Tag Archives: bill gronseth

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.

The Duluth School Board Levy: A Manifesto

30 Sep

Disclaimer: when I launched this blog, I used its first post to say it wasn’t my intent to make this thing a call to arms for any particular cause. Today, I’m going to violate that principle for a cause that is, I believe, worthwhile. I’m going to do what little I can do to get the voters of ISD 709 to pass the operating levy that will be on the ballot this November.

Two of the biggest levy proponents out there are ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth and at-large school board candidate Harry Welty. I don’t really know either of them personally, though I sometimes read Welty’s blog and had a mini-dialogue with him last week, and Gronseth was the assistant principal at my high school once upon a time. But while both men have the same goal and seem to respect one another on some level, they are coming from radically different places.

Gronseth’s PR campaign for the levy has been relentlessly positive. A gaudy handout touting all the successes of ISD 709 came out in a recent Duluth News Tribune, and if you read it, you’d think there wasn’t much of anything wrong with the District. At Board meetings, Gronseth will acknowledge challenges, but will quickly try to turn them into opportunities for improvement, insisting the District is on the right path. I don’t think this is some cynical spin operation: Gronseth genuinely believes he can help guide this District to a better place, and that sort of positive message can be a real asset to a District trying to move past a divisive era. His pitch attempts to show the voters of Duluth that the District is moving past the Red Plan rancor, and that voters can have confidence in its administrators to keep the momentum going.

Welty, on the other hand, sees a rather different picture when he looks at ISD 709. His blog collects plenty of horror stories of troubles that afflict the District: a paltry general fund, sagging graduation and enrollment rates, a glaring achievement gap, classes with over 40 students, and anarchic west side schools. His campaign theme is “honesty,” which for him involves acknowledging everything that is wrong with the District, and then confronting it head-on. Without the levy, he argues, it will be near-impossible to do so. There is no scenario in which “starving the beast” leads to more sensible financial policy, and should the levy fail, the task of trying to build a decent District will take a herculean effort.

Both of them are part right and part wrong. Gronseth is right to see some real positives: for all of the turmoil, the test scores and post-secondary success of kids from the east side schools remain strong, and the recent turnaround at Laura Macarthur Elementary proves that demography need not be destiny, and that west side schools can succeed with strong leadership and innovative teaching. Having seen some truly dysfunctional public schools during my time in Washington DC, I can assure Duluth that its schools still have a long way to fall before they’re a total train wreck. But at the same time, Welty’s worries can’t just be swept under the rug; his concerns don’t come from nowhere, and as I argued last week, a longtime critic like him might be able to reach out to voters who are otherwise jaded with the District.

There are drawbacks to each man’s approach. Gronseth’s shiny packaging could easily come across as untrustworthy spin tactics, especially for voters who think the District took them for a ride with the Red Plan.  His unqualified optimism can appear naïve, and perhaps ignorant of the unfortunate but very real divisions that have sprung up over the past few years. Welty’s use of the sinking ship metaphor runs some risk of making the whole thing sound like a lost cause, especially as he repeats stories of struggling classrooms and announces his sympathies for voters who won’t support the levy under any circumstances. Both Gronseth and Welty are on to something, but neither one quite paints a complete picture.

You know what I would love to see? These two men go door-knocking together in support of the levy. It’s a naïve wish, perhaps, but these two men really do need each other. It will be hard to put a positive spin on Gronseth’s stint as Superintendent if the levy fails, and Welty has said quite clearly that his job will be a miserable one if he’s on a Board that has to make deep cuts.

There are risks for each of them. Gronseth has to admit that not everything is quite right, and while he’s done a good job of inviting citizens to learn about the levy and made himself available to speak to groups, this is a rather self-selecting approach; he’d have to go out there and meet face-to-face with people who do not like what he stands for. Welty might alienate his old Let Duluth Vote base, which includes (though is necessarily not limited to) a bunch of people who hate the notion of working with the Board so recently after the Red Plan was rammed through.

Still, if we take both men at their word (and I do), the risks are worth the potential rewards. Gronseth could prove he believes in community engagement in the fullest sense of the term, not just inside a pro-education echo chamber. Welty would show just how much he believes the good of the schools transcends any past divisions, even if it comes at some risk for his political career.

It would have been a real coup for ISD 709 if Art Johnston would have been willing to join this sort of effort. I had my criticisms of Johnston before he came out against the levy, but they had more to do with style than substance: I think he is a legitimate representative of a portion of the community that is understandably upset with the Board, and there is something to be said for holding true to one’s convictions. In the moments when Board debate ranges away from Red Plan affairs, he has come across as a well-informed, thoughtful man who raises some real questions. His stint on the School Board had real potential, and for a moment at the August meeting, when he found it within himself to praise Gronseth for putting the levy to a vote and noted how significant it was that the two of them had found common ground, I thought he might yet fulfill that promise. He could have transcended the pettiness of some of his critics, and such an act of humility might have bought him some good will in the eyes of other Board members, leading him to perhaps actually pass a thing or two. He could have even upped his odds for re-election, as he would’ve had an answer to the biggest criticism thrown at him: that he is too intractable, too zealous in his pursuit of purity, too willing to alienate people who were willing to work with him if only he’d concede a tiny bit of ground. (And I’m not just talking about Gronseth here; I’m talking about people like Welty and Loren Martell, with whom he has plenty of views in common.) Alas, Johnston has allowed his distaste for some small tax increases to overpower any desire to work with others, even though (according to Tom Kasper) he once thought those taxes might be necessary evils in order to stabilize the district’s general fund. Looking at the likely composition of the next School Board, he is doomed to remain a voice in the wilderness, even if he is re-elected and the levy fails. He will have been proven correct, but is that really any consolation to a man who truly does care about the fate of the schools?

So, there is my plea to the individuals most able to sway voters to the ‘yes’ side of the levy, if they so choose. Let’s see some real leadership here. I’ll try to do my part. I’m going to write a letter to the News Tribune that will make my pitch for the levy the only way I know how, with a story of my love for the schools that gave me a world-class education, and my sincere wish that, should I someday raise a family here, my children can have as good a time in Duluth public schools as I did, if not a better one. I’m going to email this post to Gronseth and Welty, and even Johnston. (What do I have to lose?) I want to believe in Duluth’s future. Is anyone with me?

Gronseth’s Gambit: The School Board Will Let Duluth Vote (Meeting Notes, 8/20/13)

21 Aug

On Tuesday night, I joined a horde of wilting Duluthians in the Board Room. Historic Old Central High School has no air conditioning, and even though the temperature cleared ninety, the room was full of red-faced people. Many of the school board candidates and usual suspects were lurking around, and several hijacked my normal spot by setting up their own video cameras, forcing me to a sideline seat by the media. An MIA Member Cameron apparently fled to the beach, while Member Johnson celebrated the weather with a Hawaiian shirt, and the middle five people on the dais were color-coordinated in light blue shirts. The mood at the start seemed light, with Member Johnston sharing a joke with Superintendent Gronseth, but with a major debate about which levy options to send to voters on the table, the ending was certain to be different.

For once, Member Johnston did not have a beef with the previous meeting’s minutes, and the District moved on to celebrate the installations of educational gardens at a number of schools. After that, it was on to public comments, and the first four speakers were all candidates in the upcoming election. The first was the only real newcomer to Board affairs, at-large candidate Joshua Bixby, a middle-aged, well-polished man with salt-and-pepper hair who looked like he was fresh off a round at the country club. (Surprise! he lives in Congdon Park.) He asked the Board to support a voter-approved levy in order to restore trust, voiced his pleasure with the dialogue at a business committee meeting, and made the sensible suggestion that standing committee meetings be opened to the public, as Board members often have their minds made up by the general board meetings, rendering public comments nothing but a “moment of catharsis.”

Next up was Mr. Loren Martell, who sounded far more coherent than usual and celebrated the Superintendent’s recommendation that the levy appear on the ballot. He took a shot at Student Member Thibault, who was quoted in a recent News-Tribune article as saying the District should impose a levy without a vote, and grumbled about the civics lessons the Board must have taught him. Mr. Harry Welty came forward next, and in a display that can only be described as Harry Welty-ish, attempted to have a dialogue with Superintendent Gronseth involving head signals, was left confused by the Superintendent’s response, and trailed on in support of a vote on the levy. Ms. Marcia Stromgren rehashed her normal litany of complaints, and Mr. Tom Albright, a volunteer pushing for the passage of the levy, thanked the Board for its thoughtfulness.

The Board then breezed through Education and HR Committee business in record time. Sup. Gronseth gave a progress report on construction at Congdon and Myers-Wilkins Elementaries, and said he had shut down his office today after temperatures cleared ninety. Member Johnston, delivering the Education Committee report in Member Cameron’s absence, said the Committee had looked at pictures of blizzards during its meeting to try to keep cool.

When the Business Committee agenda came up, Member Johnston again broke several issues off from the rest of the agenda for separate discussion and vote. First came some funding for online programming for students who are homebound or at the alternative high school; he wanted to make sure the funding had been pre-allocated, which it had, though only as an estimate. Member Westholm pressed District staffers on the possible fuzziness of online education, and asked if there were models for the program; Assistant Sup. Crawford and Unity High School (the alternative school) Assistant Principal Adrian Norman responded by painting a picture of an interactive program tailored to fit each student’s needs that will be carefully watched in its pilot year. Satisfied, the Board approved the Virtual Schools contract and some AmeriCorps funding, 6-0. After that came the usual complaints by Member Johnston over change orders; he groused that they were voting on projects that had already been started or even completed. Member Seliga-Punyko insisted that the Board did indeed approve these projects in April, and asked if Member Johnston would have them tear up the sidewalks and playgrounds now. Member Johnston insisted that he was simply making a point that this “is not the way you do business,” and was the lone vote against the change orders.

After that, it was on to the main event of the evening: the levy plans. The School Board had three options to vote on:

1. A $300 levy imposed by the Board without a vote, which would also lock down $1.1 million in extra state aid.

2. An existing $212 state equity levy for larger districts, which could either be tabled indefinitely (effectively re-approving it), or rejected.

3. Two ballot questions in the November election, the first of which is a $600 levy that would match the current operating levy and also include (as part of the $600) the $212 equity levy, and the second of which would raise the levy another $200. The passage of the first leg would guarantee the $1.1 million in state funding, but its failure would cost Duluth the entire package, aside from the $212 equity fund (assuming it is not rejected).

The imposed levy was up first, and Member Seliga-Punyko took the stand to make a case that summed up her six years of work on the School Board. It was, effectively, an argument for representative democracy, and what she saw as the school board’s right to do whatever it thinks is best for the district, regardless of public opinion. She listed off a number of other bodies (some elected, some not) that can raise taxes without voter input, and asked why school boards are held to a different standard. “Why would you put the district in jeopardy?” she asked, shuddering at the thought of cutting $7 million in funding if the $600 levy were to fail at the ballot box. She envisioned a District in which all arts and athletics are gone, with 50-plus students in every classroom, and insisted that students came first; the issue was “not about the confidence of the voters, but being a responsible governing body.”

Student Member Thibault echoed Member Seliga-Punyko’s comments, while Member Miernicki respectfully disagreed. There was much confusion about the language of the resolution, freeing Chairman Kasper to deliver the line of the night: “we’re muddled in bureaucracy. Imagine that!” Sup. Gronseth told of his meeting with state legislators on Monday, which left him encouraged that lots of people are on the same page, and he said Duluth needs to move past its past issues and have hope and faith that the community will support it. (The words “hope” and “faith” were thrown around so often tonight that I wondered if I had perhaps accidentally wandered into an Obama rally.)

In a moment of rare agreement, Member Johnston thanked the Superintendent for his words, and offered his support for the ballot measure. He said that imposing the levy would jeopardize later motions and increases, and was responsible to students, taxpayers, and District staff over the long-term. He said it was “symbolic” that he and the Superintendent could agree on this. Chair Kasper agreed, admitting it was a big risk that he did not support lightly, but insisting that responsibility had to be given back to the taxpayers. The imposed levy failed, 5-1, with Member Seliga-Punyko the lone vote in favor.

The meeting degenerated from there, as the discussion over the equity levy swiftly became a mess; no one really knew what was going on. Members Johnston and Miernicki misinterpreted Sup. Gronseth’s intent, leading the Superintendent to hastily try to explain it all: the measure is not board-authorized, but state-authorized, and tabling it would accept the funds, not delay a decision. Member Johnston said that accepting this funding would “confuse” voters, make them think the Board was raising taxes, and “was a sure way not to get this money.” Member Seliga-Punyko lashed out, claiming this was “an excuse” to vote ‘no’ designed by people who are trying to bring down the levy,” “including a Board member.” Member Johnston asked that Chair Kasper reprimand her for impugning him, which he did. Member Seliga-Punyko also asked why this was even up for a vote, which Sup. Groseth answered by saying that it was the only way to have a debate about it. The normally quiet Member Wasson did her best to cut through the confusion and get the simple message: this is not a tax increase, and merely a stopgap to guarantee a few dollars if the levy does indeed fail at the ballot box. Over Member Johnston’s “begging,” the Board approved the equity levy, 5-1.

Angered, Member Johnston voiced his displeasure when the Board opened discussion on the 2-part ballot measure levy. He said the $212 equity levy “does nothing for us,” and thought the confusion of a two-part ballot question would only be “another nail in the coffin” for a measure that faces an uphill battle. He tried to peel off the second question so as not to “muddy the water,” but the rest of the Board voted against him. Member Wasson asked Business Services Director Bill Hansen if the explicit line “this is not a tax increase” could be put on the $600 levy, but was disappointed to hear a “no” in response. Member Johnston continued his parliamentary wrangling by announcing his support for the $600 levy despite the fact that he would abstain from the vote to put it on the ballot due to his opposition to the additional $200 question. After the meeting, Member Seliga-Punyko could be overheard doubting his good faith. The measure passed, 5-0.

Next up was a state-funded bond, and although the bond before the Board had nothing to do with the District’s credit rating, Member Johnston rolled out a series of quotes from Moody’s Analytics’ recent decision to downgrade the District to perhaps the lowest rating in the state. His point really was a good one: the bond downgrade is a real issue, and does indeed show that some of Member Johnston’s concerns over the years were well-founded. But when Sup. Gronseth reiterated that the District’s rating had nothing to do with the bond in question, Member Johnston yet again had to get in the last word. There is no such thing as a time and a place for Member Johnston: he must make his own righteousness clear at every turn, an act that is, frankly, the epitome of “muddying the water.” Nothing is made clearer by interjecting on every single point and going off on tangents, no matter how much they may prove him right; even though he usually adds the necessary caveats, discourses such as this one are not the mark of someone genuinely concerned about the District. They are the mark of a man trying to score political points for his platform so that he can tell people he was right. He claims to support the levy, but will claim vindication if it fails; he insists the public is well-informed about Board matters and will see through the confusion, but no one did more to advance the confusion than he did.

By the end of the meeting, the heat of the discussion and the room was driving everyone nuts. When Member Johnston belabored one particular point, a red-faced Member Miernicki threw his head skyward in exasperation. Chair Kasper twice announced there were no more lights lit and moved to a vote when other Members’ lights were quite obviously on; upon being shot down, Member Wasson shook her head and sighed as if to say “to hell with it.” Chair Kasper’s request that Member Johnston clarify a statement led to an obstinate “I said what I said” from Member Johnston. Member Seliga-Punyko’s mumblings were audible from my seat in the audience. Once the Board moved on to less contentious issues involving election judges and such, Member Miernicki began to second measures before they had been read in their entirety. Chair Kasper told the Board he has “four months and nine days” until his term is up, “not that he’s counting.”

In spite of the dysfunction, the winner of the meeting was Sup. Gronseth, who kept his composure as all of his proposals passed. We will have to wait until November to learn how real that victory is. He avoided the easy way out—Member Seliga-Punyko’s path—and has staked his legacy on the $600 levy. If it passes, the District is in decent shape, and he is the man who moved Duluth past the Red Plan rancor and into a new era in which things might actually get done. (The $200 extra levy is a cherry on top, and while I will support it, I don’t have a lot of faith in it.) If it fails, the losses will be catastrophic, and no one’s hands will be clean. Not Member Seliga-Punyko’s: even though she tried to avoid this path, her support of the Board’s past heavy-handed tactics will have come home to roost. Not Member Johnston’s: while he may try to say “I told you so,” his behavior has always prioritized his own purity over any sincere care over the direction of the District, and his endless parliamentary nitpicking did nothing but cloud matters further. And certainly not Sup. Gronseth’s, whose chumminess and leap of faith will appear naïve.

I’m on my knees in prayer already.

Art Johnston vs. the World: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/18/13

19 Jun

For whatever reason, this very old post still generates a lot of traffic. My thoughts have evolved some since. For my more recent posts on ISD 709 affairs, check out the school board tag here.

In my continuing coverage of local politics, here is an account of a recent Duluth school board meeting.

First, some background information: in the face of declining enrollment, Duluth launched a huge school consolidation and reconstruction project, the Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), colloquially known as the Red Plan, in 2007. Most people agreed something had to be done; the debate centered on how to implement the changes, and quickly spiraled into bedlam. The LRFP was highly controversial due to its large price tag and because it did not go to a referendum. (It is my understanding that the school board is by no means required to hold a referendum, but many citizens were so upset with the size of the measure that they thought it constituted an attack on the democratic process—and now, years later, there are still people who come to each school board meeting to berate its members.)

The school board pushed the measure through just in time for the economy to crash. Many of the shuttered schools remain unsold—buy yourself an old high school on Craigslist here!—and the district has failed to meet its enrollment projections. But far more significantly, anger over the LRFP has been a major factor in the failure of several school board levies. Class sizes have skyrocketed into the 40s, teachers have been axed, and a number of students have open-enrolled in neighboring districts. While the large class sizes are not okay, I do think the apocalyptic views of Duluth schools taken by some critics are over-the-top; the facilities are indeed excellent, the curriculum is still fairly strong, there are many great teachers and administrators who haven’t gone anywhere, and Duluth East, at least, still seems to send just as many (if not more) kids off to top-end colleges. But all is not rosy in ISD 709, and Tuesday night’s circus before the Board revealed a community still torn apart by a nearly-complete process that began six years ago.

It was a fairly full house for the meeting, which is held in what appears to have once been the cavernous cafeteria of Historic Old Central High School, a building that now houses the district’s administration and several alternative learning programs. (HOCHS is not to be confused with the Unhistoric Old Central High School, the one that is now for sale.) All seven school board members were on hand, along with Superintendent Bill Gronseth and the two non-voting student members, one from each high school. Seven of the ten people seated at the front of the room wore glasses, of which Member Westholm won the hotly contested award for the most professorially-perched spectacles.

In the audience, ten to fifteen of us had no obvious business before the Board; our number included school administrators, candidates for the Board in this fall’s elections, and the media. A handful of people who had been first incensed into action by the LRFP were on hand; whatever the merits of their initial critiques, their presence now seems to be little more than an exercise in self-righteousness, their shtick so exhausted that one must struggle to take them at all seriously. (At one point, I thought Silly Hat Lady had actually let a worthwhile suggestion slip into her endless bloviating, but when the topic in question came up in the Board’s discussion, it was clear they were already miles ahead of her.)

About twenty people dressed in red were there to support the clerical workers’ union, and their leader made an impassioned plea on behalf of the district’s overstretched secretaries. But the most visible and vocal crowd in the hall, their number somewhere around 25, was on hand to decry the decision not to retain Ms. Leea Power, a school principal.

Ms. Power had moved her family to Duluth the previous summer, and after a year working at the alternative high school had been appointed principal of Piedmont Elementary. Roughly a week later, the Board turned around and made a motion to terminate Ms. Power’s contract. The reasons, which went unsaid until after the Board voted to cut Ms. Power due to data privacy regulations, included issues of communication, leadership, time management, learning attitude, professionalism, and building trust. Her supporters, naturally, disagreed. But there was an added element that fueled the debate over Ms. Power: she is black.

Without going through the whole racial history of Duluth (a topic on which I am no expert, to be sure), it is safe to say that African-Americans face some unique issues in an otherwise very homogenous, white community. At one point, Member Johnston said the racial achievement gap in Duluth is one of the largest in the state of Minnesota, and that Minnesota’s gap is the largest nationwide. It is rare to find a black person in a prominent position in Duluth, and a number of audience members saw Ms. Power as a much-needed African-American in a position of authority. Of Ms. Power’s supporters, all but three or four were black, and their lead speaker, Ms. Sharon Witherspoon, quoted Martin Luther King several times. Member Cameron, the lone African-American on the Board, said she thought many of Ms. Power’s alleged shortcomings were correctable, given proper training.

The longest plea on Ms. Power’s behalf, however, came from the white man sitting at the far end of the dais, Member Art Johnston. Member Johnston, an older man whose hair style suggests he enjoys going for long walks along the lake before Board meetings, was one of the members elected immediately after the LFRP rancor, and his opinions on his colleagues seem to range from bitter frustration to outright contempt. In his three-plus years on the board, he has perfected the art of making a scene. He claimed the accusations against Ms. Power were full of “hearsay and contradictions,” produced a ream of letters supporting her, and ripped through a list of procedures he believed the district’s HR Department had violated. The HR Manager, Mr. Tim Sworsky, described his accusations as “appalling” in their ignorance of HR processes, and Member Johnston fired the charge right back at Mr. Sworsky. He predicted lawsuits, NAACP involvement, and called Superintendent Gronseth’s letter recommending Ms. Power’s dismissal “pretty pathetic.” He finished by saying the Board was “destroying this person’s educational career” and said the “looks in people’s eyes” as they debated the topic were “very concerning.”

One of those people with a troubled look behind his glasses was Member Kasper, who struggled to find the words to explain that he supported Ms. Power’s dismissal; though he did not do so lightly, he trusted the Superintendent’s judgment. Member Cameron, while not endorsing all of Member Johnston’s rhetoric, said the HR Department practices needed some work. No one else said a word. The Board voted to terminate Ms. Power’s contract, 5-2, with Members Johnston and Cameron providing the opposition. The ball is now in Ms. Power’s court: will she move on from Duluth, or will she pull a Mike Randolph and fight?

The Board went on to recognize a west side elementary school that improved its test scores markedly, and Member Johnston had fun slowing down the proceedings to point out any number of bylaws that were in danger of being violated. (While I certainly do not condone the violation of bylaws, the notion of choosing one’s battles seems to have no place in Member Johnston’s worldview. His obstructionism drowned out his most salient criticisms, and made one wonder if he has at this point simply resorted to disrupting as many things as he can.) There was a healthy, consensus-building discussion about possibly closing the high school campuses during lunch hours, in which the student Members played their largest role of the night; it was a rare moment of constructive engagement by everyone up on the dais, and the sort of dialogue one wished one heard more often at local board meetings.

The meeting concluded with the consideration of the budget for the upcoming year, and Member Johnston was once again at the top of his game. He harped on several change orders to a handful of ongoing LRFP projects, and insisted that any savings from the LRFP should be put directly back into classrooms, rather than paying off long-term debt created by the facilities plan. He noted that he has never voted to cut a single teacher, and claimed the Board could reduce class sizes “right now” if it wanted to.

Superintendent Gronseth was the only person to respond to Member Johnston’s charges, though he said he was “at a loss” over where to start, since he disagreed with Member Johnston on so many fronts. Many of the issues, he said, had been belabored to death, and he said the District was slowly moving in the right direction, particularly when given the impending repeal of many state-level mandates. All parts of the budget passed, 6-1, with Member Johnston being the lone ‘no’ vote. Member Johnston concluded the meeting by asking why Superintendent Gronseth had not responded to a past request for some sort of follow-up, and asked if he would like the state to weigh in on the issue. The Superintendent paused before quietly replying that his door is always open.

It would be easy to dismiss Member Johnston as a lunatic on the fringe, which is exactly what his colleagues seem to have done. But it was hard to fight the notion that, if not for Member Johnston, the Board would simply be a rubber stamp machine. Perhaps there is greater debate behind the curtains, but one wouldn’t know it from the meetings, and the other Members may not be aware of how opaque their processes can seem to the rest of the city. Whether justified or not, the LRFP process did damage the Board’s image, and the Board’s reaction appears to consist of ignoring this fact rather than doing anything about it. Half of the Members were basically mute throughout the controversial proceedings on Tuesday night, giving little indication of how they arrived at their votes. I understand their hands were tied somewhat by the Data Practices Act when discussing Ms. Power, and that many of Member Johnston’s complaints over LRFP money have likely been rehashed time and time again. But at this meeting, only a few people tried to defend their agenda. Member Seliga-Punyko rightly noted the long-term declines in district enrollment that long predate the LRFP, but it would be naïve to claim this is the sole reason for Duluth’s current bind. Superintendent Gronseth also made some effort to counter Member Johnston, but—with all due respect to the Superintendent, who was an assistant principal at East High when I was there, and about whom I have heard nothing but praise from observers other than Member Johnston—he needs to expand beyond his arsenal of education platitudes if he actually wants to convince anyone. The District needs a much stronger sales pitch, and needs to have the courage of its conviction to refute every little point Member Johnston makes. Otherwise, even those of us who are skeptical of a man who seems to be nursing a longtime grudge will wonder why the Board refuses to counter him, and whether he might be right about a thing or two.