m not entirely sure.

Meet Your 2014-2015 Duluth School Board

8 Jan

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.