Washing out the Lice and Beginning Anew: Duluth School Board Notes, 11/19/13

(After the election earlier this month, why shouldn’t my title be an analogy worthy of Harry Welty?)

The lame duck ISD 709 School Board gathered for its second-to-last meeting on Tuesday night at Historic Old Central High School, and the mood was as festive as it’s ever been. The Duluth East Sterling Strings, now under the direction of the excellent Ms. Elaine Bradley, were on hand to serenade the Board members, and those in attendance were free to enjoy some watery orange punch throughout the evening. The three Members-Elect who will be seated in January—Annie Harala, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, and Harry Welty—sat in a row in front of me, chatting freely. Member Seliga-Punyko was absent for a third consecutive meeting(!?), and one of the two student members was also gone.

The atmosphere in the room couldn’t have been any different from what it was like just three months ago, when the Board voted to approve a pair of levy questions for the November ballot. Ms. Marcia Stromgren and her video camera were nowhere to be seen, nor did Mr. Loren Martell make his way to the podium; in fact, there weren’t any citizen speakers at all. During the community recognition portion of the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford congratulated Stand Up For Kids for coordinating the passage of the two levies, and there was much applause. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Supt. Gronseth said how thankful he was that Duluth had passed the levies; he also thanked everyone who was involved in their passage, and previewed some of the plans to reduce class sizes and update curriculum with the new money.

The only real issue of substance came up during the Education Committee report, and revolved around a planned revision of the District’s head lice policy. A committee of teachers and community members, frustrated with aspects of the current policy, had come together over the previous week, and handed out draft copies of their revisions. The new policy lays out clear procedures for dealing with lice, emphasizes the goal of keeping students in the classroom, and aims to de-stigmatize lice as a sign of poor hygiene or cleanliness. (They’re not.) It reminds parents that it is their responsibility to check their children for lice with the catchy slogan, “once a week…take a peek!”

The Board members were all quite pleased with their work, and impressed at how quickly it came together. From what I could gather from Member Johnston’s near-inaudible mumblings, most of the concerns he’d had e-mailed to him had been addressed. Members Miernicki and Kasper echoed his satisfaction, as did Supt. Gronseth, who added that there will be some minor edits in definitions and formatting. The Members also acknowledged the other health-related issue to come up in recent weeks—the disclosure that as many as one-third of ISD 709 middle-schoolers may not be up-to-date on their immunizations—and promised a formal policy discussion in the coming weeks.

My summary of the remainder of the meeting could have been written in advance. There were the weekly issues with trying to get people’s microphones to work, and some resolutions were mis-numbered in the agenda. The Human Resources Committee report breezed through without any issues, and the Business Committee report involved the expected objections from Member Johnston. As usual, he expressed his concerns about long-term enrollment numbers and voted against the committee report because he thought several change orders to the last few Red Plan projects were being “improperly administered.” He kept his critiques very concise, though, and the Board wrapped up its business in short order. Once it was over, the Members and Members-Elect milled about for a while, chatting with the lice committee people (there’s no way to make that sound sexy, is there?) and one another, with even Member Johnston kindly agreeing to meet some of his future colleagues.

Compared to many recent meetings, this one was an absolute delight to sit through, and I’m happy to give the Board credit here. The passage of the levies lifted everyone’s spirits, and the lice committee people were very pleased with how quickly and thoroughly the Board had taken up their concerns. For the first time ever, I’m going to break out the “good governance” tag for a Board meeting. There’s good reason for optimism with the Board going forward.

Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat my warning to the City Council: it can be dangerous to rubber-stamp everything without some debate. In many cases here I’m not even asking for that, but rather a simple clarification: for example, why is the Board “rededicating” several streets on the west side to the City? I doubt there are any real concerns about this, but I also doubt that anyone watching has any idea what this means. On a related note, could someone perhaps briefly summarize the “updates” the district receives from various people during the Education Committee meetings? Some of them do sound genuinely interesting to people who care about the district, or education in general. It never hurts to explain the thought process.

To that end, I’m considering attending the committee meetings next month; it seems like this is where a lot of the lice discussion took place, and if immunization and taxation issues are going to come up at the December meeting, it would be nice to get a more thorough briefing. Okay, I also have an ulterior motive: the East hockey team has a home game the night of the next full Board meeting, so I may need to attend the earlier session to get my fill of ISD 709 affairs. But even though I’m afraid that I do find hockey a more entertaining spectator sport than school board meetings, I’ll keep up on ISD 709 issues, and the blogging will go on. 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.