First Among Equals

by Loren Martell

The school board held its annual organizational meeting on 1/2/16. Before I announce the much-anticipated winners of the Board’s officer positions for the new year, I’m going to stroke the optimism-loving DFLers a bit and be “positive.” As stressed and flawed as our government remains, the atmosphere in the boardroom is actually the BEST it’s been for a decade.

Which goes to show that everything is relevant, and “success” can be achieved by just setting the bar low enough.
Besides election of Board officers, some annual housekeeping was done during the meeting. The day and time of Board meetings was reconfirmed; the Superintendent and Director of Business Services were reauthorized to sign contracts and grants; the district’s official newspaper was named and approved (the Reader once again inexplicably beaten out by the News Tribune.)

Out of the rote list of designations, confirmations and reauthorizations, controversy arose around only one item: selection of the district’s legal counsel for the upcoming year. Two Duluth firms and two from the Twin Cities comprised the four legal-eagle teams Administration recommended the Board approve for lawyerly representation and advice. Board member Johnston objected to the district renewing a relationship with the Twin Cities firms. He made a motion to amend the resolution on the floor, to remove those two firms from any future association with district 709.

Save the world; get rid of lawyers.

The two firms in question were Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, and Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, P.A. Both firms were involved in the Board’s majority’s attempt to terminate the Lone Ranger’s tenure on the Board.
“I made this motion in the hope that the three new Board members will chart a new course for this Board. One way to do it is to eliminate the law firms which got us into this mess that we’re into. Just a little, brief background: Kevin Rupp gave us extremely poor advice that cost the school district about $200,000 in legal fees--most of it going to him and his legal team...Rather than telling the Board this (legal carnival ride they wanted to take us all on) was a losing proposition, he advised the Board to continue with it. That was very poor advice; as soon as it (the case) went into court it was ended, after $200,000 (was spent)…We should be hiring lawyers who give us good legal advice, not (lawyers) that take personal vendettas by certain Board members…” Member Johnston went on to say he believed the two Duluth law firms could adequately handle the legal issue of ISD 709 or that “there are other law firms that are more credible.”

Member Welty, seemingly surmising little chance existed of the DFL majority going along with axing two out of four firms, offered an amendment to member Johnston’s amendment, intending to parse out the firm that he considered the most lacking in professional worth.
“My particular objection is not so much with Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, but with the second firm in this (amendment): Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger…I have a strong sense that Mr. Rupp, in particular, has played a very important role in the difficulties that the Board has had.” He pointed out that some members of the Board feel they’ve been cut out of the loop, when it comes to what is happening with the district’s legal issues. He admitted that in his previous stint on the Board, individual Board members were “discouraged” from consulting directly with attorneys and the Chair was generally regarded as the contact person. He maintained, however, that this protocol was only used to avoid unnecessary, expensive legal charges.

“I never over the course of such time had the sense that minority (Board) members were denied access to legal counsel. I think this all harks back to the political role that particularly the Rupp firm has had. My experience with the Rupp firm has been completely and totally unsatisfactory. I do not trust them, and I think it’s a shame when members of the school board do not trust their own legal counsel…” Hoping that limiting the motion on the floor to one firm “might make it more likely to pass and bring about some comity on the Board,” Mr. Welty moved to amend the amendment so that “the only firm we are considering dropping is Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, P.A.”

Additional discussion revealed that Rupp’s firm was currently representing the district in some legal issues, so Mr. Welty amended his amendment to include language that would allow the Rupp firm to finish up its current work. When it was also pointed out, by the Superintendent, that at a member of the Rupp firm has uncommon expertise in Special Education law (one of the most convoluted jumbles of bureaucratic legality known to humankind,) member Welty again genially yielded: “I think it would be in order to table this entire issue.”

The Lone Ranger, (still licking his wounds from being forced to blow $75,000 of his own money to stave off a legal witch hunt in order to hold onto a $7500/a year job that at times is a strong contender for the worst on earth,) was not in a mood to compromise. “I’m not going to support tabling it…I think it’s time that we make a decision.”

The Rupp law firm did try to warn the Board’ majority members that the vague language in the statute they were trying to use to jettison Mr. Johnston would be defined in a courtroom as “malfeasance,” and that malfeasance would be a very high bar to clear, legally. The firm’s performance was wholly inadequate, however, in preparing its client for the full scope of possible consequences and collateral damage. The Board’s current resident attorney, Nora Sandstad, critiqued the obvious lack of good legal judgment exhibited by the Rupp law firm this way, as a candidate: “I would have hoped that the attorneys for the Board would have sat down with the members ahead of time and said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. Here’s what it’s going to cost the district. This is going to drag through a year, and it’s going to ruin your name in the media…’”

Member Sandstad seconded Mr. Welty’s amendment (and also his amendment to his amendment.) Its usual, four-vote lock broken, the rest of the DFL-endorsed Club went along, and the motion to table passed 6-1. Tabling seemed a reasonable move, and any reasonableness is no small achievement in the boardroom of ISD 709.

Member Welty also facilitated a move towards Board “comity” by requesting a small procedural change in the way the Board operates in the coming year: “I’m hoping that we can establish a slightly different protocol for the adjournment (of meetings.) In the past, the Chairs have looked around and not seeing any lights on (actually, they didn’t always even do that,) called an adjournment. That is really an important thing to be asked of the Board as a whole. And so, I would appreciate it if the Chair would consider asking for a motion to adjourn a meeting, so the school board itself could vote on that and take on that responsibility. Something for your to consider.” He said to the new Boss, Chair Kirby. “You might want to try it today, for instance!”

I know this is wonky point, but it was affirming to see Chair Kirby, in stark contrast to past boardroom rulers, agreeably acquiesce When he looked around at the end of the meeting and said, “All in favor of adjourning say, ‘Aye,’” our school board momentarily resembled a deliberative governing body, comprised of equal colleagues.

Back to reality.

No surprise in reporting the Board’s newly apportioned officer positions: we’re still in the iron grip of the DFL-endorsed. This is as good a time as any to clarify a point I’ve been called out on from time to time, by readers of my column. It is true that one of the three dissenting voices on the Board, Art Johnston, is technically DFL, but he’s never been endorsed by the Club. In his eighth year on the Board, member Johnston has also never held an officer position. The DFL-endorsed members waltz in off the street and (whether they know anything or not,) take over all the Chair positions in the room as though it’s a birthright. Also, it was the five DFL-endorsed Board members who ganged up to toss Mr. Johnston over the side of the boat, proving once again that he isn’t part of the inner circle.

The Lone Ranger is only tangentially DFL; he gallops around on his own horse.
There are four major Board officer positions: Chair, Vice-Chair, Clerk, Treasurer; and there are four DFL-endorsed Board members. Apparently, God has a plan for us.
The nominee for all four positions from the three minority members (all nominations made by member Welty) was Alanna Oswald. The DFL-endorsed majority alternated making nominations. I’ve already tipped my hand that David Kirby was nominated for Chair. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp was nominated for Vice-Chair; Annie Harala was nominated for Clerk; Nora Sandstad was nominated for Treasurer.

If I could only hustle a bunch of suckers into taking some betting action, I could retire tomorrow. Before the votes were cast for each position, I wrote the result--4-3--in my notes, and every vote down the line was revealed (without a drum roll) as 4-3, favoring the DFL-endorsed in our divided house.

As part of the organizational process, Board members also submitted their names for committee positions. The agenda for the upcoming business committee meeting sent out to all Board members, a few days after this meeting, revealed another non-surprise: the domineering DFL-endorsed Club grabbed every one of these positions for itself, as well. Nora Sandstad will be HR Chair; Rosie Loeffler-Kemp will be the Education Committee Chair; Annie Harala will be the Business Chair.

Member Harala taking over the Business Committee is particularly troubling. Ms. Harala has shown little propensity for delving into district numbers during her first three years on the Board. Last year, as Chair of the Board, she tried to ask one question during a special meeting with the district’s bond counselor, financial advisor and bond broker. Her question, (sort of,) related to the district’s bond rating: “Am I remembering correctly from our initial meeting that we do have that rating yet--part of telling our story is talking about how schools don’t go away, correct? That we are--” Her query, from this point, became increasingly painful to listen to: “I’m remembering part of this story, and I’m--if you want to--I don’t know if I’m asking…”

I had to resort to three ellipsis dots as I transcribed this part of the meeting. Member Harala sighed and mumbled a few more phrases I found unintelligible. I will, in fact, pay a $10 Interpretation Fee to anyone who can tell me exactly what our new Business Chair said from this point, and exactly what it meant.

Member Harala has positioned herself as a key player again, in the boardroom of ISD 709. Not only is she Chair of the very important Business Committee; as Clerk, she will continue to be one of only two Board members allowed behind closed doors to set the Board’s agenda. As Board Chair, last year, she changed a resolution for a Special meeting called by the minority members; she, in effect, unilaterally negotiated with administration the contract the Board just approved for the Superintendent; she also purposely hid multi-million dollar offers on district property from the full Board.

Thank you, God, for keeping us in the snug and capable clutch of the blessed DFL-endorsed, the same wise group that has been ably guiding us since Keith Dixon came to town!

So what if there’re a few bumps in the road?

For years the dissenting, minority voices in the boardroom have felt cut out. With some justification, they’ve felt the process is manipulated by the majority members, who withhold information and exploit inside connections with the unions and management. One of the most important behind-the-scenes power appointments is the Board member who sits on the Labor/Management Quality Steering Committee. This committee, made up of President of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, school principals and other administrative staff, including the Superintendent, and one school board member, applies grease to all the cogs of the district’s internal operations. Essentially it exists as a way to work out union/management issues and workplace protocol within the parameters of collective bargaining agreements.

The minutes from the December 2013 QSC meeting state: “Rosie Loffler Kemp (incorrect spelling and missing hyphen included) was introduced and welcomed as the school board representative on the QSC, beginning in January.” Rosie L.-K. was not yet seated as a Board member. The Board’s January organizational meeting obviously had not yet been held, and members had not yet submitted their names for committee positions. This presumption of authority and status (insider politics) is exactly why the Board’s minority members often harbor suspicions that they’re up against a rigged game that denies them a fair chance to represent their constituents.

The QSC meetings are not public. What is said in the room I suspect is often very interesting. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, an intense union activist, has held the sole school board position every year she’s been on the Board. A public representative’s allegiance should be first and foremost to the people who elected him or her. With an avowed union activist at the table, I would argue the unions effectively have TIMES2 power on the QSC committee, while the public has questionable representation. This year, Rosie L.-K. was again given the Board position on the QSC committee--four years in a row. She was also the only Board member allowed in the room during the last teachers’ contract talks.

As a citizen, I’ve objected to the way ISD 709 operates from the moment I first stepped into the boardroom, nearly a decade ago. I believe this coziness (if not outright collusion) between inside players tends to warp accountability and produce (Rosie)-colored spin instead of fact-based information.
One of the most dominant voices on the Board since Keith Dixon came to town was Judy Seliga-Punkyo. In the paper of record, on 1/20/10, she was quoted this way: “We are in the best shape we’ve ever been in because we finally have stability. We have the programs we want, we have the plan, even financially we’re doing great. We have the best bond rating, we’ve had great audits. Honestly, financially we are doing great, if only the State would give us the money they’re supposed to.”

As of last November, there were 226 students in Lakewood Elementary, 286 in Stowe, 377 in Homecroft, 378 in Lowell and 388 in MacArthur. In fiscal year ‘10, the year Judy S.-P. gushed about how wonderful everything was, the Duluth public school district lost 398 students--more than the current enrollment in five of our schools. By January of the next year (2011,) our positive prognosticator, Judy S.-P., was presiding as Board Chair over a district that had reeled into a $6 million deficit. ISD 709 had to lay off 35 tenured and non-tenured teachers, reduce hours for 13 more and leave 35 retiree positions unfilled.

Two years later, district 709 barely averted officially declaring statutory operating debt status.
The deferred money from the State has now been paid back for nearly three years, and the district is again floundering in deficit. Obviously, a few more systemic problems are contributing to fiscal instability.
Neither facts or your track record appear to matter, however, as long as you’re part of the power clique that rules the room. You can spin any story you want. That’s just one of the perks of being first among equals.