Reaching Zen: Duluth School Board Notes, 8/19/14

On Tuesday night, I attended my final ISD 709 School Board meeting before heading south to Minneapolis. I had a rant prepped for the citizen speaker session, but after a good day I was feeling Zen about it all and decided that it would be hypocritical to belabor my points in lashing out at Board Members for belaboring their points. At a certain point the vitriol in the room just becomes tiresome, and I didn’t want to cross that line. I’m in a good enough place that I don’t need that catharsis.

It took 38 minutes to approve the agenda at this meeting, which tells you everything you need to know about it. Member Welty tried to make two amendments to the agenda, the first of which demanded a thorough review of the soft costs of the Red Plan, and the second of which sought to insure that the District would pay any legal costs incurred by a Board Member in the event that they are investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing. I won’t rehash all of the painful exchanges, but I will offer a few conclusions on an all-too-familiar night in the Board Room:

This Board operates under a tyranny of the majority. It just does. They refuse to let Members Johnston and Welty get anything on the agenda at all. This doesn’t give the minority free reign to use any guerrilla tactic they like, but it does make their reactions more understandable, even if they don’t serve any constructive end. The stonewalling of any questions also breeds resentment, and despite the stated aims of the majority of moving past the Red Plan debate, it is a sure way to make sure the aggrieved parties do not drop their case. It’s a bad move, both for the Board’s short-term image and its long-term aims of moving past the Red Plan. They leave Member Welty, a reasonable man, with the undesirable options of submission or relentless protest.

The bunker mentality in the majority reigns supreme. It would be so much easier for the majority to fork over the information Members Welty and Johnston want, then put it all to rest. Admittedly, I am a bit skeptical of Member Johnston’s claim that he’d just let things rest if they had the conversation before voting his proposals down; his track record there is against him, and this may be why some don’t want to have these discussions. There is a lot of posturing and point-proving going on here that may or may not serve any constructive purpose, and the strict emphasis on soft costs is curious. Still, it’s a lot easier to claim the high ground when one does make a genuine effort to be reasonable. Excepting Member Harala and, on one or two occasions, Member Loeffler-Kemp, the Board’s majority has not done that.

Despite one claim by Member Welty, I don’t think the Board’s actions are illegal. They’re allowed to come up with their own ways for putting things on the agenda. (The same could be said for the decision to impose the Red Plan without a vote way back when.) It’s just a poor PR move for them to act in the way they do, and is certainly not in the spirit of a cohesive democracy.

On a broader level, the lack of transparency is disappointing, and pervades the administration beyond the complaints of two dissident Board Members. Try being a journalist looking for some pretty straightforward information ISD 709. (No, I’m not talking about Loren Martell.) Even Superintendent Gronseth’s updates often sound like canned press releases—perhaps because he is, indeed, reading straight from a canned press release. The attempt to control the narrative is way too heavy-handed.

Having the Board pay Member Johnston’s legal fees was never going to fly. It’s a noble idea, but it just isn’t done. From my rudimentary research, there is some possibility that Member Johnston could recoup some of the costs if exonerated, but that would require further legal proceedings. In the case of the Clintons’ Whitewater investigation, for example, a federal court ruled that there was a good chance the charges against them would have come up with or without the role of government representatives in bringing about the charges, and they were thus on the hook for the bill. The proposal brought forward by Member Welty was far too vague, and he needs some serious legal consultation if he wants to get a more complex version that actually would work, if that’s even possible.

Chair Miernicki is in over his head. This meeting was a painful display of inept procedure, with the Chair quickly growing flustered by the protests of Members Welty and Johnston. It is tough to watch an otherwise jolly and easygoing man get flummoxed by the criticism directed his way, and when the minority presses his points, he comes across like a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats. Given the added fact of his involvement in the case against Member Johnston, I think he should resign his chairmanship. The position would be passed to Member Westholm, who agrees with Chair Miernicki on everything policy-wise, but has yet to ever lose his calm in a meeting. This would be beneficial for the Board as a whole.

Given the persistent intransigence of Member Johnston, I admit this is a hard job to hold. In retrospect, I may have been overly harsh on Tom Kasper’s attempt to balance everything. He did a much better job of choosing his battles with Member Johnston, and because of that he usually held the high ground when they had their disputes. The same cannot be said of Chair Miernicki. He’s hurting his own case, and continues to do so at every meeting.

What’s going on at Laura MacArthur?

For a third time, an update from Laura MacArthur Elementary principal Nathan Glockle was on the Education Committee docket. For a third time, it was tabled, ostensibly because Mr. Glockle could not make the meeting. One conflict is understandable; three starts to get a little suspicious. There were legitimate concerns about the curriculum being offered at Laura Mac, and now the Board will not get an update before the start of the new school year. That’s disappointing.

For all the craziness in the Board Room, there’s a lot to be proud of in ISD 709.

I’ve noted this before, but it’s worth emphasizing again: there’s a giant disconnect between the cattiness in the Board room and the reality in much of the District. It hired 55 new teachers for this coming year. (Even with retirements and such, that’s a lot.) As usual, Member Harala brought enthusiasm to the Education Committee report, plugging great things like Head Start expansion and community gardens. Local philanthropy for the schools remains excellent. New policies on bullying, harassment, and violence went into effect; while there are some fine points there to be ironed out in each of them (for example, why has the Board requested reports on all harassment cases, but not on incidents of violence?), but this is important for accountability and building better school environments. Everyone enjoyed the presentation they’d received from the East and Denfeld robotics teams, with Member Welty in particular waxing over the bridging of the east-west divide done by the students involved. I could go on and on. These positive developments don’t necessarily make up for large class sizes and cut courses and test score gaps, but that strong civic culture will keep ISD 709 strong, no matter what lunacy the Board Members pursue. Schools are about more than test scores, and in most (though certainly not all) of those intangible categories, ISD 709 is exemplary.

***

And so I bid the School Board farewell, at least for now. Thanks to the three Board members who are my loyal readers. It’s probably not coincidental that you three are, in my mind, the most objective on the Board, and the most likely to guide it into a post-Red Plan era. My following among the Board Members was much smaller than my following among the City Councilors (which, without over-inflating my own role, is rather telling when it comes to Board members’ openness and willingness to engage citizens), but at least there was something, and I thank you for that. Thanks also to Jana Hollingsworth, my News Tribune partner in crime; I admire your ability to endure these meetings for years on end while remaining objective, and I hope I’ve given you a good outlet for some of those reactions that you can’t fit within the sometimes narrow lines of contemporary print journalism.

I’m not sure my alma mater is in a better place than it was when I left it six years ago, but thanks to some lurching progress in recent years, it’s not demonstrably worse either, and the bar was pretty high to begin with. For all the Board room madness I’m still very proud of it, and I’ll still be back to visit when time allows. Hockey season is just around the corner, isn’t it? In the meantime, I’ll leave it with the words of guest speaker Cassandra Dahnke of the Institute for Civility in Government. They’ve been said before, but they are excellent advice for the Board members: “You don’t want to be a community that falls apart because you can’t talk to each other.” Daunting as it may be, it is in the interests of both sides to come to one another in good faith, and hopefully the few that do so can build some sort of coalition. Perchance to dream.

One Last Time: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/18/14

It was a tame last night for me in the Council Chamber, with a small crowd and a light agenda. Councilor Julsrud and President Krug were both absent, meaning Vice President Larson got to assume the center seat. There was no report from the administration, and introductory Councilor comments were limited to Councilor Gardner’s celebration of summer break.

The first public speaker was Ms. Karen Lewis, who returned to the Council Chamber to express her concerns about a smattering of public safety issues, including sinkholes and other walking hazards, Park Point zoning, and a good balance in safety lighting. There was also a second public speaker, though we’ll get to his words later.

After again tabling Councilor Hanson’s proposed DECC casino, a resolution on the sale of tax forfeited properties on Park Point came off the table for consideration. As Councilor Russ explained, there had initially been much concern over the plan to sell all of the land between 13th and 16th Streets as one parcel, so the county land department had chosen to divide it up. The land will be offered at auction sometime around November, and while neighbors will not get to bid before anyone else, they will get complete information sent to them on the opportunity. Councilor Gardner added that everything from here on out will be handled by the county, which is running the sale. The resolution passed unanimously.

Councilor Fosle pulled a resolution on stoplight funding from the consent agenda, but only so that he could give a concerned constituent a proper explanation. The $500,000 to be spent on stoplights had already been funded by the existing street light fee, and even though Councilor Folse “hated” that fee, he said it was “part of the plan all along” and would increase efficiency and save money in the long run. It too passed unanimously.

A resolution approving $2 million in funding for the Wade Stadium restoration brought out the most comments, though they were all in agreement. Councilor Hanson, a former Wade employee and baseball player whose district includes the stadium, was especially excited, noting numerous possible economic opportunities. Councilor Filipovich talked up the Wade’s historical value, while Councilor Hanson sang the praises of artificial turf; Councilor Russ was disappointed to hear a scoreboard upgrade wouldn’t happen until phase two (presumably next year). Councilor Fosle was “happy the state finally listened” to their pleas for Wade money, and was pleased to learn that the tourism tax for the St. Louis River corridor could be directed to the stadium. It passed unanimously.

Councilor Gardner gave a few more details on an ordinance detailing regulations for microdistilleries, but that was it for the meeting. Councilor Sipress talked up a resolution on a Lakewalk taskforce that would come forward in next week’s meeting, while Councilor Russ shared her excitement over the NorShor Theater’s restoration. Councilor Gardner gave an update on the Park Point beach accesses, saying there were “legitimate concerns” about the health of dunes at some of the Tier Two accesses. The plans for the Tier One accesses will move forward, while Tier Two will undergo review from a citizen group. Councilor Larson praised a pair of new bike trails, Councilor Hanson plugged a possible new sports dome, and with that, my work was done. They let me off easy at the end here.

***

The second citizen speaker was me. (Props to VP Larson for asking how to pronounce my last name before calling me up.) Here are my prepared remarks:

Good evening Councilors, I’m Karl Schuettler, and as you may know, I’ve been lurking in this hall for the past year and a half and writing about your meetings. This will be my last one for the time being, as I’m heading south for graduate school later this week. I’d just like to take a moment to thank you all for your service. I’ve had my moments of disagreement with all of you, but I’ve heard insights and profound observations out of everyone here. Duluth is fortunate to have a cohesive Council that manages to think broadly, even though nearly all of you belong to the same political party. There is always room for more opinions, but this Council has a good, healthy debate at nearly every meeting, and it listens to citizens who approach it in good faith. There’s a lot to be said for that.

I’m also encouraged by a lot of what I’ve seen in this city lately. As I’ve left Duluth and come back several times, the changes that happen gradually are more striking to me than they might be to those who never leave: Duluth now seems cleaner, safer, and more vibrant, with a rich and unique local culture taking off. We’ve come a long way from the post-industrial mire of the 1980s that still afflicts so many Midwestern manufacturing centers. Still, I’ve found myself drawn to urban planning not just by enthusiasm for the new developments. Sustained growth requires a detached weighing of priorities, and must also make sure that longtime residents’ mundane needs are not neglected in the rush toward the newer, more inspiring ideas. Whatever direction it takes, Duluth needs to maintain a holistic vision of city government that encompasses both idealistic planning and popular concern about the consequences of that planning. With that vision in place, the next cycle in Duluth’s history holds great promise.

Thank you, and with any luck, I’ll be back at it here in two years’ time.

***

We’ll have to wait and see about that. Thanks to the Council for its welcome and support over the past two years, and thanks to the many of you out there who I know read this. (Hey CAO Montgomery, approve that job action form for the library delivery driver position. Seriously, they need it.) I’ll do my best to keep up from Minneapolis as time allows, though I’m not nerdy enough to drop other Monday night plans to watch a webcast. For the most part it’s been good fun, and even when it wasn’t, it was enlightening. I wish the Councilors luck, hope a few citizens can pick up the slack, and beyond that, I’ll never be too far away. We’ll be in touch.