Duluth’s Comings and Goings

I cycled through Duluth this past weekend, and while I couldn’t hang around long enough to attend all the inauguration festivities, yesterday marked the transition from one set of elected officials to another. Whether this means the start of a new era is probably an entirely different story, but for now, we can dream (or lament, or shrug indifferently, as we see fit). It’s been some time since I covered many of these people regularly, but I’ve been keeping up from afar, such as I can, and have a few final words. (Initial reactions to the election are here and here.)

The ISD 709 school board, my favorite hobbyhorse, saw some serious turnover, as all three incumbents retired. Nora Sandstad, David Kirby, and Alanna Oswald all enter the board sounding all the right notes about moving past the old divides, and now have a chance to prove it. Given the radio silence in recent debates and even on Harry Welty’s blog, it seems like there’s a cease fire in place for now. Whether this becomes a lasting peace is a different story, but I’m more optimistic than at any point in the past eight years.

As always, I’ll say a few words about the outgoing members. One, Judy Seliga-Punyko, leaves after two terms as the great champion of the Red Plan. She nursed it through countless political wars, left her own mark on it with advocacy for swimming pools, and led the internal effort to bring down Art Johnston. While that part of her legacy may be the most obvious, she also stood up and fought for any number of issues, and would at times demand answers from the administration. Even among those who always voted for her, none of the remaining board members quite have her combative spirit, so we’ll see if the tenor of board meetings changes in her absence.

Bill Westholm always voted with Seliga-Punyko, but was in many ways her polar opposite. He often stayed quiet through board meetings, playing his cards close to his chest and speaking out only when he could make an effective point. Given his gravitas, I’d wish we’d heard more from him. He retires after one term, which is no great surprise; he wasn’t exactly speeding around the board room by the end.

Mike Miernicki also voted in lockstep with the old board majority, but his legacy is also a rather different one. The jolly Miernicki was the activities director at Duluth East during my freshman year, and hovered around the school for the next three; he always seemed an agreeable man who’d do good work for the district. His time on the board, however, tested his limits. In more peaceful times he might have been a model board member, but conflict did not suit him, and he failed to hide his exasperation and general sense of defeat. (I’m still proud of the time I described him as “a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats,” which drew praise from all sides of the debate.) It was sad to watch.

My opinions are probably leaching through here, but I’ll wrap this up by thanking them all for their service and once again praying that the new board rise above the old wars.

On the city council side of things, there’s no need for caution in the optimism: people seem genuinely excited about the new wave of energy in Duluth politics, which looks to build off the last one. Two of the six people elected last fall are familiar faces; Jay Fosle returns for a third term, while Joel Sipress begins his first full one. Elissa Hansen and Noah Hobbs continue the youth movement among the at-large seats, and bring new but distinct brands of energy. Em Westerlund follows in much the same vein in the Third District, and there’s also something very distinctly Duluth about Gary Anderson, who takes over on the far east side.

Among the four retirees, council veteran Sharla Gardner leaves after a distinguished career of advocacy for the center of the city, though I doubt she’ll disappear from view. Even if we disagreed, I admired her integrity, particularly when she stood down a mob of angry Park Pointers and defended city staff. Jennifer Juslrud, whose decision not to run again still surprises me, was a strong voice for her district, and probably has a political future somewhere if she wants to get back in the game. Linda Krug brought a strong commitment to processes to the council, and also wasn’t afraid to fight or take controversial stands. While that did at times lead to a few dust-ups, one of which effectively cost her the council presidency, she was consistent and stuck to her guns, and had the wisdom to step down when pressured.

The final figure to mention here is Emily Larson, who now accedes to the throne. As the new mayor, she’s riding a tide of goodwill and a council that should be happy to work with her. Don Ness might be a tough act to follow, but he’s also left the house in much better shape than it was. Larson certainly is primed to carry forward that energy, but I doubt she’ll move in lockstep, so we’ll see what unique twists she brings. As long as she surrounds herself with smart people and keeps the fiscal house in order, there’s no reason to expect the positivity to fade.

As for Don Ness: well, damn. You took a city that time had left behind and made me believe in it again. As is always the case, we haven’t agreed on everything, and this more jaded soul couldn’t didn’t always share your persistent idealism. But I suppose that’s exactly what made you so easy to like for so many people, and what it took to turn the ship around. You’ve left quite the legacy, and I hope you continue to build on it in your career outside of formal politics. Also, “will your new non-consulting consulting firm be hiring?” asks the kid who finishes graduate school in May.

And, lest we thought we were done with local political intrigue for a little while, the Duluth congressional delegation is due for a shake-up. Roger Reinert, who sounds quite busy with a number of ventures in his personal life, will step down from the Minnesota Senate after six years this coming fall. Erik Simonson, the current state representative for District 7B, immediately announced his candidacy for the seat. Simonson is a strong DFL figure with working class cred, so he has the political clout to run away with this race; presuming he does, the real question becomes one of who will emerge in the now open west side house district. That one, on the other hand, could be a lot more interesting.

Good luck to all the newbies. I’ll try not to be too mean when I breeze in to offer my comments.

Meet Your 2014-2015 Duluth School Board

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

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp

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

1st term (elected 2013)

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

Judy Seliga-Punyko

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

2nd term (elected 2007)

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

Bill Westholm

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

1st term (elected 2011)

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

Art Johnston

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

2nd term (elected 2009)

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

Harry Welty

At-Large

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

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

Mike Miernicki

At-Large

1st term (elected 2011)

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

Annie Harala

At-Large

1st term (elected 2013)

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

Also of note:

Bill Gronseth

Superintendent

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

Student Representatives

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

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