Calm amidst Storms: 10/15/13 School Board Notes and Thoughts on a Suicide at Duluth East

The Duluth School Board convened for its monthly meeting in October on Tuesday night, and went on to have the least contentious meeting since I’ve started covering them. There were very few things of major interest on the agenda, so I’ll just breeze through the summary before offering a few comments on the citizen speakers. Member Seliga-Punyko was absent for a second consecutive meeting; the crowd included a group from Piedmont on hand to receive an award, a bunch of East students watching the meeting for class credit (for whom Member Wasson ran about grabbing and autographing agendas), a smattering of candidates in next month’s election, and the usual suspects. The District took time to thank many groups in and around Piedmont Elementary for a “Set your Student up for Success Night” at the school, and Superintendent Gronseth and at-large candidate Annie Harala celebrated the success of that event and a “Walk to School Day” at Lincoln Park Middle.

The only talk on the Education Committee report related to the results of Duluth schools on their progress as measured by the Department of Education. Member Johnston had a balanced assessment, noting improvements in a number of schools but picking out Stowe as elementary as one that had dropped, and again noting the east-west divide in the city. Superintendent Gronseth, who seemed to be making a concerted pitch for the levies in his comments throughout, emphasized the improvements and said Laura Macarthur’s turnaround was obvious proof that the Administration can get good results if given the resources to do so. Member Kasper echoed his sentiments, and Member Miernicki clarified some of the scores for the public, noting that they were raw numerical scores, not percentages; a “17” did not mean the schools were in the 17th percentile.

As usual, Member Johnston pulled a few things out from the Business Committee report for separate votes, but he kept his critiques concise and didn’t dwell on anything. There was a brief and rather directionless discussion on declining enrollment, and Member Johnston expressed some relief that there were very few change orders on the Long Range Facilities Plan this time around, though he cast his usual protest vote against them. That effectively ended the meeting. If I were in a cynical mood, I could complain about rubber-stamping or wonder if Member Johnston was desperately trying to put on a new, more civil face in the last meeting before the election, but the honest truth is that there just wasn’t much of anything worth debating at this meeting. For that reason, I’m not going to celebrate any newfound civility either; we’ll see if it that holds if more contentious issues come up during the two lame-duck sessions after the election.

This brings me back around to the two critical speakers, who were two very familiar faces at ISD 709 Board meetings: Mr. Loren Martell and Ms. Marcia Stromgren. Their shtick is so exhausted that it doesn’t merit much detail; basically, contra Gronseth, they think the Board’s record does not suggest the District can be trusted with more money. For them, the Board seems to be a monolithic bloc of bogeymen instead of seven individuals who come and go, many of whom are probably persuadable as to where the money should go. Ms. Stromgren offered a very selective reading of Student Member Thibault’s anger over Board incivility at the previous meeting, leading one to wonder if there is anything she cannot spin to fit her worldview.

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There was a second part to Ms. Stromgren’s remarks that is worth mentioning without a snarky dismissal, however, as she took the District to task over its handling of the recent suicide of a 15-year-old Duluth East student. She blasted the District for covering up the suicide and refusing to talk about the bullying that appears to have caused it, adding several details about this boy’s case. After the meeting, when Harry Welty pressed Ms. Stromgren over some of the extra details she’d shared, she cited a Reader letter to the editor from the boy’s aunt that both Harry and I had read about the suicide. The letter does not include all of the details Ms. Stromgren added, which means she either has an inside source, or she is adding other things.

The letter itself does raise some real concerns, though at the same time, it goes without saying that this is an incredibly delicate issue. God only knows how the events in this boy’s life drove him to make such a tragic decision. Part of me thinks it is wrong for a woman who did not know him to make this a political issue at a School Board meeting, but if we’re to take the aunt’s letter at its word, it is hard to disagree with Ms. Stromgren’s notion that the letter asking the family to sign a statement “saying his suicide was not caused by bullying and is bad for the school and community” is tone-deaf at best. However, the aunt’s note is only one person’s perspective, and while I certainly don’t have any reason to doubt her, any ongoing investigation has to be very, very careful.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, rumor and hearsay will reign. (I’ve heard a few details that go beyond the narrative made public so far, but secondhand information on something with this much gravity will have no place on this blog.) It’s agonizingly difficult work, running about in the shadows trying to understand what happened and make sure it won’t happen again while also respecting the rights and privacies of everyone involved. I’m inclined to cut the District and the police some slack over the supposed “cover-up” and assume they’re doing all they can behind the scenes. That has to be frustrating as all hell for the family, and if you’re suspicious of anything Board-related as Ms. Stromgren is, it’s not going to be at all satisfying. If there aren’t any answers in a few months, then there may be cause for some real indignation.

For now, however, grief must take its course. My first instinct is to demand dialogue, especially for the sake of the boy’s friends, who need to make sense of this. To that end, I do think East erred if it tried to quiet any discussion of the incident. But it’s also not as black-and-white as some people would like to believe. Harry raises two key points in his piece on the issue: first, that copycat suicides do happen, and second, that the News Tribune’s decision not to cover the suicide suggests there may be good reason for not saying too much quite yet. I’ll add my own point that may illuminate the silence: if there was indeed a bullying kid, he or she obviously ought to be brought to justice, but the alleged bully is also a minor who must be considered innocent until proven guilty. It is our instinct to demand immediate action, but getting things wrong in a rush to condemn the perpetrator would be a terrible injustice to heap upon a story that is already a terrible tragedy. If rumors were to spread through the students that one among their number caused the death of another…well, just think about it.

In the end, that’s all I can really offer: a plea to think about it. Think about it from the standpoint of the boy we’ve lost, his friends, the school, the police, the family, and even a possible bully. That might seem like a frightening exercise. It is. Read the obituary. Write a check to the charities listed there. Look into those eyes. Imagine what might have been. But not for too long: the world moves on. The family may not think too highly of Duluth East right now, but East is more than a building, or its administrators, or the kids who are in it at any one time. This is a chance to leave a legacy; a tragic legacy, but one that transcends the horrors of the past and feeds into a community that can carry on with a higher mission. How are we going to stand up for Gregory Asher Nugent?

Comments on Duluth Primary Election Results

Ah, the joys of local politics: I turned on the TV to watch for immediate candidate reactions and such on the late local news, but everything had been pushed back due to President Obama’s speech. Turns out the network executives think the possibility of the U.S. blowing up some other country is more important than the fate of unserviced bond debts on city street repairs. Their loss, I suppose.

My pre-election comments on the candidates: City Council | School Board

Complete results are available here. Turnout was a bit on the low side (by Duluth standards), even for a local primary in a non-mayoral election year. You can look at past Duluth election results here.

City Council At-Large (Top four advance; numbers are percentage of vote, followed by total number of votes)

Barb Russ 35.8 (3943)

Zack Filipovich 28.0 (3081)

Ryan Stauber 20.8 (2295)

Ray Sandman 10.7 (1175)

Ray Whitledge 4.8 (525)

It’s no surprise to see Russ roll here, and with Filipovich in a comfortable second, it was a good day for the Duluth DFL. Stauber, though in third by a wide margin over Sandman, has to close a fairly substantial gap over the next two months, and as I explained in my initial comments, his campaign needs a much more polished and convincing pitch. It’s no great shock, but Whitledge struggled to garner much support, and since he was already such a niche candidate, I doubt his small number of supporters will sway the general election much. Conservative Duluthians will almost certainly unite behind Stauber now, and it will be interesting to see how much momentum they can generate, and who—if anyone—his supporters will pick with their second vote. Sandman made the cut, but has little hope of doing much else aside from conceivably playing a spoiler role.

School Board At-Large (Top four advance)

Annie Harala 25.8 (3028)

Harry Welty 19.1 (2246)

Nancy Nilsen 17.7 (2073)

Henry Banks 16.4 (1926)

Loren Martell 10.9 (1283)

Joshua Bixby 10.1 (1190)

Harala’s strong showing has her on the inside track for a seat on the Board; the margin was small enough that she isn’t a completely sure bet, but I don’t really see two of the other four finalists passing her. After Harala, it gets interesting. Perhaps it’s name recognition; perhaps it’s the strength of personal ties in a local election, but I was a bit surprised to see such a large gap between the two former Members (Welty and Nielsen) and the two insurgents (Bixby and Martell). I’d hazard to guess it will come down to a race between Welty and Banks for the second seat. Given her ties to the Red Plan, I don’t think Nilsen has a very high ceiling, nor is she likely to gain many votes from the supporters of Bixby or Martell—though, granted, she has surprised me somewhat already by finishing ahead of Banks in the primary. Banks has the DFL machinery behind him, which could help boost his turnout substantially. Welty, on the other hand, is by far the most likely to pick up any disaffected Bixby or Martell voters who didn’t already vote for him. On a night when most of the Red Plan critics didn’t do especially well, Welty had a strong showing, suggesting that the voters of Duluth did a pretty good job parsing out the intelligent critics with strong education backgrounds (Welty) from those who didn’t quite meet those standards (Martell). I ranked Banks ahead of him in my preview post, but with the semi-critical voice I supported (Bixby) out of the race, I am going to give Harry a chance to convince me. Ridiculous as he can be at times, I do think his heart is in the right place, and the Board could use a critic who is not Johnston-esque.

I voted for Bixby, but I’m not terribly shocked by his last-place finish. He’s new to the Duluth political scene, his campaign didn’t have a very big presence, and while I appreciated his nuanced stances, I can understand how some voters might come away unsure of what he actually stood for. I hope he continues his involvement in Board affairs, despite the loss. Martell, meanwhile, has been whacked in both elections in which he has run. We’ll see if he continues his monthly crusades at the Board meetings.

District 1 (Top two advance)

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 53.7 (1086)

Joe Matthes 26.0 (526)

Marcia Stromgren 20.3 (410)

As expected, it was smooth sailing for Loeffler-Kemp, who cleared the 50% mark in the primary and would probably have to get herself caught up in some sort of scandal to lose at this point. Considering the opposition, Matthes had a reasonably good showing, though his odds of moving beyond this point are low. I was most interested by Stromgren’s low total here; after all, she did garner 46 percent of the vote in the general election for this seat four years ago, albeit against an incumbent (Ann Wasson) whose hands were all over the Red Plan. As with Martell, I’d say the writing is on the wall for her future in School Board affairs. They raised their ruckus, but as cathartic as that may have been, their anger probably marginalized them in the eyes of voters who saw them as extremists. Once a person has that label, it’s difficult to shed it, and unlike Welty, neither one of them showed much in the way of political savvy.

District 4 (Top two advance)

David Bolgrien 37.6 (463)

Art Johnston (I) 33.4 (411)

Justin Perpich 28.9 (356)

The race I named the most interesting lived up to its billing, with roughly 50 votes between each of the candidates. Considering how polarizing Johnston is, the odds are that the Perpich supporters are more likely to jump on the Bolgrien bandwagon. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Johnston needed to win this primary by a reasonable margin to retain his seat, and is now in serious trouble. But as in the all the races here, it’s hard to know what increased voter turnout will do in the general election; has Johnston already hit his ceiling, or are there a lot of disaffected people on the west side who will come out of the woodwork to support him in the main event? There are a lot of votes potentially up for grabs amongst the Perpich people, and to win them over, Johnston would probably have to change his tone somewhat. I don’t think he has much interest in doing that, which means that School Board meetings could be a lot more boring come January. A lot more boring, and a lot more constructive.

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Still, this is all idle speculation: the voters will decide things on November 5. We’ll see if there are any surprises in the meantime.

I had some ambitions of trying to tie the primary results to my “Duluth’s Future” post from a few weeks back, but I don’t think the results offer anything too conclusive, so I’ll wait until after the general election. There are some possible trends here, but nothing concrete. Stay tuned.

Duluth School Board Elections 2013: A Patient Primary Primer

Primary elections in Duluth take place this Tuesday. Here’s my take on the school board candidates (city council to follow tomorrow).

For my coverage of School Board meetings over the past few months, click here.

Figure out where to vote, and which races you’re voting for, here.| Pretty map

This is what your ballot will look like.

Now, some comments on the race and the candidates.

As anyone who follows Duluth politics knows, the School Board is riven by lingering controversy over its expensive Long Range Facilities Plan (the Red Plan), which got the city a bunch of shiny new schools and a bunch of very angry taxpayers who have voted against anything school-related ever since. Opponents of the Red Plan didn’t make much headway in School Board elections, however, leaving Member Art Johnston the sole critic on the current Board. As a result, he has waged a scorched-earth campaign over the past four years, doing everything he can to disrupt the final stages of the Red Plan (which was implemented nearly in full before his tenure began).

It is frustrating to watch Member Johnston’s antics, and I say this as someone who does not want to see the School Board be a rubber stamp machine. I want to see critics; people who will make very careful decisions with the paltry pot of money the Board has to work with, look for creative new solutions, and who will question the tendency of the Superintendent and the Board’s majority to move in lockstep. The problem is that most of the existing critics are so eccentric or embittered by the Red Plan rancor that they are hopelessly disruptive, and show few signs of being able to work with the rest of the Board. That makes for good theater, but it does not make for good governance.

Thankfully, after this election cycle, the Board could very easily have only one person left over from the whole Red Plan debate (Member Seliga-Punyko, who beat Loren Martell last election cycle). Everyone else who implemented it could be gone, as could the “interesting” cast of opponents…if Duluth can come through and vote against them all. This is the easiest path to long-term health for ISD 709. Love or hate the Red Plan, it happened, and Duluth has to decide what comes next, not repeat old debates.

At-Large

Current Members Mary Cameron and Tom Kasper have chosen not to seek re-election, freeing up two seats here. There are six candidates, two of whom will be weeded out in the primary. I list them here in a rough order of preference.

In the search for a new Board member who will question the status quo, Joshua Bixby may be the best bet. His campaign website is easily the most extensive out there, and includes Mr. Bixby trailing on about issues large and small. When addressing the Board as a citizen, he came across as articulate, insightful, and responsive to public opinion. He is a recent arrival to Duluth, meaning he wasn’t even here when the Red Plan debates started, and wants to move past that while also wrestling with the financial issues created by the Plan. I’m not sure I agree with him on everything, but I think his voice is a necessary one, and could be a very constructive addition to a Board that has been anything but constructive lately.

Annie Harala is another youngish newcomer to ISD 709 politics. Her campaign website isn’t all that detailed, though at least she has one, and it does get points for prettiness. I applaud her support of “community schools”—that is, schools that emphasize a holistic education and unite the school with the surrounding neighborhoods through a number of initiatives. She looks to be a safe choice.

Henry Banks, a man best known for his radio show “People of Color with Henry Banks,” has been involved in a number of community organizations over the years, though none of them focus explicitly on education. An African-American, Banks is certainly in tune with Duluth’s serious achievement gap issues, and with Member Cameron’s impending retirement, he is the only potential minority School Board member. Beyond that, though, he’s hard to pin down; he doesn’t have a website yet (Facebook page here), and there isn’t much substance detailed there.

Even though he is not a new figure, I actually have a decent amount of respect for Harry Welty. I think he tries to assess things fairly, even if he is sometimes wrong in said assessment; he is well-informed and, tendency for hyperbole aside, seems to be a genuine person who is capable of working well with others. Sure, he has a huge ego and a talent for grandstanding, but he can also appreciate nuance and can be self-deprecating at times, too. (His long-running website will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about his life and his stances on ISD 709 issues.) I’m not voting for him in the primary, but if you think a member of the old Let Duluth Vote crowd deserves a voice on the Board, though, Harry has the strongest credentials.

Nancy Nilsen, a Board member from 2006-2010 who helped push through the Red Plan, is one I’d throw out as old news. I really don’t care whether or not she was right, or how well-prepared she is due to her work on other matters. She was a part of that whole mess, and the District needs to move on.

Loren Martell is a regular member of the anti-Red Plan crowd. To his credit, he’s done his homework on district finances, and he’s managed to get an audit of the District; I’m curious to see the results. However, even if the audit vindicates his stance, that does not suddenly qualify him to make decisions over the futures of Duluth students. His speeches in front of the Board can be painful to listen to, and that has nothing to do with their content: he rambles, casts about charges, and generally fails to sound coherent. (At the first few meetings I attended, I chose not to mention his appearances before the Board in my write-ups because I honestly thought he was somewhat “slow,” and that picking on him would be in poor taste.) At any rate, he gives little indication that he knows anything about what a school board does beyond his stance on a facilities plan that has already happened. He sounds like Art Johnston 2.0, only without Art’s penchant for good quotes. Maybe he’s been goaded into anger and incoherence due to his frustrations with the Board; not having followed Board affairs closely during my four years out of Duluth (2008-2012), I don’t know. But that frustration is the exact reason I can’t endorse him: everyone touched by that bitter debate is tainted. It’s time to move on.

District 1

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has, quite simply, devoted her life to education. She has served in just about every PTA or parent-advisory position imaginable, and as she lives in the neighborhood, I remember seeing her at just about every school function while growing up. As with all the candidates here, her platform is a bit vague, but she is a relentlessly positive person, and no one will doubt her work ethic. Judging by an informal lawn sign count, she’s the favorite here, and since I’ve supported a couple of younger, newish people in the at-large races, I’ll use my vote in my own district for someone who has a little more experience. One word of advice on the lawn signs, though: “informed” and “involved” are acceptable ways to describe a candidate, and in her case, very true. Describing oneself as “interested,” however, seems laughably self-evident. Is anyone running for the School Board really not “interested” in the position? (Facebook page here)

This district has two pretty strong candidates, though, and Joe Matthes is the other. He is a newcomer to Duluth politics, a 20-something with a couple of young kids. He is a union rep who has experience on the labor side of things, and to date he is the only candidate to leaflet my house (he lives down the block, though I don’t know him personally), and his literature hits all the right notes. (Facebook page here) I would have no qualms voting for him; it’s unfortunate he is in the same race as Loeffler-Kemp.

Marcia Stromgren is a member of the anti-Red Plan crew, and not even a terribly interesting one at that. She is good at complaining about things but offers little of substance, has no web presence, and her campaign signs appear to put emphasis on the “tax payer.” (Hopefully her efforts to save taxpayers money will not lead her to target English classes that might teach Duluth students that “taxpayer” is, in fact, one word.) On the flip side, her intriguing headgear would brighten up the Board meetings.

District 4

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

This is perhaps the juiciest race of the election cycle. As in District 1, it’s a three-way race pitting an anti-Red Plan name against two opponents, one a longtime schools activist, one a young newcomer.

It’s hard to see many huge distinctions between the two challengers here. Justin Perpich is a recent Duluth arrival with a young child, while David Bolgrien is a longtime volunteer and PTA member. Both have a pretty similar emphasis in their campaigns, as they try to bring positive messaging back to District Four. Bolgrien appears a bit more antagonistic toward the incumbent, and he also endorsed Nancy Nilsen on his Facebook page (ostensibly because she is also a west-sider, though that gives some idea of his loyalties in the Red Plan debate). Because of that, I’d tip my support toward Perpich, who also has a website here that puts a little more substance behind his campaign. Still, I’d support either one against the incumbent.

These two men are, of course, taking on Art Johnston. Here is his website, “Truth in Duluth.”

I’ve probably made my opinion on Member Johnston abundantly clear in my posts on School Board meetings. My critique effectively boils down to the same one I made of Mr. Martell: just because he has a different opinion does not mean he is well-qualified to represent that opinion. His eternal disruption has yet to achieve anything of substance, and only reinforced the bunker mentality among the rest of the Board. It is time to move on.

I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again: it’s time to move on. On Tuesday, we’ll learn just how much Duluth agrees with that sentiment.