Tag Archives: school board

Drawing the Lines

27 Jan

The Duluth school district, which has not changed school boundaries since the completion of its major school restructuring Red Plan a decade ago, has embarked on an effort to redraw boundaries. While ostensibly an effort to re-balance enrollments between some schools that are overcrowded and some that are underutilized, it has also invited some serious, difficult discussion about socioeconomic inequities and Duluth’s east-west divide. It also comes at a distinct point in time, as we have a superintendent on his way out the door and the most heterodox school board in recent memory. For professional reasons, I will not comment on the decision-making process or the work of the boundary-drawing consultant, Cooperative Strategies; this post look only at what they have produced and its implications for the future of Duluth’s schools and neighborhoods. (The two are, after all, deeply intertwined.)

At this stage, Cooperative Strategies has developed three scenarios for public consumption, though the firm and district have also noted that none of them are necessarily the final plan. The plans don’t do much to change the socioeconomic composition of any elementary schools, mostly because it is very, very hard to do so given Duluth’s orientation along a lakeshore and the location of its most affluent neighborhoods. The changes largely hinge on two considerations: the fate of Lowell Elementary and the question of where to draw the line between east and west side middle and high schools.

First, the Lowell question: Lowell has become home to the district’s two growing language immersion programs in Spanish and Ojibwe and no longer pulls many students from nearby neighborhoods. Scenario 1 turns it entirely into a language magnet and sends its remaining neighborhood students to either Homecroft or Piedmont or Myers-Wilkins; Scenario 3 keeps the language programs but also retains a few neighborhood students, and Scenario 2 splits the difference and moves the Ojibwe program to Stowe while leaving Spanish at Lowell. Scenario 3 has the added wrinkle of splitting the Lowell elementary population between the two middle and high schools, a situation the other scenarios avoid. The Lowell scenarios invite questions over the future of where Duluth Heights and Kenwood (and even bits of Hunters Park and Chester Park) fit into the picture and where to house the language programs. The former one is a complicated one that I won’t delve into here, and I’d need data on where the participating students come from to have an opinion on the latter.

Second, and more controversial, is the middle and high school boundary. Right now, enrollments are significantly higher in the east side schools than those on the west, a result of a decision made in the Red Plan days that somewhat balanced socioeconomics. All three proposed plans now seek to equalize enrollments. Scenario 2 is effectively what the Red Plan could have been with more equal overall enrollments: all Myers-Wilkins students (who currently split between east and west) head west, all Homecroft kids (now including the rural bits that currently feed into Lowell) head east, and the socioeconomic split becomes slightly more pronounced than it currently is. Scenarios 1 and 3 take a step toward equalizing socioeconomics by sending Homecroft kids, including the entirety of the Woodland neighborhood, west, while sending all of Myers-Wilkins to the east. The potential Woodland shift has, predictably, been the most explosive piece of the proposals.

Equity, Equality, and Outcomes

The question of the different demographics in schools sparks a debate about equity and equality, two words that get thrown around a lot in school boundary debates but mean very different things. The easiest way to sum up the difference: equality gives people the same resources regardless of where they all, while equity recognizes inherent differences in where people start and tries to balance them by giving more to those who need more, and (potentially) less to those who start with more. The recent debate about compensatory education dollars doled out by the state to help correct differences between socioeconomic groups, which had previously been divided equally among schools (the same amount per pupil per school) but are now divided more equitably by school (higher amounts to schools with more students are in disadvantaged groups and lower amounts to schools with less) is a good illustration of this divide.

In graduate school, I took a class from Myron Orfield, one of the foremost scholarly proponents of court-ordered integration in public schools. Predictably, Orfield has his share of critics from the right, who question things like anti-segregation busing or creative line drawing in the name of equality as overwrought social engineering. By the time I was in his classroom, however, the most vocal of Orfield’s opponents were coming from the left, and they usually framed their beef in a racial lens. These critics questioned whether mixing people together in the name of integration was a good in and of itself, and argued that shipping kids of color to more white schools in the belief that exposure to kids at such schools would somehow lift their performance was actually rather insulting to students of color. Instead, these critics argue, districts should invest more resources in neighborhood schools that acknowledge and lift up the culture of the people of color. In oversimplified terms, Orfield was a proponent for equality; his new critics wanted equity.

There’s a key difference in the Duluth proposals: by sending Woodland kids on a bus journey across the city to Lincoln Park and Denfeld, ISD 709 wouldn’t be busing kids from low-income families to more affluent schools; it would be doing the reverse. Several people in my circles who I’d generally describe as relatively well-off liberals really like this: they recognize their kids enjoy advantages that won’t fade away if they go to Lincoln Park instead of Ordean East, and they want to send them to mixed schools that reflect the general makeup of the country (or, at least, the area) that they will encounter when they complete their K-12 educations. The loud, angry reactions from Woodland were certainly predictable, though, as were the more practical concerns about logistics and drive times. As the Star Tribune pithily noted, the one thing the attendees at a workshop at Duluth East could agree on was that they didn’t like any of the options.

Fundamentally, these debates run directly along the most pronounced fissures in American society and asks a profound question: can an increasingly diverse school district in an increasingly economically divided metro area find some way to draw lines to mend the fences? Without launching into a discourse on Robert Putnam’s findings on diversity and social trust or the various competing contact and conflict theories of diverse societies, I’ll just say this: diversity, whether racial or socioeconomic, is complicated. And it should be if we acknowledge the full range of human possibility, and that complication deserves respect. In cases like this, I think it’s helpful to strip away the overarching theory for a moment and look at the incentives that changes might create.

What Incentives Do Boundaries Create?

School boundaries are, of course, one tool that communities can control that can shape their divides. But is drawing lines in ways that aim toward balance the best way to achieve that? (When court-ordered across a metropolitan area Orfield’s evidence would say yes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here: people have a lot of other choices.) And is there merit in working to have a critical mass of kids from certain backgrounds in the same place so that they can build a community and so that it becomes easier to deliver any additional support they may need? (If so, what exactly is this “group” we’re talking about?) For that matter, how would the various scenarios affect things such as compensatory education dollars? Redrawing boundaries could reshape the district in myriad ways.

If I sound more cautionary about district-driven integration than one might assume given some of my past writings, part of the reason has to be lived experience: when the Red Plan went into place, it too sought to equalize elementary school enrollments, but trends have not gone the way its architects expected. Some of this is only natural; it’s hard to predict the future, and as many in and around the district have noted, boundaries are something schools should revisit periodically.

But Duluth’s trends over the past ten years were not particularly hard to foresee. The two most affluent elementary schools, riding their reputation, became overcrowded; many of the lowest-income schools, meanwhile, bled kids. I’d need access to more data to say whether this is a product of open enrollment out of the district on the west side or families with kids consciously choosing to live in Congdon or Lakeside—most likely it’s some combination of the two—but it’s a pretty obvious trend. People will vote with their feet no matter where the lines are drawn. The question, then, is how individual schools can act in ways that attract students instead of pushing them out.

I don’t think this observation necessarily has obvious implications. Would Scenario 1 or 3 lead Woodland families to bail on the district, either by enrolling elsewhere or chopping Woodland of the list of neighborhoods they consider? It’s a very real possibility. Or do enough stay put and thereby create positive feedback loops into the western schools, thereby strengthening them (assuming one believes they actually need to be “strengthened”) and leading fewer families to bail out into Hermantown or Wrenshall or private or charter schools? We have a decade worth of data on those enrollment trends from other neighborhoods post-Red Plan to inform forecasts of what might happen here. Whichever option the district chooses, it needs to rely on more than a wishful belief in good intentions.

Fear for the Future

The questions surrounding the Woodland debate feed into a broader trend I observe so often now, whether in school choice or in any number of realms, from youth athletics to friend circles, that affect children’s futures. The logic of late capitalism has led child management for positive outcomes to become a second job, and parents will spend as much of their resources as they can to seek what they believe to be better. I don’t doubt that this has always been true to some extent, just as Duluth has always been divided between east and west, but it seems so much more pronounced now: there is a fundamental panic that things might go wrong, the product of a precarious society where even the well-off do not feel comfortable in their stations. Some west side parents feel forced to defend their choice to send their kids to the neighborhood schools as if it were a risky proposition.

This precarious world is a product of a socioeconomic climate where parents are scared their kids won’t be able to match or exceed their parents’ living standards. In an environment filled with choice, people panic that if they do not make the right choice, they may be setting their children up for failure. They may or may not be right, but perception is reality, and the need to choose correctly creates self-reinforcing loops. In this environment, the typical parent who does not live diversity and socioeconomic theory (and even a healthy number who do) will make the choices that most minimize risk of the concerns they have. They will, once again, vote with their feet.

Part of me wants to roll my eyes at this endless push. On a certain level, kids will be fine; unless it is a truly chaotic environment where no learning can take place, the evidence is pretty clear that factors beyond schools play much bigger roles in kids’ prospects than what goes on in the building itself. In my volunteer role as a college admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I’ve seen no evidence that talented kids with good support networks can’t make it in to the Georgetowns of the world, no matter where in the Duluth area they go to high school. But can I pretend that some of these considerations aren’t present as I decide which neighborhoods to focus on when I buy a house in this city sometime this year? No, I can’t.

School boundary discussions are wicked problems with no easy solutions, perhaps because we can’t quite agree on the question. Even the most committed, well-meaning believers in an integrated society struggle with where to draw lines, literal and figurative, for their own children. To that end, maybe it’s best that we pause and remember what lines cannot do: they cannot reverse people’s opinions on social and economic divides; they cannot make well-off kids dumber or turn students from hopelessly broken homes into college-bound scholars. Maybe that can offer some reassurance to both those in panic over potential changes and the full-throated believers in the transformative power of integration. Still, those who ultimately draw the lines have the task of managing the process with care and understanding for all of the people—and through them, the very fabric of a community—their decisions affect. May they choose well.

A Slowly Widening Gyre: Duluth Election Dissection, 2019

7 Nov

First, to explain my silence on local politics to the readers who don’t talk to me regularly: over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the campaign manager for Arik Forsman’s at-large city council campaign. This blog’s ethos has always sought distance from any cheerleading I may do in private, and I much prefer to work with people directly than yell things out at the internet in the hope that doing so achieves things. Now that it’s all over, though, I’ll attempt to step back from my role over the past year and find the bigger picture.

Mayor Emily Larson rolled to a second term, though we always knew that was going to happen. David Nolle did manage to win four precincts, all of them in a row along the riverfront out west, from Irving to Fond du Lac. While political winds blow here and there in many of the other races, Larson holds a dominant center in Duluth politics. She’s heard some grumbling to both the left and the right, and her campaign’s efforts to spend a lot of time out west, knowing it had nothing to lose, didn’t yield stronger outcomes than her even more lopsided win four years ago. For now, though, the mayoralty is firmly in her hands, and she has a chance to see results from some of the longer-term projects that were at the center of her first term, such as the new streets tax and the medical district.

Elsewhere, however, some cracks in Duluth’s governing consensus emerged, and they were most evident in the at-large city council race. A somewhat conservative political newcomer, Derek Medved, paced the field, with Labor-endorsed incumbents Arik Forsman and Noah Hobbs coming in second and third. This at-large race was most notable for its surge in bullet voting, with voters on the left and right choosing only one candidate in the hope of getting theirs across the finish line. Forsman survived this new tactic, while the collateral damage in 2019 Duluth was Hobbs, whose low-key style and prolific policy work didn’t match the moment.

A Trump Era left rejects candidates who aren’t in lockstep with its vision. Mike Mayou, the left’s 21-year-old candidate, ran an interesting jumble of a race, at times displaying some real charisma with soaring rhetoric and at times making unforced errors like 6 AM primary election robocalls. Mayou broke through and seized the DFL endorsement, which seemed to have little short-term benefit but certainly emboldened the progressive wing of the party going forward. His general election performance improved somewhat on his somewhat distant primary showing, but in the end he appeared on a smaller percentage of ballots cast than Rich Updegrove did two years ago; his percentage simply looks a little higher due to all of the bullet voting. One moment he was a “UMD student,” and another he was a “community organizer,” which aren’t mutually exclusive but convey very different things; sometimes he seemed to just follow the incumbents’ talking points, even as some of his supporters trashed Hobbs and Forsman relentlessly on social media. Those supporters will no doubt blame Labor, which did not endorse Mayou, though that argument is difficult to sustain in a nonpartisan race in which one’s candidate is running against two incumbents who have delivered for Labor, and when one’s candidate finishes last among the viable candidates in both rounds; after the primary, I mostly stopped paying attention, as I knew the threat, so to speak, would come from the right. The Mayou campaign seemed an apt mirror for the progressive moment: filled with unbridled passion, devoted to national-level talking points, and at times more fixated on shaming its putative allies than the conservatives whose rise it may unwittingly enable.

City Council At-Large Results by Precinct

A well-funded and organized right, meanwhile, is well-positioned to exploit the leftward internal warfare. Still, Medved ran a vague campaign that really didn’t always align with the tighter messaging of his conservative funders. He won not because he was BizPac’s man (though the money didn’t hurt); he won because he made himself the face of the west side, and that east-west divide is increasingly the fault line in Duluth politics. He even won in deep blue Lincoln Park, and I’m not sure any more money or different messaging would have made a difference. While Medved isn’t particularly Trumpy, the tribal loyalty he inspired does have a whiff of national politics to it, and while both Hobbs and Forsman can claim some working class cred and have taken on bureaucratic red tape, it’s much easier to come across as pure on such fronts when one doesn’t have a track record. As a newcomer to politics, Medved now begins his education in governance.

The district races featured a fascinating mix. Becky Hall, a hard-working also-ran, lost by a substantial margin to incumbent Gary Anderson in the first district, while Janet Kennedy, after twice failing to break through in previous cycles, outworked Jeanne Koneczny in the fifth district. Kennedy improved her performance most notably in the Riverside/Smithville/Norton Park areas compared to her showing against Jay Fosle four years ago and became Duluth’s first African-American city councilor. BizPac’s two district candidates came nowhere near matching its at-large candidate. The third district race, which defied easy categories, saw Roz Randorf pull out the win over Labor-endorsed Theresa O’Halloran-Johnson. The gap closed somewhat after a lopsided primary, but Randorf pulled away with strong showings in the higher-income areas atop the hill and out on Park Point. One presumes Randorf’s loyalties lie more with the leftward core that ran her campaign than her initial BizPac donors, but she offers a potentially fascinating wild card on the council.

5th District City Council: Janet Kennedy (purple) vs. Jeanne Koneczny (red)

On the school board side of the ledger Alanna Oswald proved resilient, winning a second election against a Labor-endorsed opponent despite enduring health challenges in the closing weeks of the campaign. Her early work got her out ahead of challenger John Schwetman, who kept the race fairly competitive but only won in a high-income east side core of neighborhoods and in a few of the precincts outside of city limits. Oswald’s cross-cutting appeal captures both the old Red Plan critics and a new wave seeking to advance greater equity, and the relative blurriness of school politics allows that pitch to succeed in a way I’m not sure can work in a council race.

School Board At-Large: Alanna Oswald (orange) vs. John Schwetman (blue)

In the district races, two anti-Red Plan crusaders of the past failed to win, though the margins map on to the traditional east-west divide in Duluth school politics. Incumbent David Kirby rolled past Harry Welty in the second district, while over in the third district, Loren Martell had his best showing in his many races and gave newcomer Paul Sandholm a decent run despite falling short in the end. Martell carried two precincts, one in lower Duluth Heights and one on the near East Hillside. Welty has signaled this campaign, his seventeenth, may have been his last; after a closer call, Martell may yet give it another go. We are firmly on our path in a new era of school board politics now, and after crossing paths with some of the newer members over the past several months, I’m as optimistic about the district’s future as I’ve been in a while. I look forward to seeing what this group can do with its impending superintendent search.

The past few Duluth election cycles have been dominant for Labor, which usually found a way to hold broad left-of-center center of Duluth politics. Its success isn’t some magical formula: over the past 12 years, it’s coupled union work ethic and business support to back a governing consensus focused on collaboration and incremental progress. It’s overseen a substantial rehabilitation of this city’s outward image, surges in investment with no recent precedent, and incomes rising faster than national averages; while far from flawless, it’s hard to argue with the overall trajectory. The Labor machine, in the words of Don Ness, made Duluth politics boring for a spell.

Labor still won a majority of its races in 2019, but there were some significant defeats and narrower margins. National polarization is making its way into local politics, and when that happens, the center does not always hold. As someone who just managed a campaign that made an effort to rise above national level ugliness one of its core tenets, the end results are not overly encouraging. But centrism (or center-leftism) for its own sake isn’t an inspiring platform, and we can talk about “nuance” and “creativity” all day, but at some point those have to manifest themselves in actual, measurable results. I know the candidate I worked for is committed to that, and I can only hope his interesting collection of new colleagues is as well.

In many ways, my job over the past year was easy: the Forsman campaign was very well-resourced, my candidate worked relentlessly, and he brought together a deep, strong team with good diversity of thought that worked as a unit to keep any one task from becoming onerous. I had plenty of fun with it. At the same time, it was my own education in the rigors of a campaign and the unexpected twists it can take, and at times a striking reminder that politics is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure what comes next for my political life; I’m not one to take deep pleasure at the mere act of being in the arena, but I do enjoy winning, and the real work, of course, is what we can achieve after an election. Time to get to work.

Duluth Election Dissection 2017

8 Nov

Another year at the polls has come and gone. Now, as is my wont, I’ll play Monday morning (Wednesday evening?) quarterback for the campaigns. Sadly, I no longer have easy GIS access (unless I have any volunteer GIS slaves out there?), so I won’t have pretty maps like I did two years ago, and will spare my readers the Microsoft Paint maps I made four years ago. You’ll just have to make do with some descriptions of the precinct-by-precinct results.

It was a fairly predictable night in city council politics, as is generally the case. The school board, meanwhile, saw a more dramatic change in direction. Voter turnout was low, even for a non-mayoral off year election. Rates ranged from about 40 percent on the east side to less than 20 percent in a handful of downtown and west side precincts, for a city-wide total of 27.9 percent.

Council Stability Continues

In the at-large city council races, the two incumbents, Zack Filipovich and Barb Russ, carried the day. The end results mirrored the primary. Filipovich’s ground game and ability to lock up labor support separated him from the pack, and he ran comfortably ahead of the field. Russ was the candidate among the four least likely to inspire strong emotions; while the other three all had their ardent supporters and vocal critics, everyone seemed more or less fine with Barb Russ, and that was enough to edge her past the two challengers, Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove. The end result was a vote for continuity, and for two incumbents who may not inspire the activist base of the Duluth left, but are certainly acceptable to most of them and know the ins and outs of local politics.

Kennedy had a core committed supporters, and while there were some strong symbolic acts associated with it, as in her trek from one end of the city to the other, that attention was largely limited to a core of high information voters, and I never got the sense that she generated attention beyond that outside of a couple of core neighborhoods. (For example, I received multiple leaflets from every other candidate on my ballot, but never saw a thing from the Kennedy campaign.) Updegrove generated some strong early momentum, but in the end his campaign didn’t seem to move past generic talking points associated with the leftward wing of the Democratic Party, and while that platform will do reasonably well in Duluth, it isn’t at a point where it will win, either. For me, at least, this was a noticeable juxtaposition with the likes of Russ, who was deep in the weeds on housing policy specific to Duluth. Following the lead of her ally Filipovich, she did the necessary retail politics to pull out the election.

In the Second District, Joel Sipress cruised to re-election over political newcomer Ryan Sistad. It’s possible for a 23-year-old to run a successful campaign—see Filipovich’s effort four years ago—but Sistad didn’t have anywhere near that level of polish. While Sipress’s politics may not be all that different from those of an Updegrove, he has a keen knowledge of how to play the political game, focusing on neighborhood issues and emphasizing his service to a district in a way that other staunch members of the left do not. They have something to learn from him, though the caliber of one’s opponents also makes a difference.

Finally, in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett eked out a win over incumbent Howie Hanson. As the most suburban district in the city, the Fourth is fertile ground for the fiscally conservative platform Hanson ran on; frankly, I think anyone else running on Hanson’s issues in this district probably would have won. But Hanson is a recent adopter of many of these issues, and anyone who has watched him in action knew that he (to put it politely) wasn’t always the smoothest ambassador for his positions. Van Nett brings some newfound diversity to the Council (two out of its nine members are now at least part Native American), and with her emphasis on building consensus and cooperation instead of hard policy stands, she’s one of the more blank slates to enter the council in recent years.

The geography of the votes was also fairly predictable. Filipovich won most of the precincts, while Kennedy collected a handful downtown and on the hillsides, plus Irving out west. Upedgrove led on the UMD campus, which is often an outlier, while Russ didn’t win one. Filipovich and Russ, whose vote totals tended to move in concert, did their best on the east and west ends of the city, and also cleaned up in Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where they likely benefited from not having anyone to their right and were likely considered the least bad options by Duluth’s more conservative neighborhoods. Kennedy’s strength of support was in the center of the city, though she also did passably well on the west side. Updegrove, in contrast, was at his best on the east side but ran poorly on the west side, which was probably his undoing.

In the Second District, Sipress cleaned up pretty much everywhere, with Kenwood being the only precinct in which he was (slightly) under 60 percent. Predictably, Howie Hanson did his best work in Duluth Heights and Piedmont in the Fourth District, while Van Nett owned Lincoln Park. She rolled up her margins in those lower-income precincts down the hill, and stayed competitive enough in Piedmont and the Heights to take down Hanson.

In the end, the results here are pretty clear. While this election removed one of the two semi-conservative councilors in Howie Hanson (if one could even call him that), it also rejected a move further left in the at-large races, in effect staying the course. There was perhaps a slight leftward drift given Van Nett’s breakthrough and the failure of the conservatives to get a candidate to the final four in the at-large race, but there are enough asterisks with Hanson that I don’t think the end result signals any sort of sea change in Duluth politics.

The Great School Board Slaughter of 2017

There’s no real way to spin this one: the 2017 school board elections were a decisive mandate for the DFL-backed candidates, the current district administration, and the present direction of the Board.

The slaughter was most extreme in the two district races. In the First District, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the incumbent perhaps most strongly aligned with the district administration, had no trouble dispatching of Kurt Kuehn. But even more eye-opening was Jill Lofald’s demolition of two-term incumbent Art Johnston in the Fourth District. Johnston has withstood intense opposition before, but this time he suffered a 15-point loss. Things were somewhat tighter in the at-large race, but Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham still comfortably outpaced incumbent Harry Welty and newcomer Dana Krivogorsky.

Heading into Election Day, I wasn’t sure if running as a unified ticket with Welty and Johnston, who have their supporters but also their share of baggage, would help or hurt Krivogorsky and Kuehn. In 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard not to see it as a mistake, as Krivogorsky’s careful attention to finance charts seemed to get lost in her association with the other campaigns. Ten years after the Red Plan became reality, beating that same old drum has exhausted Duluth voters. Longtime readers will know I think Johnston and Welty have raised important points over the years, but the rhetoric here has become so repetitive and so personal that I can see how even many who are not thrilled with the nonstop positivity of the DFL candidates would sour on the same old act. Johnston seemed tired, Welty’s blog posts degenerated into a lot more snipping at opponents, and Loren Martell’s columns in the Reader lately might have come out of a Loren Martell Column Generator. Casting protest votes that never achieve anything concrete gets old after a while, and I’ve long maintained that when the focus is more on the candidates themselves than the causes they represent, it’s probably a sign that their time has come and gone. This district needs newer, more constructive critics of the board’s recent direction.

This victory may prove short-lived for the new, completely post-Red Plan school board. Budgetary issues loom large, and unsold buildings still sit vacant. ISD 709 can’t afford many more cuts. The pessimistic case would say that these new, ever-so-positive board members are naively barreling into a future they are ill-equipped to handle. The optimistic case holds that removing the old Red Plan warriors may be a healthy thing: instead of assuming the same old battle lines, perhaps we can now have more open and honest debates on the issues in front of the board. It’s possible to be critical without being abrasive, as Alanna Oswald has shown us, and some clearer air could do everyone some good. Perchance to dream.

The precinct results still reveal some measure of the old east-west divide in Duluth school politics: the combined total for Trnka and Gorham cleared 60 percent in nearly every east side precinct, while the totals were much closer on the west. Still, Welty and Krivogorsky only combined for the majority in three precincts in the city: the two in Duluth Heights and in Irving, which is traditionally the most anti-Red Plan in the city proper. Normanna and North Star Townships, which they also carried, are similarly on the far fringe of that issue. Factoring in Johnston’s defeat, the east-west divide was actually less pronounced in 2017 than it has been in recent years: Lofald’s win was so thorough that Johnston was only within ten percentage points of her in Irving. Meanwhile, in the First District, Loeffler-Kemp swept the deck in the Duluth precincts in the First District, and Kuehn was fairly competitive only in the low-vote townships and Rice Lake.

Street Tax Success

Duluth voters voiced their support for a sales tax dedicated to street repairs by a margin of over three to one. This was the clear message I expected them to send, but by an even more decisive margin than I might have guessed. No one much likes it, but we have to take our pills, and frustration with potholes seems to unite Duluthians regardless of their political leanings. Another tax increase isn’t the easiest thing to swallow, particularly for voters on fixed incomes—I can only hope that the other shoe doesn’t drop when it comes to a future school board levy—but with a clear need and overwhelming popular support, mayor Emily Larson has the vote of endorsement she needs to move this through the state legislature.

Side Notes

I’ll end with a special shoutout to Jono Cowgill, the new District Four representative on the Minneapolis Parks Board. The MURP Class of 2016 is doing big things. Who’s next?

Duluth Primary Prognosis 2017

10 Sep

For the past ten years, Duluth has been ruled by what we might call the Don Ness Consensus: effectively, an optimistic union of center-left and activist left. On the city council, this meant that people like Sharla Gardner, Joel Sipress, Zack Filipovich, Dan Hartman, Emily Larson, Barb Russ, Jennifer Julsrud, and Linda Krug were all effectively allies within a majority pushing a common vision. They have all enjoyed support from labor, environmentalists, and the more moderate wing of the DFL that is more aligned with business interests. Any disputes within this camp were often more personal or stylistic than political.

This movement enjoyed considerable electoral success, as it drew down the older conservative guard to one single member (Jay Fosle) but also did not allow for any real inroads from the Green Party types who also sometimes made it out of election primaries. Because it was so consensus-driven and flexible enough to accommodate neighborhood concerns, it built up a lot of political capital, and has been loath to spend it on anything other than questions of long-term fiscal sustainability, as in Ness’s battle with pension debt and Larson’s current push to fix up the streets. Its goal, so to speak, is a unified city with a fresh new image and little in the way of controversy. Ness himself once said his goal was to make politics boring, shorn of the ideological firefights of old.

No political coalition is eternal, however, and while Larson at the top still seems to command the respect of Duluth DFLers of different stripes, there are signs of fractures beneath, and we’ll learn just how real those are in this fall’s election. A new wing of the Duluth left has risen in recent years. The national political climate has driven this somewhat, as an anti-Trump left feels a new sense of urgency to assert its ideals on the local level after somewhat neglecting that sphere in the Obama years. Some national issues have particular salience in Duluth: after a battle over oil pipeline construction drew national attention in Standing Rock, pipeline questions have hit home in a city where Enbridge has a base of operations; debates over non-ferrous mining in watersheds upstream from Duluth and the Boundary Waters rage on; and the city now has a taskforce is assessing the plausibility and possible methods of implementation of earned sick and safe time, a national progressive cause. Subtle shifts in the Duluth electorate also play a role: the city has become somewhat younger and somewhat more diverse than it was 10 years ago. All of this adds up to less patience among activists with the gradual, more cautious approach of some local politicians who want these things to go through long vetting processes and avoid taking loud stances on hot-button issues unless they’re sure they have broad public support.

What strikes me about all of this is just how small the ultimate policy differences are between the major left-leaning candidates. For the most part, these are differences in tone and emphasis, and this being the Duluth DFL, there is no shortage of personal umbrage and intrigue involved, too. Still, I think this race has at least some chance of re-working Duluth politics, and not necessarily in predictable ways.

City Council

This is all most obvious in the city council at-large race. There are four left-leaning candidates here, at least three of which (and quite possibly all four) will advance to the final round. Zack Filipovich, Janet Kennedy, Barb Russ, and Rich Updegrove all represent different pieces of the old Ness coalition. Updegrove personifies the rising leftward flank in Duluth politics, using his charisma and Bernie Sanders campaign credentials; Kennedy, an African-American activist who lost out to Fosle in the fifth district in 2015, joins him in having earned an endorsement from Our Revolution, the Sanders campaign’s movement to win local elections. A young environmentalist Sanders acolyte and a candidate who draws strongly on her experience as a black woman in Duluth represent two sides of a newly ascendant left, and map on to changes in the national Democratic party. Barb Russ got a DFL endorsement when first elected four years ago, but didn’t land it again; she represents an older, perhaps endangered brand of Duluth liberalism as the Congdon-dwelling retired county attorney with a fairly consistent, low-key voice. Filipovich, the only candidate who secured a DFL endorsement amid a contested convention, attempts to keep everyone happy in a big tent, and spends more time in the weeds on policy than his opponents. (Go figure: the 27-year-old accountant never seen in public without a tie is the most skilled at locking up the DFL’s old labor base. Is there any question about how important relationships are in local politics?)

Again, the policy differences between Updegrove, Kennedy, Russ, and Filipovich are not large at the end of the day. It’s not uncommon to see yard signs mixing and matching the four of them. Outside of a highly engaged coterie around the candidates or related movements, preferences often have more to do with individual ties and ground games than association with distinct camps in the Duluth left. But the primary will tell us a lot about the magnitude of the rising leftist call for activism in local politics, and the staying power of the big tent, let’s-all-get-along-despite-our-differences Nessism.

There is some chance it’s not just those four who advance: the past two election cycles have seen a conservative candidate advance to the general election with relative comfort, and Jan Swanson has a pretty strong lawn sign presence out west. Taking on two incumbents and two lefty candidates with broader support is not an easy task in Duluth, but Swanson has some chance of making it through. If she were to bump one of the above four, I would suspect it will be Russ.

The other primary in a city council race is in the 4th District, which includes Lincoln Park, Piedmont, and Duluth Heights. This is an interesting one, given the range within that district and the fact that incumbent Howie Hanson was uncontested in 2013. Hanson, who once criticized his conservative predecessor for not adhering to Ness orthodoxy, has made a complete conversion to fiscal conservatism. This might give him some chance of escaping the primary in one of the more conservative districts in the city, but even then, his (euphemism alert) lack of polish makes him a long shot for a second term. His challengers, Renee Van Nett and Tom Furman, are both firmly to his left. Furman has been the more vocal leftist of the two and has an Our Revolution endorsement, while Van Nett strikes the more consensus-oriented tone and has the DFL nod.

Finally, there’s no primary in the 2nd District, where incumbent Joel Sipress has secured basically every major left-leaning endorsement. I live in this district and just had to look up the name of his challenger (Ryan Sistad) since I’ve seen zero presence to date, which is probably a pretty safe sign that Sipress will win without breaking a sweat.

School Board

While the city council’s composition seems to evolve, the school district keeps the same old battle lines. The first and fourth districts on opposite ends of the city don’t have primaries, as incumbents on opposite ends of most school-related fights (Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Art Johnston) take on challengers who are directly working with their opponents (Kurt Kuehn and Jill Lofald, respectively). It remains to be seen whether these are marriages of affection or convenience—these things haven’t always moved in predictable ways—but for now, the house money is probably on the incumbents. Oh joy, more of the same.

The only question in the primary will come in the at-large race, where five candidates will fight for four general election spots. The two from the anti-Red Plan camp are very familiar, as incumbent Harry Welty seeks another term, and Loren Martell launches his fourth consecutive run for a seat. Longtime readers will know I have an amiable history with Welty, given his willingness to engage with a kid blogger a few years back in serious dialogue over the course of the district and fully own my criticisms of him. That’s not easy to do as a politician, and I only wish I could have drawn the same sort of engagement out of someone in the board’s majority. But lately he seems more interested in squabbling with Loeffler-Kemp and even some of his older rivals, and is tossing out some odd ideas regarding high school consolidation. (Didn’t he spend most of the past decade and a half opposing a school merger imposed from above to the detriment of neighborhood schools?) Martell, to his credit, is taking a somewhat different tack this time around, with his lawn signs calling for east-west equality, something I consider a noble goal but am somewhat concerned may mistake the forest for the trees. He’s gotten steadily more polished over the years, and this may be the one where he breaks through.

But if I’m wary of going back to the old Red Plan warriors, I’m similarly reluctant to give the DFL-endorsed candidates much benefit of the doubt given the track record of most of the party-endorsed candidates over the past decade. My skepticism here is not policy-driven; their platforms rarely amount to much other than vague expressions of having children’s best interests at heart. Making note of the district’s divides and promising to fix them (with few to no details) is not a platform. One sees nothing in their campaigns that indicates any willingness to ask hard questions, to do more than rubber-stamp the administration’s proposals, and to meet with all parties involved to demand a higher standard for this district.

This leaves a fifth candidate, Dana Krivogorsky, with neither the DFL stamp of approval nor the name recognition of the longtime Red Plan warriors. Because of her outsider status, she’s probably the most likely to be the odd one out, and she’s been tied in with Welty and Martell somewhat. If she has some hope, it’s that she occupies roughly the same ground that Alanna Oswald did two years ago when she pulled off an upset over a DFL endorsed candidate.

This in an off-year, non-mayoral primary, so much of this race will come down to turning out voters. Traditionally, that’s a good thing for anyone with the DFL tag, but with newly inspired left-leaning activists who weren’t endorsed by the party and some fatigue over its stewardship of the school board, I see some potential cracks this fall. If 2016 taught us anything, some very unexpected things may slip in through the cracks when they appear, so grab some popcorn and make plans accordingly.

The State of Duluth Politics, March 2017

23 Mar

Longtime readers will know that this blog grew up on coverage of Duluth politics. While my current job is politically sensitive enough that I’d rather play it coy on many issues in front of the city these days, I will aim to venture a few comments here and there going forward. This past week is as good a chance as any, following the State of the City address; names are starting to pile up for this fall’s elections too, and as usual, I can’t resist the urge to comment on the ISD 709 school board.

Mayor Larson’s Coming-Out Party

Emily Larson delivered an eye-opening State of the City address on Monday. For the most part, Larson hasn’t set out to be a show-stopper, either during her time on the city council or in her rise to the top spot in City Hall. She’s a team player and a listener, and the first part of her address was devoted to recognizing the everyday work done by city employees to improve Duluth. But Monday night also hinted that there may be more to Emily Larson.

Her State of the City was an ambitious, effective speech. She hammered home three key themes: combating the opioid epidemic, creating affordable housing, and reducing energy emissions. It was a clear, broad vision, and while I’m sure many of us could lobby for certain other things getting higher billing, she does understand how these all interconnect. Her remarks on housing were particularly strong, both for the ambition of her plans and in the acknowledged nuance of housing policy and the market forces that drive it. Her comments on climate change drew the largest cheers from a staunchly liberal crowd, but this wasn’t some diatribe about the direction of national politics; while she acknowledged all of that, she repeatedly made it clear that the way forward required a focus on local action, on controlling what we can control, and shutting out the broader noise. “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach,” she said, quoting from a constituent letter. (Whether or not she reads a certain local blog that rather likes this topic, it’s refreshing to see that sort of consistency of vision.)

On Monday night, Larson showed she has the acumen necessary to keep together the broad governing coalition built by her predecessor, Don Ness. This is harder than people think, especially when it’s such a wide-ranging coalition that includes both the Chamber of Commerce crowd and an increasingly vocal activist left. Even though I’m fairly certain I know Larson’s opinion on the issues that have divided these two groups over the past year–oil pipelines, non-ferrous mining, earned sick and safe leave—she’s a smart enough operator to know not to waste her political capital on those debates. She puts herself in positions where she doesn’t need to fight tooth and nail to get her agenda done; she just provides the energy to spur it along, and builds complete movements. Unlike too many politicians who preach unity while ignoring half of their constituents, she actually does want to keep everyone on board. (Whether they will all be willing to stay there may be a different story.)

In contrast to Ness, Larson has never been deeply involved in the Democratic Party apparatus; perhaps for that reason, I had yet to give much thought about her as a candidate for higher office. But in this speech, I saw someone who has the charisma and the political skill that could allow her to make that run. With the climate change push, she’s even taking on an initiative that could be scaled up to another level, although she would certainly need to be even more nimble to succeed in a political environment such as the Minnesota 8th Congressional District. If she has the desire and can continue to balance the competing interests in her coalition, I think she has the skill to pull it off. Duluth has itself a powerful mayor, and while the form of power may not match a traditional definition of power, it is power nonetheless.

The Moribund Right

There will be little resistance to Larson’s agenda. To the extent that there are any cracks in the Ness-Larson coalition, they’ve come from people on the leftward flank of that coalition who aren’t fans of the business class, not from a challenge to the right. One doesn’t have to go too far back in Duluth political history to find a long tradition of fiscal conservatism, with recent proponents such as Jim Stauber, Garry Krause, Todd Fedora, and Chris Dahlberg. They were never a majority, but they had a consistent voice, and exercised some influence. Nowadays, with the partial exception of Jay Fosle—a somewhat more complicated figure—that species is all but extinct in Duluth politics.

To some extent, this reflects broader shifts in the American right. Older, civic-minded moderate patricians have much less of a place in the Republican Party now than they did a few years back. In some ways, Chuck Horton’s run for mayor presaged the Trump candidacy; while I wouldn’t draw too tight a parallel, they both tap into a stream of testosterone and had a white working class following. That sort of politics has a fairly low ceiling of support within Duluth proper, though, and (again, with the semi-exception of Fosle) doesn’t seem like much of a winner.  At the same time, the Ness Administration was pretty disciplined fiscally, so there wasn’t much ground to attack it on that front. There’s a lot less ground to occupy here. The only recent attempt to run a distinctive campaign on a nuanced, Duluth-specific conservative platform front came from state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, and she was running in a race she couldn’t win.

I doubt, however, that the Duluth electorate has changed that much in the past five years. Especially now that a few city councilors are taking a much harder leftward tack, I think there’s a clear opening for some center or center-right candidates to do well in elections here. The fourth district (Duluth Heights, Piedmont, Lincoln Park), which elected Garry Krause not that long ago, has an election for what will be an open seat this fall, and would be an obvious target. And while the at-large field is crowded with two incumbents (Zack Filipovich, Barb Russ) plus a few other left-leaning figures, it’s not hard to imagine a more distinctive voice running through a crowded field to at least make it past the primary. After that, a strong candidate would at least have a fighting chance, especially if there’s any division among the DFL ranks over whether to support the comparatively moderate incumbents or not.

For now, however, there are zero candidates stepping in to take that chance. I’d like to see someone try, even if I may not agree with said person on everything. One-party rule of any variety is cause for concern, and elected bodies should approximate the full range of views within a city. We’ll see if any viable takers emerge.

Meanwhile, Back at the School Board

Speaking of moribund…

When I started covering school board meetings on here nearly four years ago, I was very critical of the anti-Red Plan crowd, which at the time consisted of Art Johnston and a few hangers-on. They sounded devoid of ideas, and more interested in reliving a war that had already happened.

How the tables turn. Johnston, who benefits from having allies to keep him on point, has added Harry Welty and now the dynamic Alanna Oswald to his effort to needle the administration; over at the Reader, Loren Martell’s columns have become increasingly lucid. Agree or disagree with them, the school board minority is now putting creative ideas forward for dealing with the district’s issues, and has a new wave of energy. As for the majority and the administration? Well, current district teachers are now writing letters to the DNT editor filleting Superintendent Bill Gronseth’s job searches in other communities. At this point, I’m honestly not sure what the ISD 709 establishment stands for other than opposition to whatever it is that the minority supports. That’s a curious way to govern.

Four of the seven school board seats are up for grabs this fall. Since he was re-elected over a strong opponent with a favorable political climate four years ago, I suspect Johnston can have a third term in his far western district if he wants it. On the far east side, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the most steadfast opponent of the minority, is up for re-election. Two of the three at-large seats are also up; Welty will run for re-election, and I’d expect that Annie Harala will be back for another cycle, too. They’re both fairly strong incumbents, as Welty enjoys name recognition and the general tide of public sentiment, while Harala won very comfortably four years ago. At the time, she ran as a post-Red Plan unity candidate, and while she made some efforts to bridge gaps near the start of her term, she’s become a full-on member of the majority over time. That race will say a lot about the ISD 709 school board electorate, though the ability of the minority to recruit a capable candidate is paramount to making it competitive.

If the current minority can hold Johnston and Welty’s seats and pick up just one of Harala and Loeffler-Kemp’s, they’ll no longer be a minority. That would change the tenor of the board room debate in unpredictable ways; it could make things far more contentious between the board and staff, but it could also open up what has long been a stultifying debate. Are Duluth voters willing to take that chance?

Even more so than at the city council level, I think this has the potential to be a huge election year for the school board. There hasn’t been any noise about candidates here yet, but depending on how people play their cards, we could be in for a dramatic shake-up. I’ll be watching things here very closely.

Sell Central

27 Mar

I didn’t leave many secrets about my opinion when the idea of a Duluth Edison charter high school first emerged a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve only studied under one of the state’s greatest critics of charter schools, Myron Orfield. While I don’t buy all that Orfield sells uncritically, his data only reinforces many of the points I tried to make at the time. As I said, I didn’t think there was any credible way to spin a new, large charter high school as anything positive for the existing school district. I still fear that the most likely result of a new Edison High will be a Denfeld even further drained of students, with dire implications for public education in western and central Duluth. The odds will be stacked against it, and its troubles would be troubles for the entire west side.

Now, however, the Edison has made a public offer for the Duluth Central site. The school board will meet Monday to hear community input, and may consider waiving its policy restricting the sale of buildings to other K-12 educators. The offer, a cool $14.2 million, is significantly more than the offer from a private developer that fell through last year. Central has long been an albatross for the district, which has struggled to sell a very large, somewhat difficult to access property with a giant school building on it. ISD 709 must pay to maintain the old building and the surrounding property, and revenues that were supposed to help pay off the Red Plan have never materialized.

The policy against selling buildings to potential competition makes sense. In any other line of business, it would appear crazy to dump off a facility like this. But as the charter-public “competition” dynamic shows all too well, education does not operate like a normal market. The “competition” is here, and now the question is whether ISD 709 can make some profit off its arrival. $14 million won’t plug up all the holes, but it will help pay down some debt and insulate the district from truly damaging cuts.

This all goes to show that there is only one logical and moral choice for ISD 709: sell it. Sell it now. The Edison high school is a fait accompli. Its leadership is committed, and the Duluth Central alumni base, not without reason, will note that this fills a hole in the center of the city. (Don Ness had quite the Facebook manifesto on the subject.) There will not be a better deal, or a better use of that site, in the foreseeable future. While Duluth is doing relatively well right now, it has not become a magical boomtown, and with a fair amount of apartment development under way, I’m not sure there’s a market for a giant new development atop the hill. Given the tepid interest to date, and the much lower single (known) bid by someone other than Edison, to go along with all the access-related and demolition challenges at the site, the signs aren’t encouraging. Using that old high school for its original purpose also serves the community in other ways, as it saves wetlands and spares traffic congestion around the corner of Rice Lake and Arrowhead, where Edison planned to construct a school from scratch.

The only reasonable counterargument claims that selling the building starts the clock on the high school’s opening sooner, which will only hasten the loss of funding that comes with a loss in students. Still, the price tag here appears good enough to recoup those losses, particularly if ISD 709 can negotiate an enrollment cap. And while I think the Edison people need to be more aware of the potential unintended damage of their new project, this need for mutual understanding goes both ways: the district, too, must respect Edison’s presence in local educational debates and engage the charter. For everything that divides them, they do have a common goal.

For too long in Duluth education circles, infighting, territorialism, and pettiness have kept the city from that goal. It’s time to start anew.

Duluth’s Comings and Goings

5 Jan

I cycled through Duluth this past weekend, and while I couldn’t hang around long enough to attend all the inauguration festivities, yesterday marked the transition from one set of elected officials to another. Whether this means the start of a new era is probably an entirely different story, but for now, we can dream (or lament, or shrug indifferently, as we see fit). It’s been some time since I covered many of these people regularly, but I’ve been keeping up from afar, such as I can, and have a few final words. (Initial reactions to the election are here and here.)

The ISD 709 school board, my favorite hobbyhorse, saw some serious turnover, as all three incumbents retired. Nora Sandstad, David Kirby, and Alanna Oswald all enter the board sounding all the right notes about moving past the old divides, and now have a chance to prove it. Given the radio silence in recent debates and even on Harry Welty’s blog, it seems like there’s a cease fire in place for now. Whether this becomes a lasting peace is a different story, but I’m more optimistic than at any point in the past eight years.

As always, I’ll say a few words about the outgoing members. One, Judy Seliga-Punyko, leaves after two terms as the great champion of the Red Plan. She nursed it through countless political wars, left her own mark on it with advocacy for swimming pools, and led the internal effort to bring down Art Johnston. While that part of her legacy may be the most obvious, she also stood up and fought for any number of issues, and would at times demand answers from the administration. Even among those who always voted for her, none of the remaining board members quite have her combative spirit, so we’ll see if the tenor of board meetings changes in her absence.

Bill Westholm always voted with Seliga-Punyko, but was in many ways her polar opposite. He often stayed quiet through board meetings, playing his cards close to his chest and speaking out only when he could make an effective point. Given his gravitas, I’d wish we’d heard more from him. He retires after one term, which is no great surprise; he wasn’t exactly speeding around the board room by the end.

Mike Miernicki also voted in lockstep with the old board majority, but his legacy is also a rather different one. The jolly Miernicki was the activities director at Duluth East during my freshman year, and hovered around the school for the next three; he always seemed an agreeable man who’d do good work for the district. His time on the board, however, tested his limits. In more peaceful times he might have been a model board member, but conflict did not suit him, and he failed to hide his exasperation and general sense of defeat. (I’m still proud of the time I described him as “a man waving his arms wildly at a cloud of gnats,” which drew praise from all sides of the debate.) It was sad to watch.

My opinions are probably leaching through here, but I’ll wrap this up by thanking them all for their service and once again praying that the new board rise above the old wars.

On the city council side of things, there’s no need for caution in the optimism: people seem genuinely excited about the new wave of energy in Duluth politics, which looks to build off the last one. Two of the six people elected last fall are familiar faces; Jay Fosle returns for a third term, while Joel Sipress begins his first full one. Elissa Hansen and Noah Hobbs continue the youth movement among the at-large seats, and bring new but distinct brands of energy. Em Westerlund follows in much the same vein in the Third District, and there’s also something very distinctly Duluth about Gary Anderson, who takes over on the far east side.

Among the four retirees, council veteran Sharla Gardner leaves after a distinguished career of advocacy for the center of the city, though I doubt she’ll disappear from view. Even if we disagreed, I admired her integrity, particularly when she stood down a mob of angry Park Pointers and defended city staff. Jennifer Juslrud, whose decision not to run again still surprises me, was a strong voice for her district, and probably has a political future somewhere if she wants to get back in the game. Linda Krug brought a strong commitment to processes to the council, and also wasn’t afraid to fight or take controversial stands. While that did at times lead to a few dust-ups, one of which effectively cost her the council presidency, she was consistent and stuck to her guns, and had the wisdom to step down when pressured.

The final figure to mention here is Emily Larson, who now accedes to the throne. As the new mayor, she’s riding a tide of goodwill and a council that should be happy to work with her. Don Ness might be a tough act to follow, but he’s also left the house in much better shape than it was. Larson certainly is primed to carry forward that energy, but I doubt she’ll move in lockstep, so we’ll see what unique twists she brings. As long as she surrounds herself with smart people and keeps the fiscal house in order, there’s no reason to expect the positivity to fade.

As for Don Ness: well, damn. You took a city that time had left behind and made me believe in it again. As is always the case, we haven’t agreed on everything, and this more jaded soul couldn’t didn’t always share your persistent idealism. But I suppose that’s exactly what made you so easy to like for so many people, and what it took to turn the ship around. You’ve left quite the legacy, and I hope you continue to build on it in your career outside of formal politics. Also, “will your new non-consulting consulting firm be hiring?” asks the kid who finishes graduate school in May.

And, lest we thought we were done with local political intrigue for a little while, the Duluth congressional delegation is due for a shake-up. Roger Reinert, who sounds quite busy with a number of ventures in his personal life, will step down from the Minnesota Senate after six years this coming fall. Erik Simonson, the current state representative for District 7B, immediately announced his candidacy for the seat. Simonson is a strong DFL figure with working class cred, so he has the political clout to run away with this race; presuming he does, the real question becomes one of who will emerge in the now open west side house district. That one, on the other hand, could be a lot more interesting.

Good luck to all the newbies. I’ll try not to be too mean when I breeze in to offer my comments.

How Duluth Defines ‘Divisive’

27 Aug

Harry Welty is upset. This in itself is not really news, but this time around, it’s for a new reason. The candidate he favors in the at-large race for an open seat on the ISD 709 School Board, Alanna Oswald, was the subject of a withering dismissal in the Duluth News-Tribune’s primary election endorsements. Oswald’s involvement with the district “can leave voters concerned about adding another member to the School Board concerned with exploiting problems rather than solving them and with being divisive rather than cooperative.”

I always read Harry with a grain of salt, so I watched the video of Oswald’s interview with the DNT to see if it was an accurate assessment. If this is the editorial board’s idea of divisiveness, I shudder to think of what would happen if its members were ever to actually meet a divisive person. I wouldn’t say we agree on everything, but she seems like an eminently reasonable west side lifer with admirable commitment to achieving results in education. Her take on Art Johnston—guy with an obnoxious tone with whom she sometimes disagrees, yet sometimes has good ideas that the rest of the Board ignores because they come from Art Johnston—couldn’t be more accurate. It’s the least divisive, most balanced view you’ll hear about Johnston from anyone in the world of ISD 709 (in public, anyway).

Otherwise, she paints herself as an advocate for parents. I hang out with hockey parents, so I can understand being leery of empowering parents who might then start hounding teachers unreasonably, claiming they ‘bully’ their children for having standards or holding them accountable for failings that are much closer to home. However, I doubt Oswald has any of my favorite east side helicopter parents in mind when she talks about giving parents a voice. She’s talking about teaching parents who don’t know the landscape or the language of education the skills to become engaged in their children’s school lives. This should be something that everyone in this race agrees is worthwhile. Beyond that, we’re left with some real, but hardly confrontational, demands for accountability from the Board and administration. Reasonable debate has apparently become a sin.

With comments like the ones about Oswald, the DNT board will only perpetuate the ongoing travesty that is the ISD 709 Board: a group that mistakes imposed conformity for consensus, and fails to find nuance in the views of its political rivals. By tossing someone like Oswald under the bus, the editorial board gives Welty and Johnston all the ammunition they need to keep blasting away and rallying the base. That minority isn’t going away, and voters need to elect candidates who neither define themselves with or against that duo. Oswald isn’t necessarily perfectly neutral either—she obviously some ties to Welty—but if that was a concern for the editorial board, it should have probed a bit more to find out. Guilty until proven innocent, apparently. I fear Oswald’s loose ties to Welty, whose recent silly spat with DNT editorial editor Chuck Frederick probably left him in their doghouse, may cost her the election.

None of this is to cast any aspersions on the candidate the DNT did endorse, Renee Van Nett. Like Oswald, she’s a longtime community activist, and she has an extensive resume working with groups that often struggle in ISD 709. She says all of the right things about the Red Plan being in the past and wanting to move on from that mess. But achieving such neutrality in the current Board would be an incredible feat, and I have my doubts that someone with the clear endorsement of many sitting members of the majority will be able to pull it off.

Whether she likes it or not, Van Nett now has all the endorsements; she is now an appendage of the DFL-backed Duluth political machine. Duluth’s machine is a surreptitious one that doesn’t always know it is a machine, but it is one nonetheless, and it can be a vicious gatekeeper. And lest this sound like an anti-establishment screed, I’m not much of a radical; I can see myself playing the game and operating somewhere within some city’s political machinery someday. But at least I won’t have any illusions about it.

For now, however, it’s hard to believe that an insider can do anything to change the tenor of the ISD 709 Board, which is something that has to happen before anyone can implement any of the noble plans for rescuing the district’s enrollment that candidates of all stripes propose. I submitted my absentee ballot application today. In at least one race, I know who I’m voting for.

Duluth Election Filing Deadline Notes, 2015

24 Jul

Hey, Duluth! It’s been a while. I see your filing deadline for this fall’s municipal elections has come and gone, so it’s time to see who’s looking to shape the city for the next four years.

Mayor

We’ll start at the top, which also looks to be the most predictable of all the races so far. Emily Larson has all the inevitability of Hillary Clinton and none of the baggage that makes Clinton unlikable, and it would be a shock not to see her as the next mayor of Duluth. One by one, the people who could have given Don Ness’s heir apparent a run declared their intent to stay out of the race, and the unfailingly positive Larson hasn’t missed a beat.

She does have seven opponents, though, and the field will need to be winnowed down in a September primary. The most intriguing is probably Chuck Horton, the boxing gym owner; agree or disagree with his nonpartisan populism, he has a very distinct take, and some articulate thoughts flowing on his website. The scourge of drugs seems to be the theme of his campaign, while Thomas Cooper also looks to be draw attention toward a clear cause, the plight of disabled Duluthians. John Socha, who ran in 2007 and aims to continue Ness’ policies, is also in the race. John Howard Evans, Robert Schieve, and James Mattson need to tell us a bit more about themselves. Last, there’s Howie Hanson, the Fourth District Councilor who has yo-yoed in and out of the race over the past year. Howie has kept a fairly low profile since re-entering the race, and his positions remain fairly cloudy. Still, he has enough name recognition that he might sneak through into the general election.

The real question in this race is whether someone can offer a genuine policy alternative that might convince others that Larson isn’t the only realistic option. I don’t see it happening, but one never knows. The good news is that the large field indicates some good civic life in Duluth, and even if they don’t win, some of the other candidates might shed some much-needed light on certain issues.

City Council

It’s a busy election year for the Council, with six of the nine seats up for grabs, including four of the five seats based on geographic districts. One of those, however, is not really a race: Second District Councilor Joel Sipress is unopposed, and will win himself a full four-year term after his two-year appointment to a vacancy. In the early going, it’s hard to separate many of the candidates; most say nice things about the Ness Administration, and suggest mild tweaks here and there. It goes to show how powerful Duluth’s political consensus has become

Two other races involve two candidates, meaning there’s no need for a primary. Gary Anderson will clash with former weatherman Karl Spring in the First District in a race to replace Jennifer Julsrud, whose retirement after one term took me by surprise. Spring has a recognizable name, but my only knowledge of his politics is a recollection of a global warming-denying rant a few years back; Anderson, meanwhile, appears the more likely heir to Julsrud’s left-leaning mantel. In the Third District, Em Westerlund and Barri Love will go at it to replace longtime Councilor Sharla Gardner. Both appear pretty progressive, and will have to differentiate themselves somehow in the coming months.

The most interesting race might be in the Fifth District, where two-term Councilor Jay Fosle faces three opponents in his re-election bid. Fosle has become a Council institution with his populist defenses of fiscal conservatism and some groups who normally don’t get much attention, but he’s also the most obvious target for the Duluth DFL. The DFL-endorsed candidate is Janet Kennedy, who is upbeat and has long been active in the community. It’s hard to find much on other two candidates, Allan Beaulier and Derrick Ellis; assuming it comes down to Fosle and Kennedy, it could be a compelling race.

The at-large field has four candidates fighting for two spots, so there won’t be a primary here. Elissa Hansen—disclaimer: briefly, a former colleague of mine—is an upbeat younger person who follows in the Ness-Larson mold, will likely ride to a spot on the Council. Two of the others are recognizable names. Jim Booth, a losing candidate for the County Board in the past, is the most conservative option of the four; Kriss Osbakken, meanwhile, ran on the Green Party ticket for House seat 7A last fall. The wild card here is Noah Hobbs, a young west-sider who’s very active in the community. One might say he’s looking to ride the Zack Filipovich formula of relentless campaigning energy to the Council.

School Board

Three of the ISD 709 seats are on the ballot this fall, and here, there is actually a race for control of the agenda. Three members of the five-person majority bloc that has called all the shots and tried to remove Art Johnston this past year are retiring, and the longtime minority senses an opportunity for a changing of the guard. Jane Hammerstrom Hoffman, David Kirby, and Charles Obije will require the only ISD 709 race primary to whittle the field down to two.

They’re probably least likely to make any inroads with the Second District seat currently held by Judy Seliga-Punyko. This district represents the wealthiest parts of Duluth, and the people most likely to shell out whatever funds necessary to give their kids a good education.

A real race to watch will take place in the Third District, where Nora Sandstad squares off against longtime Board critic Loren Martell. I’ve picked on Martell on here before, but of late he’s been increasingly coherent. Many of his concerns are genuine. The question is whether he can present himself as a visible champion of his cause, and shake off some of the baggage of his past involvement, which, right or wrong, is very real. Samstad, meanwhile, seems to be digging deep in her early investigations and asking all the right questions without taking sides yet. As a west side resident with young kids, she knows what’s at stake here.

The at-large race, meanwhile, involves some relative unknowns. Jim Unden, Renee Van Nett, and Alanna Oswald all have kids in west side schools, and have deep roots here. (This is Unden’s second run; his first was a mere 36 years ago.) Like Samstad, they seem frustrated with the pettiness of the current Board, know the problems the city faces, and are (for now, at least) trying to hold the high ground, with Oswald being the most pointed of the three so far. We’ll see how they distinguish themselves down the stretch, and will also require a primary.

The new board will include two more west-siders frustrated with the status quo, which could shake things up. Excepting Martell, however, it’s unclear if any of them would become immediate allies of Johnston and Harry Welty. They certainly should do a better job of listening to them than the current Board, but they would do well to stay above that squabble for as long as is humanly possible. It’s definitely time for an overhaul, but if it just turns into a fight for retribution or I-told-you-so or cleared names, who does that help? Not the students, that’s for sure.

Hey Kids, Instant Runoff Voting Is Back!

File this one under “oh no, not this again.” A year after the Duluth City Council made a hash of using instant runoff voting (IRV; also known as ranked choice voting, or RCV) and subsequently voted down a move to put it on the ballot in a laughably over-the-top hearing, a group of committed citizens have gathered enough signatures to get it on the ballot. With just 50 percent of the vote, it will come to pass in Duluth.

I’m not being very subtle here, but my reaction is informed by serious investigation, not just a gut reaction to Duluth’s stumbles with a system that works without all the drama in other places. I came into the 2014 debates neutral, but subsequently got an education from some UMD professors in the realities of IRV in practice. To date, IRV’s supporters have deployed a bunch of canards about “inclusion” and “diversity” and “democracy” and give some anecdotal evidence about its success. The evidence in support of IRV ends there. The cold, hard data reveals a system that only ends up entrenching two-party rule and leads to occasional costly debacles. Cities then wind up making incessant tweaks to their system or abandon the experiment altogether. There’s never any attempt to respond to the more nuanced critiques either, except perhaps with some character assassination. The cool kids in Minneapolis have lapped this up, so Duluth must now jump on the bandwagon, and if we fail, we are a retrogressive city that obviously doesn’t care about representation. Spare me.

IRV, if it comes to pass, probably won’t be a disaster. It just won’t change much, either. It is a waste of time and energy for activists who should direct their time and money to much greater issues afflicting Duluth and the country at large. Trying to fix American democracy with IRV is like trying to fix a sinking ocean liner with some duct tape. Look at the bigger picture.

That’s all for now; I’ll check back in as we approach the primaries and the general election, once we get a better idea of who a lot of these people are.

Denfeld’s Missing Students

15 Jun

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.