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.

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.

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.