Governing Around a Fistfight

Anyone else notice a sort of critical mass building in Duluth as of late? A mini rebellion? A push-back against people who tend to get a bit intolerant while waving the banner of tolerance? A challenge towards those who want to claim the high moral ground exclusively for themselves and turn the rest of us into Stepford Citizens?
There, there. You don’t really want to ask any more uncomfortable questions. Straighten up now, and get in line. Keep that pleasant smile on your lips. Don’t make us get nasty and launch an investigation.
The Red Mess left us with a very valuable lesson: one dominant group quashing all dissent and railroading everyone else is not a pathway to good public policy, good intentions of do-gooders notwithstanding.
And—gee!—once you’ve resorted to tyrannical governance and jammed a railroad job down everyone’s throat, it’s so hard to get back to democracy. How many smarts would be required to recognize the pitfalls of ticking everyone off again? What sweet irony: we have a Board of Education incapable of learning.
I have to admit, though, that things feel back to normal in the boardroom of ISD 709. Tense, barely repressed anger, brewing resentment. Waiting for the July meeting to begin, I could sense all the good times from the past circling back for another round of excitement. The only players missing from the familiar scene were the police officers, but probably not for long.

Good old School Board-style democracy! Horrible government, but if you like a good fight…

The public steps into the ring.
Three citizens, myself excluded, spoke from the public podium. One was Melanie Grune, who thanked the Board for adopting the civility code last month. Ms. Grune didn’t mention that while the Board adopted the code, it was simultaneously starting a community fistfight by pursuing charges of dubious merit on one of its own. The other two citizens were remarkably eloquent. I am continually impressed by the articulateness of my fellow citizens. It’s such a pity they are tossing their words into a sea of apathy.
The first, James Youngman, pointed out that the school district is caught between “the proverbial rock and hard place.” He described the “rock” as Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test scores over the past several years, which show that “a strong majority or a near-majority of our middle and high school students fall below a grade proficiency level in science and mathematics.” He described the “hard place” as “59” and “41,” numbers “that should be in the notes and on the minds of every board member every time the budget is discussed.” He informed the board that the 59 stands for $59,000—the median annual household income for the state of Minnesota—and “you guessed it—41 stands for $41,000, the median annual household in Duluth.”
That’s right—Mr. Youngman did the math for us: “We fall fully $18,000 below our state’s median household income. We can’t give you much more. So the need for quality education—especially in science and mathematics—is there. And the fact of limited taxpayer capacity is also there. To me, therefore, the impact of the new dollars [from the recently passed operational levy] and a substantial part of our school district budget must be felt at the classroom level—not in desks, décor, electronics, AstroTurf or pools. It must be felt in assuring that our teachers are receiving top-level continuing education and other professional development and that their materials are of the best… It’s time to put the money where it matters most: in maintaining and updating the knowledge and skills of the front-line people who make education happen.”
Mr. Youngman was blessed with one of those rare voices that resonates and fills a room without a trace of harshness. He closed with “one more important thought: as we’ve been taught, a house divided against itself cannot stand. And so it is with this Board. I ask that the attacks on Art Johnston cease.” He pointed out that Mr. Johnston’s diversely populated district “chose and support him, as do many others not of his district.” He praised member Johnston’s value to the Board, as someone who “asks questions, challenges questionable practices and information, and takes a stand for his constituency. In short, Art does what a person with a public trust is expected to do… We need to respect our questioners and our challengers on all levels of government. They keep us honest…”
The felicitous Mr. Youngman was followed to the podium by community activist and former Board candidate Henry Banks, who was also impressively silver-tongued. Mr. Banks began with a quote from George Bernard Shaw. (I looked around to make sure I hadn’t somehow slipped through a porthole to a sane and cerebral world, but, no, I was still in the boardroom.) “The right to know,” Mr. Banks read to us, “is like the right to live. It is fundamental and unconditional in its assumption that knowledge, like life, is a desirable thing.” Mr. Banks informed us he’d recently pursued his right to know with a Minnesota Data Practices request to ISD 709, inquiring what the salaries were for the district’s top administrators. He said he’d received the requested information, but (surprise!) “it was incomplete. I await,” he spoke into the cavernous bureaucratic vacuum, “the remaining part of that information.”
Mr. Banks analyzed for us the information he did receive. Adding up the administrative salaries he’d been given, he came up with a figure of “nearly two million dollars annually for eleven or twelve people.” He filled the air of old Central with the wisdom of another literary quote, from Charles Caleb Colton. He reminded the school board and the highly paid administrators of their ultimate mission: “If what you do is not in the interest of the children, you must move on. I’m here to implore you tonight to stop the infighting... The Duluth community and citizens across the state of Minnesota are watching you and your behavior. We are bewildered by your behavior.”

Continuing down the bewildering path…

Education Committee Chair Harala tried, as always, to overcome the negativity in the room by speaking with rapid and breathy enthusiasm and employing the words “excited” and “proud” liberally throughout her report. And she actually did reveal a bit of good news. Some of the operating levy money will go towards Mr. Youngman’s request for “the best tools” in the classroom. About $238,000 will be spent for K-5 books and materials and about $122,000 will be used for grades 7-8. These textbook purchases will also help the district with the goal of aligning its curriculum to state standards by next September, an ambitious endeavor member Welty wryly likened a few months back to “a chiropractor trying to straighten the elephant man’s back with one crack.”
The district is also considering purchasing Google Chromebooks for some of the upper social studies classes--both to meet state standards for teaching technology skills and because of the obvious advantage of updating digital materials to what Chair Miernicki described as a “rapidly changing world.” The other primary item of business was the first reading of the district’s bullying policy. Member Johnston pointed out that most people don’t immediately make the connection as to “how bullying contributes to truancy.” If kids don’t feel safe in school, they’re less likely to attend. Johnston also introduced an amendment to the policy, requiring an annual report to the board about “the number of (bullying) complaints, the types of complaints and the action to resolve (each) complaint that was taken.” Because it was a first read for the policy, the amendment won’t be voted on until the policy is voted on, next month.

Another policy to deal with our less angelic side.

In the agenda for the Human Resources Committee, policy 4015 is described as the policy “prohibiting harassment and violence.” If only a policy could actually prohibit such things. (The U.N. would immediately enact such a policy for Israel, Gaza, Syria, and Ukraine.) Member Johnston introduced another amendment, requiring an annual accounting of harassment incidents to the Board. Tactfully mute concerning the current investigation surrounding himself, Johnston added one additional paragraph to the amendment: “If either party involved in a report is dissatisfied with the investigation or resolution of allegations of harassment or violence, [he or she] may appeal to the school board within 30 days.” (Johnston’s significant other, a district employee, is charging that she was harassed on the job because of her involvement with him.) Policy 4015 and Johnston’s amendment will receive a final reading and vote next month.
An interesting item that also came up as part of the Human Resources report was the inclusion of a new pay scale for hourly, substitute employees, mandated by new minimum wage requirements. It was striking how many job categories were still at $8/hr. Government structures are increasingly resembling corporate pay pyramids, with Superintendent Gronseth playing the role of the corporate CEO at the very peak: $168,000 and a very cushy array of bennies. An $8/hr. employee would have to work 21,000 hours (404 hours a week, 52 weeks) to equal his salary. A real problem, considering there are 168 total hours in a week.

A Board surprise.

The Business Committee report was a largely benignly boring affair, which is often a good thing. Member Welty’s earlier hints about how he’d already had a long day and it was a very pleasant summer evening, and it sure would be nice if maybe we could for once keep one of these cantankerous verbal fistfights under four hours (I’m putting a few words in the decorous gentleman’s mouth) actually seemed remotely possible. We ran through some routine business, like officially adopting a new arcane government rule for accepting educational donations. Then those of us still present in the boardroom witnessed something unusual—a surprise—best described, for this Board, as a random act of good governance.
With a unanimous vote, the Board passed a resolution that read, in part, “Public interest in transparency outweighs any competing privacy interest that individual board members may have in regard to most data that the district maintains.” Essentially the resolution declared that Board members are not district employees and that most data related to them is supposedly available to the public upon request. The timing is of particular interest because of the current investigation of Art Johnston. During debate about the resolution, Johnston received a round of applause from some in the audience by stating that he wanted information regarding the charges made against him to start flowing immediately, if it passed: “Who said these things [about me]?” He asked. “What did they say? When did they say them? Who are the witnesses?”
Will resolution B-7-14-3198 be a magic wand suddenly popping out answers to these questions? Forgive me if I remain doubtful, but we moved on.
Member Harala once again tried to steer the evening to a positive note. Referring to the capital project status report, she made some cheery remarks about the roof presently being installed at Congdon elementary. “It was a hundred-year roof that we’re hopefully replacing with another hundred-year roof. Same materials, same company that installed it initially.”
Member Johnston took the floor, his forceful bass voice once again insisting on a reality check: “Yeah, it’s a nice roof, but it was not paid for through the long-range facilities [Red] plan. We spent $315 million and didn’t even get a new roof on Congdon.”
As he often does, Chair Miernicki took these statements—true and accurate—as needlessly negative. He sat up straighter and stared at Mr. Johnston. He drew in a short breath, his ruddy complexion turning a shade redder. He was clearly tempted to go one more round in the fistfight. But he smoothed back his bristles, closed up the Business Committee report, and adjourned.