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.

Art Johnston Prevails

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.

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.

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

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.