Tag Archives: school board levy

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

19 Nov

(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.

Don Ness’s Duluth and its Divisions: Election 2013 Analysis

6 Nov

I’ve written a lot about Duluth politics in recent months, with coverage of every city council and school board meeting, plus some coverage of yesterday’s election (results here). Lost in most of this political talk, however, was mayor Don Ness.

The lack of Ness coverage is, in part, his triumph. In this recent NPR interview, he said his goal was to make Duluth politics “boring” again. Six years into his tenure, he’s done that. He remains incredibly popular, and with good reason, considering the successes of the causes he’s supported. The economy has been fairly resilient despite a rough national economic climate. The city has won some major victories against noted antagonists, most notably Jim Carlson. Duluth has a bunch of new schools; despite some wobbly moments due to the way those schools were pushed through, they will be well-funded thanks to the passage of the two levies. Funding for libraries and parks has increased. The city even confronted its huge retiree debt burden and, while it probably hasn’t gone as far as conservatives want it to go, the Ness Administration has proven it isn’t beholden to special interest groups, and that it tries to avoid tax increases when at all possible. Don Ness is the dream mayor of the center-left, and if he is so inclined, he could easily make a strong run in a state or national race. (He even has the adorable children necessary for that sort of thing.) Ness’s warmth has rubbed off on people around him, as eight of the nine City Councilors now lean left. This city has been thoroughly renovated in the image of Don Ness.

However, underneath all of the solid colors that appear on the election maps are a lot of details that are worth exploring. The somewhat unexpected results of three races jumped out at me: Zack Filipovich surpassing Barb Russ for first in the City Council At-Large race after finishing second in the primary, the passage of the second ISD 709 levy question, and Art Johnston’s re-election to the School Board.

All three of these results underscore the east-west divide in Duluth. That’s a delicate topic, as School Board Member-Elect Harry Welty learned with his “gangrene” comments, and obviously it generalizes, and there are plenty of people on both sides of the city who cut against the east-west stereotypes. Still, one trend clearly emerges in election results: the west side’s rejection of the east side liberal establishment.

It’s especially significant when you consider that people from the west side are not a demographic you’d normally associate with conservatism. It’s not a wealthy or suburban/rural region, and in state and national races, it’s still reliably Democratic. This is no bastion of the Tea Party or libertarianism, as shown by the passage of the first levy question in all but one precinct and Ryan Stauber’s inability to break through in many places. Still, the west side is not moving in lockstep with the Ness agenda, and it’s worth asking why.

We’ll start with a look at the City Council At-Large race, in which I’ve mapped out the winners of each precinct using the wonders of Microsoft Paint:

City Council At-Large

Zack Filipovich, as you can see, had a very strong showing on the west side. As a recent college grad working in finance, Filipovich doesn’t really fit the blue-collar stereotypes one associates with the west side. Still, his campaign (whether by design or not) was certainly less explicitly liberal than Barb Russ’s, and since he’s young and fresh, he’s not really an establishment figure. Unlike Russ, he made a concerted push to get beyond the establishment, and campaigned out west. For that reason, I suspect he was able to generate a lot more support, especially in an election where voters could choose two candidates. Ryan Stauber was an easy first choice for Duluth’s more conservative voters, but I’d hazard to guess that Filipovich, who remained rather vague and upbeat in his campaign, was most likely to be their second choice. That coalition probably carried him to a lot of victories on the west side.

This anti-establishment-liberal pattern is even more distinct in other recent elections, with the west side being far less interested in sending more money to the city than the east side. In Ness’s first election, he won the east side and lost the west side to the more conservative Charlie Bell. Jay Fosle, the lone conservative on the Council, represents a far west district. Garry Krause, the recently-resigned conservative District Four councilor, was from the west side, and got a decent share of the vote despite having withdrawn from the race. If he’d stuck around, I suspect he would have won. If you want a map that really underscores this trend, though, take a look at the way the city voted on the school board levies:

School Board Levy Map

This really wasn’t a case of the city coming together to support the second levy. It was a case of the east side having just enough votes to drag the west side along with it.

While much of the rest of the city is exasperated by anti-Red Plan crusader Art Johnston, he was re-elected to his far west side district. In the West End area, there seemed to be a lot of passion over the school board race: Bolgrien’s base of support was right around Denfeld High, and Johnston had a bunch of signs in the areas just beyond the Bolgrien core. Heading east into Lincoln Park, however, there were hardly any yard signs. Even so, Lincoln Park broke for Johnston. It wasn’t a vicious rejection of Ness and his School Board allies, but it was a clear one.

School Board Dist. Four

I rarely agree with Art Johnston, but to his very real credit, he too has acknowledged these trends. He posed the question to the Board at a recent meeting, perhaps not realizing that his own presence on the Board is a product of these trends: why does it appear that west-siders do not share the east side’s emphasis on education, and willingness to open the pocketbook to support it? No one answered him, and he deserves an answer.

Part of it may be demographics. The school-aged population is much higher on the east side, so more people have a stake in the schools there. East side voters, content with the generally high test scores at their schools, see the value in supporting the District, while west side voters, seeing more mixed results, may not. (I have never understood the logic behind giving struggling schools less money, but plenty of people explain their votes that way.) Perhaps most importantly, the west side has more people living on fixed or lower-middle-class incomes who are nonetheless not living in poverty or qualifying for many government support programs. Because of that, they tend to be less willing or able to handle a tax increase.  That fact can explain the fiscally conservative bent one sees in the west side’s city councilors, too.

But while socioeconomics may explain a lot of the divide, they are not destiny. To that end, it’s important to understand why a number of Duluthians (no matter which neighborhood they live in) may not be completely thrilled with Don Ness’s Duluth. For that, I’d point readers toward my post from a few months ago on Duluth’s future. It’s a long and meandering post, so I’ll summarize one key part here.

Under Ness, Duluth has made a concerted effort to reinvent itself. It has also made itself a desirable place for young people to live, harnessing its natural beauty and developing a decent artistic and culinary scene. (Yay, good beer!) It has spent a lot of money making itself attractive, and to date, I think that move has been reasonably successful. With the decline in U.S. manufacturing, it was necessary to take that stand and create a new brand for the city, and while I have my quibbles here and there, I’m largely on board with Ness. I was also a staunch supporter of both levies, and I believe world-class public schools are essential to this whole project. However, former Councilor Krause raised an essential concern, and one I am not sure the Ness camp has properly addressed: is Duluth’s interest in shiny, new things coming at the expense of the mundane? Yes, it’s great to attract new people, but what about those who have been here for a long time, and are simply trying to get by?

No matter how many elections Ness and Friends may win, these questions will still exist. They need to be magnanimous in victory, and recognize that simply cruising along with a mandate still leaves some people on the outside looking in. No, they can’t satisfy everyone all of the time, but no one should be left behind because they never got a chance to be heard.

Speaking of being on the outside, the lack of racial diversity here is also worth mentioning: after this election, everyone on the School Board and City Council will be white. This isn’t terribly shocking in a city that is over 90 percent white, and there were two minority candidates this fall who simply did not run very impressive campaigns. Mary Cameron had a very long tenure on the School Board, proving that minority candidates certainly can do well in Duluth. Several of the white elected officials have long histories of work with minority groups. Even so, there is a trend in modern American liberalism in which people politely acknowledge minority interests while doing little to actually address them. I’ve talked up the east-west divide here, but downtown can’t be lost in the shuffle, either.

This all brings me back around to “boring” government. Yes, boring government is certainly better than people screaming at each other nonstop, but there is a danger here, too. This quote from Councilor-Elect Howie Hanson in the October 29 News-Tribune comparing himself to his predecessor brings it out clearly:

“I think Garry [Krause] was a little frustrated because he was in the minority on a lot of votes,” he said, noting that Krause frequently found himself at odds with Mayor Don Ness’ administration and much of the council.

“If we’re going to move Duluth forward, I think you need to set aside your personal agenda and petty politics and get everyone on the same page,” Hanson said.

This bothers me somewhat, and I do not think it is an accurate characterization of Krause’s work, even if I didn’t always agree with Krause. Good governance does not involve everyone being on the same page and rubber-stamping one another’s proposals. It needs constructive, perhaps even heated, arguments. To its immense credit, the City Council has managed that in recent years; the School Board, on the other hand, has not, as it went from being a rubber stamp machine during the Red Plan days to a fractious and ugly war zone during Art Johnston’s first term. With Welty and a possibly conciliatory Johnston on the School Board, I have some hope that it might finally come to a healthy balance. The new Council, with its new left-leaning supermajority, must make sure it doesn’t fall into one of those twin traps that bogged down ISD 709 in recent years.

Duluth’s politicians have the potential to do some great things in the next few years, and the future is there for the taking. We’ll see how they do.

Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2013

5 Nov

The results are in!

I’ll have a few more comments tomorrow once the city publishes district-by-district results and try to put everything in a broader context—complete with adventures in amateur map-making! I’ll also have more comments on the outgoing councilors and board members when their terms expire. For now, here are the results and their immediate implications.

Bolded candidates won. The numbers after the names are percentages of the vote, followed by the raw vote total.

City Council At-Large

Zack Filipovich 55.2 (9295)

Barb Russ 53.0 (8932)

Ryan Stauber 44.6 (7514)

Ray Sandman 14.2 (2398)

For a second straight election cycle, the DFL candidates march to a solid victory in the At-Large races. Stauber hung in there relatively well, but in the end was nine points behind the second of the two DFLers, a similar margin to his primary gap. The biggest surprise here was Filipovich leading the way: Russ had a large lead and a more obvious campaign presence after the primaries, and as Stauber is the only real conservative in the field and has some name recognition, I thought Filipovich might have a fight on his hands. Not so, as the recent UMD grad rolls into office.

City Council District Two

Patrick Boyle (I) 98.5 (2099)

As expected, the unopposed Councilor Boyle sails through, and also led the field in the District 2 County Commissioner primary. If elected to that position, the Council will appoint a replacement for the next two years.

City Council District Four

Howie Hanson 61.1 (1782)

Garry Krause 37.6 (1098) (withdrew from race)

37.6% is a fairly substantial vote total for a candidate who isn’t in the race, suggesting there were some misgivings with the otherwise unopposed Hanson, but he still heads into the Council after a stress-free campaign. My personal experiences with Howie have not been positive, but they were also in a very different context. I hope he proves a more skilled politician than he is a sportswriter, and I’ll give him a chance to prove he can be a good representative for this district, which could use some stability after running through an awful lot of councilors in the past few years. Due to the vacant seat, he’ll be seated at next Monday’s meeting.

City Council Big Picture: News flash—Duluth is a DFL town. With Stauber’s loss and Hanson replacing Krause, there is only one person on the Council now who really qualifies as a conservative in any sense of the word. Even in a liberal city, that’s quite the supermajority. I’ll have more on the dynamics of that sort of council tomorrow.

School Board At-Large

Annie Harala 56.9 (10648)

Harry Welty 39.3 (7342)

Nancy Nilsen 35.7 (6670)

Henry Banks 24.4 (4567)

No surprise in Harala’s big win, and as I suspected, Harry Welty’s uniqueness was enough to get him just past Nilsen. Welty comes into the Board following a somewhat ragged end to his campaign that included a weird ad and an awkward comment about gangrene in west side schools. As several letters to the Duluth News Tribune showed, a number of people do not trust this longtime Red Plan critic and former Board member. That said, I think he is a genuine person who simply has a habit of saying some tone-deaf things, and he probably deserves a fair amount of credit for getting otherwise skeptical people to vote for that second levy. If the other Board members approach him in good faith, he should be willing to work with them. Nilsen’s showing, which was decent but not good enough, shows Duluth’s continued mixed feelings about the Red Plan. Banks’s campaign had potential, but never did quite take off.

School Board District One

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp 56.1 (3220)

Joe Matthes 43.5 (2497)

After clearing 50% in the primary, it’s no surprise to see Loeffler-Kemp win, and her new seat is the culmination of 20 years of work in and around ISD 709. Matthes, meanwhile, ran a pretty strong campaign for a newcomer running against such a well-known figure. He seems to have a bright political future, and I hope he stays involved in ISD 709 affairs despite the loss.

School Board District Four

Art Johnston (I) 54.0 (1624)

David Bolgrien 45.7 (1374)

After a contentious race, Johnston emerges victorious and earns himself a second term. With the passage of the levies, his worry that the Board’s actions would cost it major public support were proven misplaced. To that end, it will be very interesting to see how he re-invents himself now that the Red Plan is fading into the rear view mirror. Will he take the passage of the levies as an opportunity to fix the various problems he sees in ISD 709 and attack them in concert with other Board members? Or does he think the voters were swindled by the Board, and does he continue to try to obstruct most everything it does? It’s his decision.

ISD 709 Levies

Question One: Yes 65.6 (12211); No 34.4 (6403)

Existing levy re-approved

Question Two: Yes 50.8 (9436); No 49.2 (9130)

New, additional levy implemented

It was a huge night for ISD 709’s bottom line, as voters approved not just the existing levy, but also the second one, for which I did not have high hopes. With more cash in hand and additional state aid on the way, the District should be able to pay off its debts and move to bring down class sizes. Education activists can’t just rest on this victory, though; they need to continue to work with the new school board to make sure the money is going to the right places.

ISD 709 Big Picture: It’s a bit of a split verdict here; while not unexpected given the lingering legacy of the Red Plan, it does have some interesting twists. Two of the Red Plan’s biggest critics are now on the Board, but their greatest fears have not come to pass, and they now have a decent amount of money they can use to attack the problems related (and unrelated) to the Red Plan. It will still require some important decisions, and with Johnston on the Board, things will never be boring. That said, this ISD 709 grad is feeling good about the direction of the District for the first time in a few years. While Duluthians are clearly demanding strong oversight of the Board, they also want to move forward, and the approval of the second levy shows a majority are willing to put the Red Plan behind them and do what they can to make Duluth public schools the best they can be. It’s a big win for Superintendent Bill Gronseth, whose gamble has paid off.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

(2 advance to general election)

Patrick Boyle 34.4 (2389)

Jim Stauber 27.4 (1901)

Scott Keenan 26.9 (1868)

Cary Thompson-Gilbert 4.8 (333)

Boyle and Stauber, both sitting City Councilors, advance to the January 14 special election to fill the seat of the late Steve O’Neil. Boyle’s first place finish is no surprise; Stauber’s incredibly narrow win over Keenan, meanwhile, sets up a classic left-right showdown. Given the timing of the special election, there’s a healthy chance that turnout will have been better in the primary than in the actual election. That means that getting out the vote will be crucial for both candidates in January, as they look to build on their momentum. Stauber in particular will have to go to work if he wants to close the gap, as he doesn’t have a very large presence at the moment. Many Keenan supporters are up for grabs here; while Boyle would seem to be the favorite, his victory is not assured.

That’s it for now—check back for more tomorrow!

Duluth General Election Preview 2013

27 Oct

The Duluth general election is just over a week away. I’ve done a bit of driving around the city doing some completely unscientific counting of yard signs to see who appears to have an edge, but with local elections, it’s hard to get a really good feel on the situation without doing a lot of legwork. Turnout in the primary elections was low enough that things could still swing drastically on Tuesday the 5th.

Here is a Sample Ballot.

Polling Places and District Designations | Map

Here is a rundown on every race in the city; in this post, I try only to give neutral assessments on what each candidate’s election would mean for their respective bodies. Candidates are listed in the order of finish in the primary. Click their names to view their web pages, and if I missed a web page or if there’s a more detailed version than the Facebook pages I’ve linked to, let me know—I searched for everyone’s, but some didn’t generate results.

City Council At-Large

2 open seats

Barb Russ | Zack Filipovich | Ryan Stauber | Ray Sandman

Russ led the primary vote by a comfortable margin and has shown no signs of losing her momentum; she offers a crisply articulated version of Duluthian liberalism, and has a long history of community involvement. This likely sets up a showdown between Filipovich and Stauber for the second open seat; Filipovich had a stronger showing in the primary, but Stauber seems to have built some support since, and got himself a News-Tribune endorsement. Both are in their 20s, and their campaigns are a bit rough around the edges; Filipovich has a crisp image but is rather vague, while Stauber has more defined ideas but is rather scattershot in his presentation. While Filipovich appears more business-minded than your average liberal, this competition can easily be seen as a left-right competition; if Stauber loses, there will only be one Councilor who clearly qualifies as “fiscally conservative.” Sandman seems to have a decent base of support on the west side, but he also has a large gap to close, and his platform doesn’t really go beyond a vague call for living wage jobs.

City Council 2nd District

Patrick Boyle (Unopposed incumbent)

No excitement here, but Boyle is running for the Second District County Commissioner seat as well (see below).

City Council 4th District

Howie Hanson | The Ghost of Garry Krause

This race also appears to be a foregone conclusion, barring a massive protest vote from the residents of District Four in favor of the former Councilor Krause, whose name remains on the ballot despite his resignation in September. A Councilor Hanson would ostensibly tip the Council further left, though it’s hard to say much about him since he hasn’t had to run much of a campaign. If elected, Hanson would be seated immediately so as to fill the Council vacancy. All other people elected on Nov. 5 will be seated in January.

Edit from earlier version: I’ve updated the link above, which now leads to his Facebook page, instead of his blog.

School Board At-Large

2 open seats

Annie Harala | Harry Welty | Nancy Nilsen | Henry Banks

Harala was the top vote-getter in the primary by a decent margin, and has run a safe, positive, community-centered campaign since, earning plenty of endorsements. The wild card here is Welty; he leads the field in signage, has done a lot of legwork, and he’s also the only candidate who is attentive to the people still frustrated by the Red Plan, even though he supports the levies. I was going to say he’d run a textbook campaign until I saw his bizarre, paranoid ad in this past week’s Reader. (Judge it for yourself here–yes, this was a print advertisement.) This is what you get with Welty: doses of nuance and political acumen coupled with rambling attempts at honesty that, while well-intentioned, can be rather head-scratching, to say the least. His foil here is Nilsen, an unabashed Red Plan supporter who wants to finish the work from her first term on the Board. (I couldn’t find any web presence for her.) As with Sandman in the City Council race, Banks had a chance to give the Board some real diversity; his candidacy was slow to generate much momentum and remains on the vague side, but he does seem to have increased his presence in the past few weeks.

School Board 1st District

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp | Joe Matthes

Loeffler-Kemp cleared fifty percent in the primary, but Matthes has run a strong campaign since, with thorough answers at forums, a lot of door-knocking, and a News Tribune endorsement. Loeffler-Kemp has over twenty years of experience in school affairs, though, and that is quite the mountain to climb. Either way, this district has two of the stronger candidates out there, and the winner will have earned the position.

School Board 4th District

David Bolgrien | Art Johnston (incumbent)

Polarizing Board Member Johnston faces a serious challenge in this race; the third candidate in the very tight three-way primary has endorsed Bolgrien, a longtime education activist on the west side. Johnston has spent the last four years as a protest vote against anything Red Plan related, but now is attempting to walk the fine line of claiming he can be a voice of reason despite his burned bridges on the Board. Diverse voices are all well and good, but Johnston’s challenge is to prove he can offer something of substance and actually build a coalition on the Board to support his views. He is the only candidate in any School Board race who opposes the levies.

School Board Levies

“Yes” Vote Page

There are two ballot questions. The first renews an existing operating levy; its failure would lead to a budget shortfall, likely necessitating deep cuts and class sizes ranging up toward 50 students in a room. The second raises property taxes by approximately $4 per month on a $150,000 home. ISD 709’s stated purpose is to use this money to lower class sizes; if passed, Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims they will be lowered by 4-6 students across the board. Yard sign counts aren’t of much use here since there isn’t much of an organized “no” campaign; if forced to speculate I’d say the first question has decent odds of passing, while the second faces a bit more resistance.

The “yes” vote has built some momentum in recent weeks, with endorsements from the News Tribune, the Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Don Ness; and also thanks to yeoman’s work by some of the School Board candidates in their door-knocking for their own campaigns. Several people related to the Tea Party and longtime School Board critics have mounted some public resistance, however. They claim taxes in Duluth are high enough as it is, and that the Board’s behavior during the Red Plan means it is untrustworthy, and may not direct money where it is most needed (into classrooms to fight the large class sizes). The “Vote Yes” crowd counters this claim by pointing out the small size of the tax increase and across-the-board support for smaller class sizes from all of the pro-levy Board candidates.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

Patrick Boyle | Scott Keenan | Jim Stauber | Cary Thompson-Gilbert

Following the passing of Commissioner Steve O’Neil in July, residents of the east side of the Duluth will go to the polls to select the two candidates who will advance to the January 14 special election. The field for this seat is loaded, as all four bring plenty of experience to the table. Based on a lawn sign count and general knowledge of the east side’s proclivities, the two frontrunners appear to be Boyle and Keenan. Councilor Boyle is the O’Neil family’s desired successor and a liberal champion, while Keenan doesn’t really fit an ideological label, having shown streaks of fiscal conservatism and environmentalism during his two terms on the Council and during his tenure on many local boards. Outgoing City Councilor Jim Stauber is the most conservative voice in the field, though he isn’t exactly a confrontational one; if elected, four of the five members of the County Board would lean toward the right. He doesn’t have any noticeable lawn sign presence, though he does have plenty of name recognition, and with his son on the City Council ticket, the Staubers have the potential to have a big night. Thompson-Gilbert is the only candidate who hasn’t served on the City Council, though her husband (Greg Gilbert) has, and she has a solid résumé of community activism. Adam Jaros and Nik Patronas are both on the ballot, but have withdrawn their names; Jaros endorsed Boyle, while Patronas exited for health reasons.

That about sums it up. Get out and vote no matter who you support, and stay tuned for results and analysis after the election.

The Duluth School Board Levy: A Manifesto

30 Sep

Disclaimer: when I launched this blog, I used its first post to say it wasn’t my intent to make this thing a call to arms for any particular cause. Today, I’m going to violate that principle for a cause that is, I believe, worthwhile. I’m going to do what little I can do to get the voters of ISD 709 to pass the operating levy that will be on the ballot this November.

Two of the biggest levy proponents out there are ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth and at-large school board candidate Harry Welty. I don’t really know either of them personally, though I sometimes read Welty’s blog and had a mini-dialogue with him last week, and Gronseth was the assistant principal at my high school once upon a time. But while both men have the same goal and seem to respect one another on some level, they are coming from radically different places.

Gronseth’s PR campaign for the levy has been relentlessly positive. A gaudy handout touting all the successes of ISD 709 came out in a recent Duluth News Tribune, and if you read it, you’d think there wasn’t much of anything wrong with the District. At Board meetings, Gronseth will acknowledge challenges, but will quickly try to turn them into opportunities for improvement, insisting the District is on the right path. I don’t think this is some cynical spin operation: Gronseth genuinely believes he can help guide this District to a better place, and that sort of positive message can be a real asset to a District trying to move past a divisive era. His pitch attempts to show the voters of Duluth that the District is moving past the Red Plan rancor, and that voters can have confidence in its administrators to keep the momentum going.

Welty, on the other hand, sees a rather different picture when he looks at ISD 709. His blog collects plenty of horror stories of troubles that afflict the District: a paltry general fund, sagging graduation and enrollment rates, a glaring achievement gap, classes with over 40 students, and anarchic west side schools. His campaign theme is “honesty,” which for him involves acknowledging everything that is wrong with the District, and then confronting it head-on. Without the levy, he argues, it will be near-impossible to do so. There is no scenario in which “starving the beast” leads to more sensible financial policy, and should the levy fail, the task of trying to build a decent District will take a herculean effort.

Both of them are part right and part wrong. Gronseth is right to see some real positives: for all of the turmoil, the test scores and post-secondary success of kids from the east side schools remain strong, and the recent turnaround at Laura Macarthur Elementary proves that demography need not be destiny, and that west side schools can succeed with strong leadership and innovative teaching. Having seen some truly dysfunctional public schools during my time in Washington DC, I can assure Duluth that its schools still have a long way to fall before they’re a total train wreck. But at the same time, Welty’s worries can’t just be swept under the rug; his concerns don’t come from nowhere, and as I argued last week, a longtime critic like him might be able to reach out to voters who are otherwise jaded with the District.

There are drawbacks to each man’s approach. Gronseth’s shiny packaging could easily come across as untrustworthy spin tactics, especially for voters who think the District took them for a ride with the Red Plan.  His unqualified optimism can appear naïve, and perhaps ignorant of the unfortunate but very real divisions that have sprung up over the past few years. Welty’s use of the sinking ship metaphor runs some risk of making the whole thing sound like a lost cause, especially as he repeats stories of struggling classrooms and announces his sympathies for voters who won’t support the levy under any circumstances. Both Gronseth and Welty are on to something, but neither one quite paints a complete picture.

You know what I would love to see? These two men go door-knocking together in support of the levy. It’s a naïve wish, perhaps, but these two men really do need each other. It will be hard to put a positive spin on Gronseth’s stint as Superintendent if the levy fails, and Welty has said quite clearly that his job will be a miserable one if he’s on a Board that has to make deep cuts.

There are risks for each of them. Gronseth has to admit that not everything is quite right, and while he’s done a good job of inviting citizens to learn about the levy and made himself available to speak to groups, this is a rather self-selecting approach; he’d have to go out there and meet face-to-face with people who do not like what he stands for. Welty might alienate his old Let Duluth Vote base, which includes (though is necessarily not limited to) a bunch of people who hate the notion of working with the Board so recently after the Red Plan was rammed through.

Still, if we take both men at their word (and I do), the risks are worth the potential rewards. Gronseth could prove he believes in community engagement in the fullest sense of the term, not just inside a pro-education echo chamber. Welty would show just how much he believes the good of the schools transcends any past divisions, even if it comes at some risk for his political career.

It would have been a real coup for ISD 709 if Art Johnston would have been willing to join this sort of effort. I had my criticisms of Johnston before he came out against the levy, but they had more to do with style than substance: I think he is a legitimate representative of a portion of the community that is understandably upset with the Board, and there is something to be said for holding true to one’s convictions. In the moments when Board debate ranges away from Red Plan affairs, he has come across as a well-informed, thoughtful man who raises some real questions. His stint on the School Board had real potential, and for a moment at the August meeting, when he found it within himself to praise Gronseth for putting the levy to a vote and noted how significant it was that the two of them had found common ground, I thought he might yet fulfill that promise. He could have transcended the pettiness of some of his critics, and such an act of humility might have bought him some good will in the eyes of other Board members, leading him to perhaps actually pass a thing or two. He could have even upped his odds for re-election, as he would’ve had an answer to the biggest criticism thrown at him: that he is too intractable, too zealous in his pursuit of purity, too willing to alienate people who were willing to work with him if only he’d concede a tiny bit of ground. (And I’m not just talking about Gronseth here; I’m talking about people like Welty and Loren Martell, with whom he has plenty of views in common.) Alas, Johnston has allowed his distaste for some small tax increases to overpower any desire to work with others, even though (according to Tom Kasper) he once thought those taxes might be necessary evils in order to stabilize the district’s general fund. Looking at the likely composition of the next School Board, he is doomed to remain a voice in the wilderness, even if he is re-elected and the levy fails. He will have been proven correct, but is that really any consolation to a man who truly does care about the fate of the schools?

So, there is my plea to the individuals most able to sway voters to the ‘yes’ side of the levy, if they so choose. Let’s see some real leadership here. I’ll try to do my part. I’m going to write a letter to the News Tribune that will make my pitch for the levy the only way I know how, with a story of my love for the schools that gave me a world-class education, and my sincere wish that, should I someday raise a family here, my children can have as good a time in Duluth public schools as I did, if not a better one. I’m going to email this post to Gronseth and Welty, and even Johnston. (What do I have to lose?) I want to believe in Duluth’s future. Is anyone with me?

Onward and Upward with Art Johnston’s Scorched-Earth Campaign: Duluth School Board Notes, 9/24/13

25 Sep

The ISD 709 School Board gathered for its monthly meeting for an unusual 4:30 start on Tuesday. The time, apparently, was not agreeable for Member Seliga-Punyko, who was absent; Member Westholm was also MIA at roll call, but snuck in fifteen minutes after the meeting had started. Many candidates in the upcoming election were on hand, including several of those who had lost in the primaries.

As usual, Member Johnston held up the minutes, this time catching a misprint and complaining that his point of order at the previous meeting, in which he asked Chair Kasper to reprimand Member Seliga-Punyko for impugning him, was not in the minutes. Member Miernicki pressed him on this contention, wondering what exactly Member Johnston had found so impugning about her words and reading back Member Seliga-Punyko’s quote, which did not mention Member Johnston by name. Member Johnston dodged the question, simply insisting that his point of order had to be in the minutes. It was not entirely clear what Member Miernicki’s motive was, except perhaps to extract a concession that the reprimand was not warranted. (One can only imagine what sort of reprimand would have been necessary had Member Seliga-Punyko been in attendance at this month’s meeting, given Member Johnston’s subsequent actions.)

The Board then congratulated an East High School student for an award she’d won on a paper about the dangers of texting and driving. The sole community speaker was Mr. Dick Haney, who came before the Board for a second time to ask them to approve an easement for a bike trail across the property of the former Central High School. In his report to the Board, Superintendent Gronseth talked about the positives at the start of a new school year, particularly the opening of the new Congdon Park and Myers-Wilkins Elementaries; he was pleased to announce the District was now “out of the construction business,” and could focus directly on student achievement. He invited the public to learn more about the levy options on the ballot in the upcoming elections, and said he was happy to speak to any groups with questions. Chair Kasper thanked him, and Member Miernicki waxed about the sense of community he saw at the opening of the new schools.

By in large, the Education Committee report consisted only of test score reports and grant announcements. Member Johnston, however, took a moment to show what a constructive voice he could have been on this Board had he not chosen to chain his reputation to his scorched-earth campaign against the Red Plan. He singled out the test score disparities between East and Denfeld High Schools, and Ordean-East and Lincoln Park Middle Schools, wondering why gaps in scores ranged from 33 to 50 percent, and asking what could be done about it. He also congratulated Laura MacArthur Elementary for its drastic improvement, and Supt. Gronseth agreed, and congenially told Member Johnston that efforts to fight the east-west achievement gap were ongoing. It would be interesting to hear more about those efforts, which are a serious issue for Duluth schools; it’s a topic that deserves a real debate. Sadly, Member Johnston thinks that raising hell over things that have already happened is a better use of his time.

The Human Resources action items sailed past the Board, 6-0, but the Business Committee report was another issue. First, a few items were hauled out for discussion; Member Westholm had some questions on snow removal contracts answered to his satisfaction, and Member Johnston relayed some concerns from parents about the cubbies being installed at Congdon, which Facilities Management Director Kerry Leider attempted to answer. As usual, Member Johnston pulled out a few items for his support, and as usual, he tried to make a motion to not approve change orders on the Long Range Facilities Plan, which was not seconded.

Next, the District looked to certify the maximum funding levy, which sets an upward bound on the amount of money the District is able to levy for taxes at the December meeting. This is standard procedure for school boards, and is the action recommended by the state Board of Education. Member Johnston, however, decided this would be a good time to inform the public that passage of the first levy question on the ballot would result in a six percent tax increase for Duluth taxpayers. He grumbled that he’d been told the District was going to “hold the line,” and that it was “inappropriate” to now raise taxes.

Supt. Gronseth, sounding as upset as he ever has, said the only “inappropriate” thing here was Member Johnston’s “unfortunate” comments. The tax hike, he explained, had nothing to do with the levy on the ballot, but came about due to the District’s inability to sell old school properties. Rather than further draw down the much-diminished general fund, the District was looking to raise property taxes somewhat, and could make up for it by under-levying once the properties have been sold. He said Member Johnston was “trying to confuse the issue.” The Superintendent’s alarm was understandable; the obvious conclusion to be inferred Member Johnston’s sudden stand on taxes was “if you don’t want your taxes to go up, don’t support the levy,” which, as both men know, would have grave consequences for school funding. This is what Member Johnston wants, now that he has reversed his past stance and come out against the levy.

(If he were to read this post, Member Johnston would likely claim that he simply ‘said what he said,’ and was trying to be transparent, and nothing more. Such a claim would, of course, be hopelessly naïve of how public perception works. Member Johnston might then claim that he has no use for politicking, as he has from time to time, yet he also often acts as the ultimate politician, manipulating words so as to divorce the “truths” he claims to uphold from a broader context. And, as later events proved, his interest in transparency is highly selective.)

Predictably, Member Johnston fired back, claiming he was the only person “talking reality,” and that the levy’s passage would mean a tax increase. Business Services Director Bill Hansen answered that it was still in flux, and Chair Kasper grew peeved at Member Johnston, as he repeatedly tried to throw questions at Mr. Hansen without waiting for the Chair to recognize speakers. Supt. Gronseth reiterated the fact that the first question on the ballot levies the exact same amount of money as the existing levy, and said Member Johnston was making things even more confusing as he pressed on and brought bonds into the issue.

At this point, the long-silent Member Wasson exploded. She said the District employed finance specialists who knew what they were talking about, and said she had some things to get off her chest now that her time on the Board is coming to the end. “To muddy these waters is absolutely crazy,” she said, and was “no good” if “we are at all serious about our jobs as School Board members. I’m appalled.” She said she was sure a certain, unnamed member would “find a way to have the final say, as he always does,” but she “guaranteed” that Mr. Hansen and Supt. Gronseth “have the right answers.”

In response, a simpering Member Johnston played the victim card, accusing the rest of the Board of “lacking in positive energy” and that they were acting as if “putting on a light [indicating his desire to comment] is something negative.” (Curiously, he did not ask Chair Kasper to reprimand Member Wasson, even though her attack was far more scathing than Member Seliga-Punyko’s at the August meeting.) He then asked whether the money making up the gap left by the unsold schools would come from the general fund or tax certifications; Mr. Hansen, reminding the Board that things were still in flux, said he anticipated it would come from the tax certification, as had been obvious from the beginning. This response did not satisfy Member Johnston, and he would repeat his initial question three times over the next few minutes, each time receiving a slightly different wording in response from a patient Mr. Hansen. The agendas at play were clear enough: Member Johnston wanted a soundbite in which a District employee plainly said taxes would go up; the District representatives were unwilling to oblige him.

Chair Kasper, the closest thing Member Johnston has to a sympathetic ear on the Board, then called him out for confusing everyone, including himself. He said that, in their many discussions over the years, the two of them had often agreed that a tax increase was a sensible way to avoid diminishing the general fund further. Tellingly, Member Johnston did not deny the charge, but instead whined that he’d thought those discussions had been confidential, a claim Chair Kasper quickly dismissed. It is a curious stance for Member Johnston, considering he purports to support transparency in the Red Plan debate, and a revealing one: he has reached the point where he is so zealous in his fervor to make his point that he wants to sweep his past ideas on what might actually improve the district’s financial situation under the rug. A man who once supported higher taxes as the least bad option has been born again as a man who refuses to see them budge—not out of some great philosophical change, but because he feels so wronged by his colleagues who either supported, or are simply aware of the reality of, a plan that already happened. He has no alternative proposal, and knows he will not sway the Board. I am genuinely curious to know he thinks he is achieving for the good of the Duluth schools.

Finally, Member Miernicki managed to get a word in edgewise, and pointed out that many people had turned on their lights to say positive things. He said that Member Johnston was “dealing with conjecture,” and that the “ping-pong match” between him and Mr. Hansen wasn’t going anywhere. He called the question, a parliamentary procedure designed to end the debate; his motion to do so passed, 5-1, ending the absurd charade.

The levy certification also passed, 5-1, and the Board also passed a utility easement at East High. Poor Mr. Haney, who’d endured the entire circus, then finally learned the fate of his trail easement; it passed, 6-0, though Member Wasson added that the District was waiting on the City Council to pass some zoning changes. An exhausted Board thus wrapped up its business. In the closing comments, Student Member Thibault proved himself the sanest person in the room, as he lectured the entire Board for its “name-calling” and “whispering,” its “childish” and “unprofessional” outbursts, which “damage the District’s reputation and hurt the community.”

***

In case you didn’t notice, Harry Welty was kind enough to respectfully acknowledge my post about him, and a couple of subsequent posts on his blog referenced my points. This one seems particularly appropriate in the aftermath of this meeting. This post is already long, so I’m not going to try to continue the dialogue now, but I will do so later in the week.

The Harry Welty Paradox

18 Sep

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.