Tag Archives: school board

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.

Art Johnston Prevails

13 May

The exhausting saga of the attempt to remove Art Johnston from the ISD 709 School Board is finally lurching toward conclusion. It was a miserable one to follow, with an unsympathetic protagonist pitted against a vindictive, bumbling board. In the end, the Board majority found either its conscience or its sanity, and withdrew the attempt to remove the eternal thorn in its side. The bringers of the suit appeared resigned; Chair Judy Seliga-Punyko called it “frustrating” that Johnston had filed a lawsuit, while Annie Harala said the effort to remove him had been the right idea at the start, but became a “distraction.” Yes, if only Johnston had just rolled over and accepted his fate like a good little boy. It’s not like he ever fought back before, right? What on earth did they expect?

At the risk of saying I-told-you-so, this is what I wrote immediately after the incident last June:

[T]his seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, [and] drags out old fights in the negative PR…”

Yup.

There will probably be one more chance for the Board to demonstrate less maturity than its students next week. The majority will move to censure Johnston in what could have been a defensible move at the time of the incident, but eleven months on, it merely looks like grubbing for a few points of extra credit after failing the exam. Johnston will again do his panicky eight-year-old impression, moaning about the bullies—even he has been poisoned by the obnoxious education-speak and victimization game that makes this comparison of the Board to a playground all too easy—and will likely fit in his victory lap. The censure either will or won’t happen, and everyone’s lives will somehow go on, no matter what. After that, there are some loose ends to tie up, most notably the financing of Johnston’s defense, and perhaps some lingering questions about his partner’s status, but the crusade is largely over now.

With any luck, the end of this case will be the last gasp of the Red Plan Wars. Yes, its legacy will linger, and no doubt a few hangers-on will continue to belabor old points. This inconclusive end seems a fitting coda for all of the needless division of the past decade. The leaders of the anti-Johnston campaign appear exhausted; I’d be surprised if Bill Westholm has the energy for another campaign, and Mike Miernicki has already announced he will not seek a second term. Miernicki blamed the negativity for his exit, though self-awareness of his own role in fostering such negativity appears lacking. His story has been a sad one to watch, a case of an otherwise likable man totally out of his element and unable to handle any pushback. Yes, Mern, the world would be a happier place if it were more like your ideal one, but that simply isn’t the case, and we all must adjust to reality.

Seliga-Punyko probably comes out looking the worst of anyone here after her relentless campaign came up short, and her lame attempt to fault the costs of Johnston’s lawsuit for failing to see his removal through is the ultimate white flag. It was a poor choice on the part of the Board to make such an imperious and divisive figure its chair, and I can only hope that some of the Board’s junior members realize they have been taken for a distracting ride by the Board’s mother hen over the past year. Her political future will be interesting to watch. Superintendent Bill Gronseth, after flirting with an escape from all the madness, is now committed to Duluth for the long-term. He has been too much of a passenger in this whole affair in his refusal to exercise any authority, but that does give him a chance to be the one who now collects the pieces and gets people to move on. The Board is in need of some leadership out of its Superintendent.

I am most curious to see how the victorious minority now responds. It is a real win for Johnston and Harry Welty; perhaps the first of any substance they can actually claim in their sometimes noble and often floundering attempts to stand up to the overpowering majority. If they can be magnanimous after this success and return discussion to the pressing issues facing the district—class size, charter school questions, traffic concerns, and so on—without belaboring old grievances too much, they’ll be in great position to seem like the winners of this whole mess, and the momentum could carry them into the November elections. If bitterness over their treatment over the past months rules the day, then we can expect more of the same, and their victory over this past week will be nothing but a hollow settling of personal scores. They’ll spin a narrative in which they’re the defenders of liberty or some such thing, hiding the fact that they have so far been mediocre and largely ineffective legislators. Being a gadfly is all well and good, but anyone who thinks that this is an end unto itself completely misunderstands what Socrates was up to.

Ideally, when the censure motion comes, someone will have the guts to stand up and say that it’s time to drop all of this and move on. Ideally, the Board will then do exactly that. They won’t be reconciled, no, but they’ll at least re-emphasize the fact that they have a mission that is higher than their own petty infighting. But, then, expecting the high road out of people on the ISD 709 Board hasn’t been a winning proposition of late. Perchance to dream.