Crucial

by Loren Martell

Photo credit: T. Heinonen
Photo credit: T. Heinonen

Something very rare recently happened. In a piece about the educational inequity the Red Plan created between the east and west of Duluth, the editorial page editor of The Duluth News Tribune used a phrase I agreed with. He wrote that our public school district, ISD 709, was at a “crucial moment.” 
Two items—very germane to this moment—were discussed for well over three hours during the HR and Business Committee meetings of our school board on 4/10/17.
  
What’s in a number?
As I’ve mentioned before in this column, district administration has been reviewing and rewriting Board policy—aligning (sort of, with modifications) existing policy with model policies recommended by the Minnesota School Boards Association. During the HR Committee meeting, the central debate focused on changes being proffered by administrative staff to the Board’s policy regarding its Negotiations Committee. 

Not only is administration pushing the Board to accept these model policies, but staff has been implementing a new numbering system to correspond with the model policies. The number of the existing Negotiations Policy is 9045. The new policy, once approved, will be numbered 213. 
A number may not seem like much, but the 9000 series were the Board’s bylaws. Not long before he retired, former district CFO Bill Hanson was prepared to jettison the whole concept of bylaws, remarking that he couldn’t discern any difference between the two. For years, the 9000 series were the rules that regulated Board operations. There is a very important distinction between having them labeled as bylaws instead of policies: it provides some protection against the Board’s majority altering operations to solely benefit its rule. Bylaws require a supermajority (2/3 vote) to alter or delete, compared to a simple majority to change policy. 

One Board member, Alanna Oswald, especially balked at the idea of trashing the word “bylaw.” Member O. has been doing her best to keep a sharp eye on all the changes being made, and identified this change as one too many. For months she’s been voicing an objection against dropping the distinction between policy and bylaw. 

During this meeting, she won her point and got the Board to agree to erase the word “policy” and insert the word “bylaw” in 213 before it was adopted. All of the rules listed in the 200 series will now be considered bylaws, as the 9000 series used to be. This change seemed to help bridge the gap between the DFL-endorsed majority and the three dissenting minority voices in the room, except for one point: what specifically to do about the Board’s existing Negotiations Committee, bylaw 9045.

Who’s in charge?
Richard Paulson is a retired banker who served on the school board for five and a half years in the seventies. For most of that time, he was the head of the Board’s Negotiations Committee. Mr. Paulson represented the public’s interest in contract talks. He was the person who sat nose-to-nose with the teachers’ rep and hammered out an agreement. He put in some all-night sessions--no sleep at all. He would go home, shower, down a cup of coffee and head off to his job at the bank. The only stipend he received for being on the Board was $35 a meeting. In five and a half years, he earned a total of about $800. 

I tell people Mr. Paulson’s story from time to time, because it is so refreshingly Old School. As the clock ticked towards dawn, for almost no compensation at all, Richard Paulson hung tough hour after hour, until he finally wrangled a fiscally sensible deal the district and city could thrive on. He was driven by his sense of duty as a citizen. “I wasn’t going to give away anything we couldn’t afford.” He told me once, with evident (and deserved) pride. 

The Board’s role in contract negotiations has evolved since those days. Language was altered in bylaw 9045 on 3/15/11, during Keith Dixon’s rule. A separate committee was expunged, and new language was inserted declaring that “all members of the School Board shall be members of the Negotiating Committee.” This might sound like a great idea, but in reality it meant that the Board was placed firmly in the back seat while administration drove the car. From this point on, the Board was just expected to “set the parameters” for the contract negotiations, while administration did the actual negotiating. Even though the full Board was theoretically part of the committee, none of the public’s representatives actually went into the room anymore. 

Then along came 2014. An election was just over and the DFL had won a big victory, solidly securing five of the seven Board seats with their endorsed people. The teachers’ union had dragged its feet during 2013, hoping a levy referendum would pass during the election, making it easier to get the pay raises and benefit package it wanted. And the union’s plans worked out quite well. In fact, quite “Rosie.” 

The Board Chair in 2014, Mike Miernicki, decided he had the authority to unilaterally name one Board member as the sole public representative in the negotiations. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp wanted to be that person. Board member L.-K. comes from a background of union activism and she wanted to be in the room. Being part of the DFL-endorsed club, she got her way. When another Board member, Harry Welty, tried to crash the party and attend one of management’s strategy caucuses, he was physically barred from the room, while Rosie walked past him and was allowed in. 

This incident exasperated all the simmering resentment in the boardroom about the way the Red Plan had been bullied through by a cadre of the powerful and privileged, and to some degree contributed to the acrimony that eventually blew up around the Johnston spectacle. To its credit, the current Board configuration is to some extent trying to regain equilibrium from the sheer, self-sabotaging lunacy of trying to toss one of its own members to the wolves. That sorting-out process is far from complete, however, and time keeps moving on: the teachers’ current contract expires in about two months and new negotiating sessions are just around the corner. 

   
Thanks, but…
“I want to thank you,” Member Oswald said to the ruling majority members, “for addressing my bylaw concerns, but I still have an issue with the Negotiations Committee, because I don’t see it referenced in 213. So I don’t see how it fits…”
“Yeah,” HR committee Chair Sandstad responded. “We still have--on page five, section d--there is still the language there regarding the parameter setting, but there isn’t a separate discussion of, or a listing of, a Negotiations Committee.” 
“I don’t like the way we did the bylaws.” Member Johnston next added, in his customarily blunt, straight-forward manner. “I’ve long--since we started this process--said I don’t think we are doing it in the right manner…This policy (being transitioned into a bylaw) is a case in point of why we should be looking at our policies and bylaws altogether. Not just picking one out here, and one out there, and--”

“Member Johnston--” Chair Sandstad cut him off. “Your concern is again noted. Do you have any more discussion on this specific proposal?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.” 
“Go ahead.” 
“I’m opposing deletion of bylaw 9045, the Negotiations Committee, for a couple of reasons. I don’t think (what’s in section 3d of the new bylaw) is the same as what the 9045 bylaw was. I think we should stick with the Negotiations Committee. If you look at the MSBA model policy, one of the standing committees is the Negotiations Committee. I think the Negotiations Committee is one of the most important functions of the school board.”

“So, just to clarify: you want to include the Negotiations Committee in the list of Standing Committees?”
“Yes.” 
The debate continued, with members Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, Harala and Kirby expressing resistance and wonderment at their colleagues’ objections. At one point, member L.-K. asked them point blank to “help her understand what is missing (in the new bylaw’s language;) why you feel (it) doesn’t allow us to negotiate in good faith.” Harala and Kirby worried about a recent opinion from the MSBA that if a Board member is in the room during the meet-and-confer strategy caucuses, the meeting was open, meaning any ne’er-do-well citizen off the street could wander in. 

Many citizens don’t realize that the actual negotiating sessions are open meetings. As Superintendent Gronseth said, during this meeting: the two sides negotiating the contract “come together as a group, and that part is open. Anybody can come into that meeting, where the union and (the district’s) negotiating team are sitting together.” He described the strategy caucuses as the meetings where “we (the district’s negotiating team) talk about each of the points of (an) offer, and what we might counter-offer.” 

Member Harala, especially, expressed concern that these strategy meetings had to be kept as secret as a poker hand, otherwise the district’s game plan would be compromised. She worried if a Board member were present, under the MSBA’s interpretation of the open meeting law, the door would be thrown wide open. Member Loeffler-Kemp set a precedent during the last contract talks, however, and some Board members seemed more concerned that the full Board be allowed fair and active participation in this round. 

Member Welty said he wasn’t “satisfied with the suggestion that we (the Board) decide the parameters. With this particular negotiation we’re going to be heading into, I’m not satisfied with that. I’m not willing to set the parameters and then only have reports back. I would like to have school board involvement in the discussions.” 

The Board’s parameter-setting role has not worked out well since its inception, principally because the DFL-endorsed members have had control for so many years and the DFL is closely aligned with the DFT. Having the DFL set the parameters on the Duluth Federation of Teachers’ contract is a bit like having your best buddy set a cap on your daily spending habits: “You and me go way back, Joe. In fact, you helped me get this job and I owe you one. I’m gonna cut you some slack. How ‘bout a 10,000 bucks a day? Can you live on that? That sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

One of the chief reasons the district keeps finding itself chronically in deficit and cutting from educational operations to balance the books is because, since Keith Dixon came to town, the Board has been giving away benefits and salary increases out of proportion to the realities of its budget. The debate about what role Board members (ostensibly the public’s representatives, responsible for fiscal control) are going to play in reigning in expenses for a broke school district went on quite a while, and seemed destined to take up quite a bit more time during the April regular meeting. 

 
The bottom line. 
At this crucial moment, our district is indeed broke. Administrative staff is again beset with the unpleasant task of determining where to eliminate things they’d previously decided were worth paying for. They also have to determine where to invest a little more money here and there, to try to shore things up. The Business Committee meeting was taken up primarily by a discussion of next year’s preliminary budget. 

In his preamble to the discussions, Superintendent Gronseth told the Board the parameters of the budget were set to “reflect community vision and priorities” and “prioritize General Fund spending to instruction and support of students.”
In other words: we’re broke, but we are throwing a few pennies towards some of the things citizens keep clamoring for us to address in our public education system, while doing our best not to slice too much from actual instruction in the classrooms. 
One thing, in fairness, has to be acknowledged: the budget process is much less hidden and secretive than it has been in the past, and administrative staff clearly did think things through and worked really hard to achieve the above objective as well as they could. 
The new investments total $783,000. One of the more notable items is $100,000 for a ADSIS grant. I reported a while back that ISD 709 stood to lose $450,000 of matching money from the State to help with the multi-tiered support systems--a very helpful tool in trying to address the achievement gap. By investing some money, our school district will not lose out completely. 

Another investment is to establish a full-time Climate Coordinator position. How sweet Spring would be if we were hiring someone who could curtail Duluth’s icy lake wind, but this position is meant to deal with the social climate--to create a safe, secure and “welcoming” environment in our schools. The position was chopped to half-time during last year’s budget-balancing act, but administration is advising the Board to bring it back, full-swing. 

One other investment of special note is the $150,000 “equity investment” administration has recommended, to address the failure of the Red Plan to produce “educational equity” across the city. The money is to be directed towards two western schools in particular--Denfeld High and the Lincoln Park Middle School. The problem with this investment is very basic: things are so out-of-whack, to really make a substantial difference the investment would need another zero: $1,500,000. 

The tougher part of this process--the cuts--added up to $2,283,000, with another $276,738 cuts yet to be determined. The entire proposal is preliminary, which means the Board’s approval of this proposal at the April regular meeting would just be the first step towards leading to a finalized 2018 budget in June. 

As I paged through the handout during the meeting, one heading in particular: “Barnstorm Ways to Increase Revenue,” caught my eye. I waited with anticipation to see what the barnstorming had produced, but the only big idea was for staff to somehow try to lure ten more students into every school. Lost enrollment has been killing ISD 709 since Keith Dixon blew everything apart with the Red Plan. Ten more students in each school would definitely help, but for years district leadership has trumpeted one daydreaming goal after another, with no real plan. 

The Board should do at least five things: (1) get some reasonable concessions from the teachers’ union in this round, especially in regard to health care benefits, (2) finally sell all vacant district property to ANYONE willing to pay fair market value, (3) direct more State compensatory aid to the schools that are actually eligible for the money, (4) finally start searching for a way to relieve the pressure of Red Plan debt payments being made from the General Fund, and (5) actually insist on one additional expenditure, for a grant writer. (Mr. Dixon abolished ISD 709’s grant writer position while he was raiding the budget, another of many foolish moves the man made.) 

During this meeting, Business Committee Chair Annie Harala offered her plan to deal with the budget problems: start sending buses into neighboring districts, to round up more kids. Other districts received requests to send their buses into Duluth, but this idea may have some real merit. We could paint up a bunch of buses in the psychedelic rainbow colors of the sixties and write in calligraphy script: “Annie’s Magic Bus Ride, Welcome Aboard!” on the sides. We could send them out across the state, even to Wisconsin and Iowa, every day, picking up every wayward urchin along the road.

This fiscal strategy is actually right in line with all the other pie-in-the-sky economic theories we’ve been subjected to for more than 12 years.