Denfeld’s Missing Students

Less than ten years ago, Duluth embarked on a controversial school restructuring plan. I won’t rehash the bitter debate here, but the decision to close Duluth Central High did bring one promise with it: the new, two-school arrangement would help make sure that one Duluth public high school wouldn’t seem to dwarf the other, as Duluth East so often did to Central and Denfeld, both in terms of enrollment and in academic and athletic achievement. Yet here we are in 2015: Duluth East’s enrollment has been climbing steadily higher over the past half-decade, while Denfeld’s has sagged. East now clocks in around 1,500 students, while Denfeld can’t scrape up 900. How on earth did things get so lopsided? I dove into some census data to find out.

First, though, I should start with the things that the census can’t explain in full detail. The first is the poverty rate, which, while imperfect, tends to have very strong implications for how likely kids are to finish school. I calculate the poverty rates at 14.0 percent for East and 21.3 percent for Denfeld, respectively; that’s a pretty substantial difference. Moreover, I suspect the data over-reports actual poverty on the east side due to its large population of college students; for example, the poverty rate for the Hunter’s Park and Hartley areas, which I would have guessed are among the most well-off in the city, is actually over 15 percent, or nearly triple that of neighboring Woodland. Unity High School, the District’s alternative high school option, almost certainly draws in more west side kids, further driving down the numbers. Transience, which is not well-studied, also plays a huge role, with the constant disruption in students’ lives preventing lasting commitments to schools. Simply based on its demographics, Denfeld is going to end up with fewer students than East, even if the lines are drawn to give east and west side schools the same number of students.

Moving the Line

The boundaries, of course, are not even. The current line, which heads up 6th Avenue East and Kenwood Avenue, gives a majority of Duluth’s land area to Denfeld. Even so, East’s attendance area has about 1,000 more K-12-aged kids (6,900 versus 5,900) in the area it draws from. This hardly explains the whole difference, but it certainly explains some of it. As one west-side politician frustrated with the imbalance once told me, just move the line east!

If only it were that easy. When the Red Plan was put into place, 6th Avenue wasn’t the dividing line. It was noticeably further east, at 14th Avenue East, and having it in that rough area would effectively equalize the populations (6,394 in the East area versus 6,427 in Denfeld’s). However, some people quickly noted that 14th Avenue East was the old red-lining boundary in Duluth—that is, the line used to enforce a racial zoning code that prevented minorities from buying houses on the east side. Understandably squeamish about harkening back to that legacy, the District moved the line to 6th Avenue. The neighborhoods between those avenues are among Duluth’s poorest, with poverty rates all in excess of 30 percent; the 6th Avenue line made East more diverse and gave it a greater number of low-income students. While reverting back to a line somewhere in the mid-teen avenues would perhaps be the easiest fix for the enrollment disparity, it would only exacerbate the have-have not dynamic between East and Denfeld, lowering East’s poverty rate to 10.5 percent and raising Denfeld’s to 23.6 percent.

The only alternative line-drawing method to equalize populations would likely have to go north, reaching into Rice Lake Township and perhaps beyond. It’s a bit of a gerrymander that would make for some long bus rides or drives, but it would still make some geographic sense, and has the added benefit of pulling from a fairly wealthy township with a relatively large student population. But exactly for that reason, it might prove less politically possible: hell hath no fury like wealthy members of a township who are threatened with possible contact with other types of people, especially when it comes from the dictates of an urban bureaucracy. This is the planner’s paradox, as they aim for both equity and public participation, and often find that the two are at odds.

Bad Projections?

The school district might also have incorrectly predicted future population trends. In my digging, I stumbled across a very detailed mid-2000s population projection requested by then-Superintendent Julio Almanza. In typical ISD 709 fashion, it was a total mess: upon receiving it he chose not to share it with anyone because it was “confusing,” which understandably had the School Board feeling a bit insulted, and everyone was left in disagreement and nothing got done. (Some related press clippings are at the end of the PDF.) The researcher expects a loss of over 30 percent of the school-age population in East’s attendance area between 2000 and 2015, while the rest of the city loses maybe 10-15 percent. If this seems baffling, well, it should: my calculations show that Denfeld lost slightly more between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, with both hovering around an 18 percent drop. The narrative does flip some if we use the (somewhat less reliable) 2013 ACS data; East’s decline rate increases a tiny bit to 20 percent, while Denfeld suddenly adds a few potential students thanks to growth in Duluth Heights, and its 2000-2013 decline rate is only 15 percent. Still, one data point that breaks from longtime trends is hardly vindication, and with the reports of overcrowding in east side elementaries, I remain a skeptic that this uptick in the Heights will lead to a sizable shift in high school populations down the road. Whether or not the Keith Dixon administration employed these stats in the making of the Red Plan, they do not appear to be a reliable guide.

I’m not trashing the researchers; their methods are standard and solid, and they hit all the right caveats. The thing they can’t account for is human nature. This includes internal migration trends, and the extent to which the east side remains the home of Duluth cake while the west side retains a Rust Belt stigma. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in school choice, where people flock to the “good” schools and flee the “struggling” ones. The fate of one’s own children is often where the faith of some of the greatest believers in equity goes to die—and, to an extent, I can’t fault anyone for that.

The Weakness of Boundaries

Still, if this is why East is gaining students while Denfeld sheds them, it must be coming from people who physically move; the District’s internal open enrollment numbers show only a very modest net gain for East. Marshall doesn’t seem a likely culprit for imbalance either, given its hefty price tag more easily paid by east side families. Charter schools might explain some elementary disparities, but Harbor City is Duluth’s lone charter high, and it too draws from both sides. Of course, that will change when the new Edison behemoth opens up on Rice Lake Road, most likely furthering the disproportionate whacking of Denfeld’s numbers. If it can make its enrollment projections (and this is no guarantee), it may be as large as Denfeld once the dust has settled.

The real cause of the missing Denfeld students has to be open enrollment out of ISD 709 and into neighboring communities. The only readily available numbers are from 2010, which was probably the top year for bailing on Duluth amid Red Plan upheaval, but they are stark. (I suppose I could ask for newer data, but considering the District’s record on data sharing, I might get it by 2047 if I begged really nicely.) The biggest beneficiary of open enrollment is affluent Hermantown, which is at capacity and building its own new facilities to accommodate more Duluth transplants. They alone gained over 200 Duluthians (grades K-12) in 2010, many of them from Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where some homes are closer to the Hermantown schools than they are to Denfeld. But there’s also open enrollment into Proctor, which is well over half Denfeld’s size despite drawing from an area that has at best one-quarter the population. It goes into Esko, the wealthiest municipality in northern Minnesota (yes, you read that right). And into tiny Wrenshall, practically kept afloat by Duluth flight. There’s a steady drain out of the District and into these neighboring towns, and demographic analysis has serious limits in this era of free school movement. By their nature, open markets create winners and losers; in Duluth’s case, the loser is obvious, and it is up to each person to decide if the gains are worth the costs that will be borne by the losers.

The Red Plan’s Shadow

I suspect Duluth would have lost kids regardless, but it probably didn’t have to be this way, and this hints at what is, ultimately, the most enduring damage of the Red Plan saga. It’s not the price tag; without re-opening the debate over the various plans, Duluth needed a fix, and it wasn’t going to be cheap. That, along with the refusal to put the Red Plan on the ballot, has largely blown over, as the results of recent elections show. It’s not the architecture, much as we amateur critics may complain. It’s not quite the decision to sacrifice Central, that ugly and inefficient box on an isolating piece of prime real estate, though that’s getting closer to the truth. It’s not in an exacerbated east-west divide; East’s shadow over the other high schools has always been long, and moving its boundaries further into the Hillside actually made East more economically diverse than it had been.

The Red Plan’s greatest damage came in the disruption it caused for so many students, fostering just enough chaos to drive many from it for good. The vicious cycle goes from there. It was school restructuring as shock therapy, as it took the axe to neighborhood schools and gave Duluth a bunch of pretty, hulking shells with large attendance areas. (What better exemplar of the trend than the new Lincoln Park, which lords over the west side at the top of its steep hill, nearly inaccessible by foot and drawing from Kenwood to Fon du Lac.) In a laboratory the new lines and divides would have been fine, but the Dixon Administration and its allies failed to account for how their drastic plan would disrupt families’ incentives. The old order may not have been sustainable, but the rollout of the new one was poor, especially on the west side, where students were jostled from Denfeld to Central and back to Denfeld to accommodate construction. But even now that the dust has settled, East has added students in recent years, while Denfeld dwindles. The damage has been done.

Still, the Red Plan happened, and it’s done now. Readers of my past ISD 709 stuff will know that there’s nothing I hate more than continued belaboring of that old, stupid argument. Duluth needs to hope that the surge was temporary, and not the start of a snowball rolling down a west side ridge. But more than hope, it needs action. There have been baby steps, from some of the events at Lincoln Park to the intense focus on Laura MacArthur. Perhaps if more data were readily available, it would help us amateur students of ISD 709 and lift the perceived veil of secrecy deployed by the District. Ideas like exit interviews and further studies get tossed around at Board meetings in the rare moments that people behave like adults, but those moments are frustratingly rare, and usually buried behind ledes about the dumb things people are yelling at one another. I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of perpetuating that, and would love to see other people who cover the local education scene focus on what really matters instead of the ongoing personal battles. I’m also not sure that either of those would help; while exit interviews wouldn’t hurt, I don’t think the reasons behind departure are any great secret for anyone with their ears to the ground, and the District definitely shouldn’t waste money on consultants when a lazy grad student can bang out an analysis like this in a couple of days.

What Next?

Even if the recent uptick in school-aged kids on the west side is a blip on the radar, its long-term prospects are probably the best they’ve been in a quarter-century. Duluth is shaking off its long era of decline and stagnation, and with an active focus on west side development and some large chunks of undeveloped land, there’s good reason to suspect the school-age population on the west side will grow in the coming years. The question is, in an era of high-volume student movement that is unlikely to change, can the west side schools stem the flow outward into alternative destinations? A bit more leadership from the top would obviously help, and there are certainly opportunities to better connect with the opportunity and raise test scores. There are no excuses for the District not doing everything it can.

Still, there are only so many top-down things the District can do. Fundamentally, it comes down to parents believing in Denfeld and investing themselves in a school that, traditionally, has overcome demographic destiny and built a solid community. If that goes, the school will fail. This is hardly a brilliant policy prescription, but I have some faith in it, and I think it’s the only one that can counteract the existing incentives. The solution must come from within. Otherwise, the steady losses will continue, the vicious cycle will feed on itself, and those who have the means to get out will do so. It would be a loss for the west side, a loss for any sort of belief in public education, and one could only pity the kids left behind.


A Light at the End of the Tunnel? Duluth School Board Notes, 4/22/14

Spring was in the air for the ISD 709 School Board’s April meeting; it wasn’t even dark out when things got going. (Hey, little things like that matter in Duluth.) A number of students were on hand to do their public meeting duties for government classes, and after a prolonged absence, Ms. Marcia Stromgren was back at augmenting her home video collection of school board meetings. The TV broadcast had some sound issues that required Chair Miernicki to stick a little sign up in front of his seat, but otherwise, it was a fairly routine night at Historic Old Central.

There was an unusually large amount of wrangling over the minutes, and things also got interesting when Members Johnston and Welty tried to get a review of several Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP) change orders on the agenda. Frustrated by their inability to do so, they had apparently resorted to a grumpy flyer distributed at the Business Committee meeting the previous week. An exasperated Member Seliga-Punyko tried to immediately call the question, saying the process was “déjà vu” of endless arguments over the previous five years, and that District practices had clearly been “examined by lawyers” and found proper. Only Member Loeffler-Kemp sided with her, though, freeing Member Johnston to say that he simply wanted a discussion in public, and that “people don’t have to agree with me.” Member Harala stepped in to say the Board needed to “sit down and decide how to get things on the agenda” and suggested they give the Administration time to be able to give a proper presentation on the question at hand. The Board agreed with her by a 5-2 margin, and after a brief back-and-forth with Member Loeffler-Kemp, Member Johnston decided to withdraw his attempt to discuss how things get on the agenda until next month.

Thus thwarted, Member Johnston took to the stand as a citizen speaker to explain his interest in these particular change orders. He said there were “at least five” LRFP change orders totaling at least $11.2 million that the Board never voted on, cannot be found in meeting minutes, and that six current and past Board Members were “unaware” of them. Of the $19.3 million increase in LRFP funding passed in March 2012 by the Board, he claimed that $8.7 million—a whopping 45 percent—went straight to Johnson Controls. Member Johnston announced his intent to bring these mysterious figures before the state auditor, the attorney general, and the state Department of Education. After he finished, the issue wasn’t mentioned again.

Otherwise, the early stages of the meeting were upbeat. The Board recognized the Duluth Aviation Institute for its support for science education in 6th grade classes, and Superintendent Gronseth told tales of his new acting career. He also said a survey exploring the possibility of late starts for weather delays will be going out soon, and there was some celebration of Earth Day by both he and Member Loeffler-Kemp. Member Harala took the Board and viewing public on a tour of the Education Committee report; highlights included a presentation on the District integration plan, whose funding cycle had undergone a large change; presentations on Head Start; and new policies on the process for adding athletic programs, though Member Harala lamented the lack of Quidditch among the proposed programs. The whole report sailed through without any real debate, though several Members recommended that citizens with any interest in the topics come to the committee meetings to learn more. (Okay, okay, I’ll get there someday.)

Member Welty introduced the HR Committee Report by saying they’d set a record by going for an hour and a half in the committee meeting, but with the teachers’ union contract pulled for further consideration, we were spared any such repeat on Tuesday. It too breezed through without any trouble, though one suspects that the special session to discuss this contract, tentatively set for May 1, will be a bit more of an adventure. (Member Welty, for one, has expressed some reservations.)

Two Business Committee items inspired the longest debates of the night. The first was a resolution to further re-zone and subdivide the old Central High School site so as to make it more marketable for sale. Member Johnston raised some doubts; first, he wanted to know if there had been any offers over the past three years (none, though there had been “many” conversations), and later, he worried the District might flush more dollars into the site in “pre-development” to make it more marketable. He recommended simply lowering the price to hurry the sale along. Supt. Gronseth countered that there was “no lack of interest” and that zoning and the recession were the biggest obstacles. Several Members thanked DEDA and the City for their support, while Chair Miernicki expressed optimism and pointed to BlueStone Lofts as a sign of how quickly a mixed-use development can take off and succeed. Member Johnston was on the fence until the end, but ultimately voted to support the resolution, and it passed unanimously.

Next, it was on to the monthly discussion of enrollment numbers, though this time it was more involved than ever before. Member Johnston, as usual, pointed out some losses, grumbled about the attitude of some in the Administration who seemed to not think it terribly serious, and insisted it should be an agenda item. Member Welty concurred on this last point, nodding to Mayor Ness’s goal for increasing city population as a similar ideal worth striving for. (Just so long as they didn’t cheat and try to annex something, Member Johnston added.) Supt. Gronseth pointed to some positive trends, including several projections the District had beaten and a preliminary OK for the District’s new online programs. Members Harala and Loeffler-Kemp emphasized the importance of positivity and focusing on the many good things happening in schools to draw people back, a point Member Johnston conceded, and said his goal of 9,000 students in five years was in fact an ambitious and positive goal. In a rare spurt of loquaciousness, Member Westholm talked of the cycles of enrollment, improvements in the lowest grades, and a “light at the end of the tunnel.” He also added that uncertainty over which schools would be open, not the quality of the education, was the primary cause of the “exodus,” particularly in his own Piedmont neighborhood.

Member Seliga-Punyko seized on this point to emphasize the instability of the last 20-30 years, with school closures being proposed all over the place, and said the LRFP would rectify these troubles now that no one was on the chopping block, and that facilities finally supported curriculum. Member Johnston then pointed out that the District has been slashing curriculum, and that it needs money it doesn’t have to fix this, while Chair Miernicki pointed out that something is always being cut, no matter what. Member Seliga-Punyko blamed the financial situation on unfunded mandates for special education; if the state and federal government put in a fraction of what they claimed they would, she said, the District wouldn’t be in this financial conundrum. (This freed Chair Miernicki to say that Jesse Ventura had once gotten something right as governor of Minnesota, in his demand that the federal government fund its mandates.) This rubbed some people the wrong way since it seemed to blame special education; while that was obviously not Member Seliga-Punyko’s intent, it’s worth pointing out that unfunded mandates, while awful and deserving of further lobbying at higher levels of government, are reality. It would be wrong to budget for this money when we all know it’s not coming.

After a brief discussion of a re-roofing project at Congdon Elementary, the Board wrapped up its business. Student Member Manning thanked the rest of the Board for its comments on curriculum and mandates, and there was talk of getting Board Members into schools whenever possible. Member Loeffler-Kemp also plugged a neighborhood meeting at Lester Park Elementary on April 29 at 5:30 to discuss the future of the old Rockridge Elementary site.

All in all, it wasn’t a very conclusive meeting. The pulling of the teachers’ contract left the Board without anything terribly controversial on its plate, and while Member Johnston’s accusations at the start of the meeting are certainly worth watching, it’s probably best to await the Administration’s reply before speculating any further on that front. That left us with an interesting talk on enrollment, though the talk has yet to really amount to much. After his flame-throwing at the start of the meeting, Member Johnston was in a relatively agreeable and constructive mood, while Member Welty held his silence more than usual. Most of the topics touched on tonight will be up again in the not-so-distant future, and perhaps for more newsworthy reasons.

This is life with the Post-Red Plan Board: there is still some clear lingering animosity, and everyone has their own theory on what caused recent financial troubles and enrollment declines. Still, there is also a sense from all sides that there’s a lot of other work to be done now, and there is an ongoing tension between acknowledging the difficulties and being the salespeople they all need to be to improve District enrollment. It’s a balancing act, and it’s easy to wobble off into woe-is-us moaning or smarmy blind optimism. As Member Westholm noted, there are good reasons to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and to therefore follow the track that has made Don Ness such a popular mayor: a positive, consensus-building agenda that brings many parties to the table in the pursuit of a somewhat vague but certainly brighter future. As with the Ness agenda, there’s a lot to be said for this; staying in the tunnel of backbiting negativity only increases perceptions of dysfunction, and no amount of yelling will magically turn on the lights. But positivity alone won’t get anything done. The District does need careful reviews of existing practices, due diligence on new proposals, and to make sure that, in the words of a famed philosopher, the light at the end of a tunnel is not in fact a train.

The Harry Welty Paradox

I’ve been reading  the blog of erstwhile School Board candidate Harry Welty some recently. This is probably dangerous for my health, but I’m adventurous that way. And, to his credit, he has some interesting stuff to say. His most recent posts (as of this writing), on the aftermath of wars and his meetings with Superintendent Bill Gronseth, are superb. Reading Harry requires some stamina and thought, and not all of his posts are created equal. But if you dig deep, there are some real insights in them.

Harry hovered around ISD 709 affairs throughout my childhood. My first memories of him involve regional spelling bees in middle school, in which he was the reader, and had a certain talent for mispronouncing things. In fact, there is a Duluth News-Tribune photo from sixth grade in my childhood bedroom, with me standing at the microphone with my arms crossed as “the judges discuss a point of pronunciation,” according to the caption. So Harry and I go way back, sort of. Also, that bedroom could use some re-decorating.

Later, after I got sucked into the Duluth East hockey culture, I read his thorough account of East coach Mike Randolph’s temporary dismissal from his post in 2003. It was an impressive attempt at objectivity, even if that objectivity was only born of prior ignorance of anything hockey-related, and while I do not agree with him on everything, I appreciate his efforts to get to the bottom of a nasty mess of accusations and counter-accusations. Later, once the Red Plan debate had begun in earnest, I recall an intense (though respectful) back-and-forth between him and a high school teacher I admired after a School Board meeting. I might not have been on the same page as Harry very often, but he was clearly a thoughtful man who meant well.

Harry has also done a lot of writing, is not afraid to put his opinion out there, and leaves it up no matter what. He sticks to his guns, and that takes some guts. It also may be the sign of a large ego, and there is a noticeable dose of self-righteousness in many of his posts. But there are also moments of subtlety and even contrition, and as his yard signs say, he is honest; sometimes brutally so. I don’t really like the phrase “I call it like I see it,” which is too often employed by people puffing out their chests to make their uninformed opinions seem worthwhile, but Harry is complex enough to be able to make that sort of boast. Egos can actually be good things, so long as their owners are self-aware and can deliver on their promises.

Of course, the dark side of that willingness to put out an opinion is a long paper trail, especially for someone who’s been in or around local politics for as long as Harry has. He’s written so much stuff that his careful reasoning can seem contradictory at times, and he can harp on certain things that would probably best be left to lie. Moreover, there’s the issue of the company he’s kept. I understand it may not be fair to lump all the Red Plan critics into one boat—just as it would be wrong to assume anyone who favored it is in bed with former Superintendent Keith Dixon—but in his zeal to fight back against Dixon, he joined forces with some “interesting” people. One he explicitly endorsed was Loren Martell, and whatever merits Mr. Martell might have, his ability to cultivate an attractive public image is not one of them. Harry is committed enough to his worldview that he’s not afraid to court controversy in the lengths he’ll go to promote it.

All of this brings me to his pitch on his School Board campaign website. It is vintage Harry: full of exhausting personal backstory and hyperbole via extended metaphor, but all in the pursuit of truth. We could bicker over his rhetoric or some of the finer points, but the narrative he so vividly tells is a strong one. Even if it turns you off, you can see his sincerity. And that’s why his voice is a genuine, necessary plea: skeptical Duluthians probably don’t believe current Board members or Red Plan backers when they say the failure of the levies would have dire consequences. They don’t trust them. Harry, on the other hand, is one of theirs. He’s casting himself as the savior of the District, and if he really can bring enough skeptics on board to support the first levy, he just might be.

Harry’s potential downfall, I think, could come in being cast as the town eccentric. Red Plan supporters could easily dismiss him for his past stances; they see all the yelling in that essay, not the more nuanced stuff on his blog, and conclude he’s all hot air.  Red Plan opponents will vote for him because he’s the candidate most sympathetic to their wishes, but their collective disgust at the School Board could lead them to ignore his pleas over the levy. Most voters, however, probably aren’t hardened into either camp. So is Harry a voice of reason who can convince them of the levy’s necessity for the future of the community, or is he just that weird guy who has loud opinions on the schools?

The answer to that question could just swing the election. I’m also not sure which two at-large candidates I’ll support in the general election. I voted for Annie Harala in the primary, and I really like her emphasis on community schools and think she’ll win a seat no matter who I vote for. Henry Banks’s campaign hasn’t really taken off yet, but I think he has potential, and the Board could really use some diversity. But in addition to racial diversity, it could also use diversity of opinion; Harry offers that, and in a much less nutty manner than Art Johnston. (I don’t expect Art to be re-elected, anyway.) Unfortunately, I can only choose two of those three.

I’m tempted. Convince me you can help close the deal on the levy, Harry, and you’ll have my vote.

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.


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.

Art in the Schools: Duluth School Board Notes, 7/16/13

The Duluth School Board packed into the board room on Tuesday evening, joined by a modest but quiet crowd. With a heat wave sweeping Duluth (to the extent that any heat wave ever sweeps through Duluth), only Member Miernicki wore a suit and tie; Member Kasper apologized for the Board’s casual attire during a photo-op with a Duluth East student who had done well at the National History Day competition. One of the Student Members was absent, as was Superintendent Bill Gronseth, whose place on the dais was taken by Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford. But Member Art Johnston was on hand, guaranteeing the audience a few fireworks as the night went on.

Once again, the fun began during the approval of the minutes from the previous meeting. Member Johnston complained his motion to offer a completely different budget was not in the minutes, which was a violation of district bylaws. This time around, the other members fired back. Member Seliga-Punyko said that, as had been explained to Member Johnston “several dozen times” over the past few years, a motion that does not receive a second simply dies, and does not need to be recorded. She cited Robert’s Rules of Order and the opinion of district legal counsel, and finished her salvo by noting that a Board member was wearing illegal campaign material.

Member Johnston, who had an “Art Johnston for School Board” shirt peeking out from beneath his Hawaiian shirt, invited Member Seliga-Punyko to call in the police to arrest him, as she had threatened to do several years earlier; it “would be exciting,” he told the crowd. He reiterated his point about the bylaws, to which Member Kasper attempted to reply by citing the opinion of Superintendent Gronseth, Business Services Director Bill Hansen, and legal counsel. Member Johnston huffed that these people were “not parliamentarians,” but voted to approve the minutes anyway.

During the time for public comments, Member Miernicki stepped down off the dais and addressed the Board as a community member in order to thank the late County Commissioner Steve O’Neil for his service to Duluth schools. O’Neil, who passed away on Monday after a battle with cancer, was a passionate community activist who had done tireless work to help Duluth students who lacked basic needs. Ms. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, a candidate in the upcoming election, thanked the school board for its community input meetings on school planning issues, and Mr. Dick Haney, a former teacher and physical wellness advocate, urged the Board to approve a trail easement across the campus of the shuttered Duluth Central High School.

The first topic to invite much debate was the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan, a long-range vision to improve district-wide academic achievement, school safety, and efficiency. Member Seliga-Punyko emphasized the importance of elementary school specialists and the arts in the Plan, which led Member Kasper to crack that he was glad she supported “Art” in the schools, giving Member Johnston a good laugh. For his part, Member Johnston said he supported the plan, though he had three concerns: he wanted to know why the Plan was on the District website and in the media before it had been passed; he wanted to add goals to reverse enrollment declines; and he wanted a plan to restore the balance of the district’s depleted general fund. Member Miernicki answered the first point to Member Johnston’s satisfaction, arguing that media coverage and web presence was necessary to bring in the community input the District desired. Member Wasson echoed this theme and also pushed back on the enrollment goal, noting that most every school district in Minnesota is shedding students. In a cautionary note semi-subtly directed at Member Johnston, she also said that “negativity” around the Board would be a problem in implementing a plan they all agreed was necessary. Member Johnston earnestly explained that he was not being negative by voicing a few concerns, and the Plan passed unanimously.

During the Human Resources Committee’s resolutions, a motion came up to rescind the layoff of a single teacher. Member Johnston, rather understandably confused by the wording of the resolution, thought it was an effort to cut the position, and Member Kasper hurriedly tried to correct him. HR Director Tim Sworsky clarified the wording, and Member Johnston grumbled about its confusing nature before voting to support the re-hiring.

Next up was the Business Committee report, which included the easement to create a trail across the old Central property. While all were supportive of the idea (aside from some mild worry about wetlands from Member Johnston that he figured could be worked out), Member Wasson motioned to table the vote until they could have more feedback from Mr. Kerry Leider of Facilities Management. The Board Members then spent a while agreeing with each other in their wishes for clarifications on the unsold site’s zoning, and Mr. Leider said he believed their concerns would be met. Member Johnston had some concern that delays would hinder any construction on the project this year, though he also admitted he wasn’t sure any real progress this year was realistic anyway. The Board tabled the measure 6-0, with Member Johnston abstaining.

When it came time to approve the entire Business Committee Report, Member Johnston singled out a series of measures for separate votes, all of which he supported, leading them to pass unanimously. This left him free to vote against the remainder of the report, which included several change orders (which he had criticized at the June meeting), though he did not belabor his point this time around. His maneuvering allowed him to hold his line on facilities spending while also voting to support various fundraisers, investments, insurance policies, and a community collaborative project. The Members then wrapped up a meeting that, aside from the spat over the minutes at the start, appeared more constructive than the previous month’s, albeit with a less controversial agenda on their plate.

Tuesday was also the filing deadline for this fall’s School Board elections, which will feature a lot of familiar faces. While Members Cameron, Kasper, and Wasson are headed for retirement, former Members Nancy Nilsen and Harry Welty are throwing their names back into the fray for the two open at-large seats. Member Johnston will pursue re-election, though he faces two challengers in his western Duluth district. Two of Member Johnston’s most loyal lieutenants, Ms. Marcia Stromgren and Mr. Loren Martell (both surprisingly absent from Tuesday’s meeting), are back on the ballot after failed past runs. (Mr. Welty is also a member of the old anti-Red Plan crowd, though I consider him a more complex figure than single-issue candidates like Ms. Stromgren and Mr. Martell.) With the District’s operating levy also on the ballot, the election should prove an interesting referendum on the work of the past few Boards.

Art Johnston vs. the World: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/18/13

For whatever reason, this very old post still generates a lot of traffic. My thoughts have evolved some since. For my more recent posts on ISD 709 affairs, check out the school board tag here.

In my continuing coverage of local politics, here is an account of a recent Duluth school board meeting.

First, some background information: in the face of declining enrollment, Duluth launched a huge school consolidation and reconstruction project, the Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), colloquially known as the Red Plan, in 2007. Most people agreed something had to be done; the debate centered on how to implement the changes, and quickly spiraled into bedlam. The LRFP was highly controversial due to its large price tag and because it did not go to a referendum. (It is my understanding that the school board is by no means required to hold a referendum, but many citizens were so upset with the size of the measure that they thought it constituted an attack on the democratic process—and now, years later, there are still people who come to each school board meeting to berate its members.)

The school board pushed the measure through just in time for the economy to crash. Many of the shuttered schools remain unsold—buy yourself an old high school on Craigslist here!—and the district has failed to meet its enrollment projections. But far more significantly, anger over the LRFP has been a major factor in the failure of several school board levies. Class sizes have skyrocketed into the 40s, teachers have been axed, and a number of students have open-enrolled in neighboring districts. While the large class sizes are not okay, I do think the apocalyptic views of Duluth schools taken by some critics are over-the-top; the facilities are indeed excellent, the curriculum is still fairly strong, there are many great teachers and administrators who haven’t gone anywhere, and Duluth East, at least, still seems to send just as many (if not more) kids off to top-end colleges. But all is not rosy in ISD 709, and Tuesday night’s circus before the Board revealed a community still torn apart by a nearly-complete process that began six years ago.

It was a fairly full house for the meeting, which is held in what appears to have once been the cavernous cafeteria of Historic Old Central High School, a building that now houses the district’s administration and several alternative learning programs. (HOCHS is not to be confused with the Unhistoric Old Central High School, the one that is now for sale.) All seven school board members were on hand, along with Superintendent Bill Gronseth and the two non-voting student members, one from each high school. Seven of the ten people seated at the front of the room wore glasses, of which Member Westholm won the hotly contested award for the most professorially-perched spectacles.

In the audience, ten to fifteen of us had no obvious business before the Board; our number included school administrators, candidates for the Board in this fall’s elections, and the media. A handful of people who had been first incensed into action by the LRFP were on hand; whatever the merits of their initial critiques, their presence now seems to be little more than an exercise in self-righteousness, their shtick so exhausted that one must struggle to take them at all seriously. (At one point, I thought Silly Hat Lady had actually let a worthwhile suggestion slip into her endless bloviating, but when the topic in question came up in the Board’s discussion, it was clear they were already miles ahead of her.)

About twenty people dressed in red were there to support the clerical workers’ union, and their leader made an impassioned plea on behalf of the district’s overstretched secretaries. But the most visible and vocal crowd in the hall, their number somewhere around 25, was on hand to decry the decision not to retain Ms. Leea Power, a school principal.

Ms. Power had moved her family to Duluth the previous summer, and after a year working at the alternative high school had been appointed principal of Piedmont Elementary. Roughly a week later, the Board turned around and made a motion to terminate Ms. Power’s contract. The reasons, which went unsaid until after the Board voted to cut Ms. Power due to data privacy regulations, included issues of communication, leadership, time management, learning attitude, professionalism, and building trust. Her supporters, naturally, disagreed. But there was an added element that fueled the debate over Ms. Power: she is black.

Without going through the whole racial history of Duluth (a topic on which I am no expert, to be sure), it is safe to say that African-Americans face some unique issues in an otherwise very homogenous, white community. At one point, Member Johnston said the racial achievement gap in Duluth is one of the largest in the state of Minnesota, and that Minnesota’s gap is the largest nationwide. It is rare to find a black person in a prominent position in Duluth, and a number of audience members saw Ms. Power as a much-needed African-American in a position of authority. Of Ms. Power’s supporters, all but three or four were black, and their lead speaker, Ms. Sharon Witherspoon, quoted Martin Luther King several times. Member Cameron, the lone African-American on the Board, said she thought many of Ms. Power’s alleged shortcomings were correctable, given proper training.

The longest plea on Ms. Power’s behalf, however, came from the white man sitting at the far end of the dais, Member Art Johnston. Member Johnston, an older man whose hair style suggests he enjoys going for long walks along the lake before Board meetings, was one of the members elected immediately after the LFRP rancor, and his opinions on his colleagues seem to range from bitter frustration to outright contempt. In his three-plus years on the board, he has perfected the art of making a scene. He claimed the accusations against Ms. Power were full of “hearsay and contradictions,” produced a ream of letters supporting her, and ripped through a list of procedures he believed the district’s HR Department had violated. The HR Manager, Mr. Tim Sworsky, described his accusations as “appalling” in their ignorance of HR processes, and Member Johnston fired the charge right back at Mr. Sworsky. He predicted lawsuits, NAACP involvement, and called Superintendent Gronseth’s letter recommending Ms. Power’s dismissal “pretty pathetic.” He finished by saying the Board was “destroying this person’s educational career” and said the “looks in people’s eyes” as they debated the topic were “very concerning.”

One of those people with a troubled look behind his glasses was Member Kasper, who struggled to find the words to explain that he supported Ms. Power’s dismissal; though he did not do so lightly, he trusted the Superintendent’s judgment. Member Cameron, while not endorsing all of Member Johnston’s rhetoric, said the HR Department practices needed some work. No one else said a word. The Board voted to terminate Ms. Power’s contract, 5-2, with Members Johnston and Cameron providing the opposition. The ball is now in Ms. Power’s court: will she move on from Duluth, or will she pull a Mike Randolph and fight?

The Board went on to recognize a west side elementary school that improved its test scores markedly, and Member Johnston had fun slowing down the proceedings to point out any number of bylaws that were in danger of being violated. (While I certainly do not condone the violation of bylaws, the notion of choosing one’s battles seems to have no place in Member Johnston’s worldview. His obstructionism drowned out his most salient criticisms, and made one wonder if he has at this point simply resorted to disrupting as many things as he can.) There was a healthy, consensus-building discussion about possibly closing the high school campuses during lunch hours, in which the student Members played their largest role of the night; it was a rare moment of constructive engagement by everyone up on the dais, and the sort of dialogue one wished one heard more often at local board meetings.

The meeting concluded with the consideration of the budget for the upcoming year, and Member Johnston was once again at the top of his game. He harped on several change orders to a handful of ongoing LRFP projects, and insisted that any savings from the LRFP should be put directly back into classrooms, rather than paying off long-term debt created by the facilities plan. He noted that he has never voted to cut a single teacher, and claimed the Board could reduce class sizes “right now” if it wanted to.

Superintendent Gronseth was the only person to respond to Member Johnston’s charges, though he said he was “at a loss” over where to start, since he disagreed with Member Johnston on so many fronts. Many of the issues, he said, had been belabored to death, and he said the District was slowly moving in the right direction, particularly when given the impending repeal of many state-level mandates. All parts of the budget passed, 6-1, with Member Johnston being the lone ‘no’ vote. Member Johnston concluded the meeting by asking why Superintendent Gronseth had not responded to a past request for some sort of follow-up, and asked if he would like the state to weigh in on the issue. The Superintendent paused before quietly replying that his door is always open.

It would be easy to dismiss Member Johnston as a lunatic on the fringe, which is exactly what his colleagues seem to have done. But it was hard to fight the notion that, if not for Member Johnston, the Board would simply be a rubber stamp machine. Perhaps there is greater debate behind the curtains, but one wouldn’t know it from the meetings, and the other Members may not be aware of how opaque their processes can seem to the rest of the city. Whether justified or not, the LRFP process did damage the Board’s image, and the Board’s reaction appears to consist of ignoring this fact rather than doing anything about it. Half of the Members were basically mute throughout the controversial proceedings on Tuesday night, giving little indication of how they arrived at their votes. I understand their hands were tied somewhat by the Data Practices Act when discussing Ms. Power, and that many of Member Johnston’s complaints over LRFP money have likely been rehashed time and time again. But at this meeting, only a few people tried to defend their agenda. Member Seliga-Punyko rightly noted the long-term declines in district enrollment that long predate the LRFP, but it would be naïve to claim this is the sole reason for Duluth’s current bind. Superintendent Gronseth also made some effort to counter Member Johnston, but—with all due respect to the Superintendent, who was an assistant principal at East High when I was there, and about whom I have heard nothing but praise from observers other than Member Johnston—he needs to expand beyond his arsenal of education platitudes if he actually wants to convince anyone. The District needs a much stronger sales pitch, and needs to have the courage of its conviction to refute every little point Member Johnston makes. Otherwise, even those of us who are skeptical of a man who seems to be nursing a longtime grudge will wonder why the Board refuses to counter him, and whether he might be right about a thing or two.