High-wire act

by Loren Martell

One thing the people of this town will have to weigh, as they decide whether or not to give the public school district more money, is whether or not they trust the district’s leader. Superintendent Gronseth tried to run away 3 times, and the DFL leadership rewarded him with a new contract and a raise. As soon as the contract was signed, Super G. broke the trust implied in any such contract and tried to run away 3 more times.

Last spring, I and another citizen met with the departing Principal of Myers-Wilkins Elementary. On the way out the door, she could speak freely. “There is so much distrust towards the district in this community,” she lamented disconsolately, “I don’t think the levy is going to pass. We need a change, at the top.”

“You’re talking about the very top?” I asked. “You’re referring to the Superintendent?”
“Yes.” She replied, with emphasis.
 
School Board meeting, 7/17/18

Two citizens spoke from the public podium this evening: a saintly citizen named Jim Doyle, and the resident villain.
The saintly man, Mr. Doyle, was part of community group that has dedicated many hours trying to even the playing field for academic opportunity in Duluth’s schools. The group has been trying, for some time, to convince ISD 709 to bend its two-mile rule for transporting students to high school. Currently, if students live within two miles of a high school they’re attending, they have no bus service. They have to find another ride or walk. As Mr. Doyle put it to the Board, students are “on their own to get to school, whether rain, shine or the dead of winter.”

Obviously a very good-hearted and concerned man, Mr. Doyle further pointed out that the Minnesota Department of Education has “put Denfeld’s chronic absenteeism rate at 28%…We know.” he added, “that chronic absenteeism is correlated with low student performance, lower graduation rates and negatively impacts the district’s bottom line. We don’t get paid for kids who are not in school. We’ve also learned that adding bus stops on existing routes is cost-neutral and adds very little time to the route. After years of resisting the idea, the district recently agreed to study the relationship between walking to school and absenteeism--but still it seems like nothing has happened.”

Actually, one thing did happen: a brainchild scheme hatched by former Board member, Annie Harala. I dubbed it “Annie’s Magical Bus Ride” in this column. Rather than addressing this commonsense request from a caring community group, the Board’s leaders instead opted to use precious transportation resources to send buses willy-nilly all over the countryside, in a quixotic attempt to find students hiding out in Knife River and Cloquet. One of the bus drivers reportedly found a space ship in a hay field just outside Carlton and tried to tow it back to ISD 709, with all its alien offspring inside.

After making his passionate speech on behalf of students, the saintly man, Mr. Doyle, returned to his seat, and it was time for the villain’s entrance. After all these years, I practically have to grab myself by the scruff of the neck and drag myself up to the podium. I feel compelled to speak out, however, because NOBODY ELSE in passive Duluth is saying ANYTHING — unless you count all the grousing being done under breath, completely out of the public eye.

This evening I read a brief transcript from the Board meeting held on August 20th, 2013. None of the seven current members were around five years ago, so subsequently none knew what had transpired before them. The Superintendent was the only one who had been around, and he was doing his best to gloss over that meeting and pretend it had never happened. When Business Chair Sally Trnka asked Superintendent Gronseth during the June Business Committee meeting why the Board hadn’t used two taxing authorities previously, he did not bother to point out that the Board did take action to implement the Local Optional Allowance authority in August of 2013. He instead skipped ahead to some legislative changes from the next year, 2014.

Super G. often takes it upon himself to decide what it is appropriate for the Board to know, spoon feeding them baby food information on a “need-to-know” basis.
The other reason I read the transcript was to show the Board’s rulers--the DFLers--how their predecessors had performed during the meeting. I read a lengthy explanation of the Board action being taken on August of 2013, by former member Mike Miernicki. The explanation, given in a loud, authoritative voice, was so stunningly inaccurate, the superintendent was forced to finally cut in and correct the bellicose misinformation the robust man was tossing about the room in his commanding voice. I also showed, through her own words, how one of the matriarchs of the DFL, Judy Seliga-Punkyo, didn’t even understand the resolutions from the Business Committee she was chairing. Judy kept complaining, throughout the meeting, with comments of this ilk:

“Mr. Superintendent, I’m trying to figure out: if we don’t have to vote on this, why did we even put it in?…It’s confusing, I have to say--how it’s worded…I want to make sure we are voting the correct — what are we voting?”
That meeting from August, 2013, was very important to me, because our right to vote was on the line in the boardroom, as it had been with the Red Plan, and is currently again. I’ve transcribed the entire Board discussion from that meeting.
“As you can see from this brief transcript,” I told the Board, “your DFL predecessors did not turn in a sterling performance. The meeting from August 20th, 2013, is on YouTube. You should watch it and educate yourselves, before you start trying to ‘educate’ the public…”
More about this issue came up during this meeting’s Business Committee Report.

First, a point of contention from Human Resources.

For well over a year, Board member Oswald has been fighting to get a dime-an-hour raise for people who are not part of any union bargaining groups in ISD 709. These workers put in less than 15 hours a week, and include positions like playground monitors or deli assistants. The dime raise would skyrocket their pay from $9.65/hour to $9.75/hour. Some of them have been good, loyal employees for years and member O. feels they should get some recognition.

A dime-an-hour amounts to about a 1% raise. All the district’s bargaining units have secured at least 1-1.5% raises this year. The estimated cost-out for the teacher union’s 1.5% raise is $745,700. The total expense for teacher benefits is expected to jump another $557,761. This dime raise, for the lowest, unrepresented workers on the district’s pay totem pole, would cost less than $5000.

After watching our profligate school board rubberstamp the expenditure of so many millions of our tax dollars for over a decade, I’ve become a very cost-conscious citizen. A dime-an-hour raise for the district’s lowest-rung employees, however, would probably raise our property tax bills about a penny a month.

This issue has come up time and again and the Board has spent hours debating all the ramifications of a ten-cent raise. As much as I want more careful attention paid to spending in the boardroom, listening to this debate has become somewhat absurd. It’s like watching a family up to its eyeballs in debt, facing foreclosure, holding intense debates around the kitchen table, arguing about whether or not to purchase a 99-cent bag of discount donuts.

Member Lofald objected to the raise during this meeting and pulled the item for a separate vote. Without this action, the measure would have passed with approval of the HR report. Member Sandstad, who has indicated support for the dime raise in the past, was a no-show for the meeting. With only six members present, there was a potential for a tie, which is exactly what happened. A dime-an-hour raise for nonunion workers failed, 3-3: Lofald, Loeffler-Kemp and Kirby voting against.

Member Oswald has become the Board’s patron saint of unrepresented working stiffs. I have never seen anyone advocate harder for a dime in my life. After the vote was taken, Chair Kirby said: “3-3 is not a majority, so it fails…It’s been a long, hard battle, and I thank member Oswald for all of her work.”

I bet ten cents the issue will come up again.
  
A few more words about stealing our vote

The Board decided unanimously, during the Business Committee report, to “definitely postpone” a vote on whether it would convert $300/per student of tax money Duluth voters currently have a right to decide on, to a mandated tax ordered by the Board. During the Business Committee meeting, Superintendent Gronseth said an APU enrollment number of 8500 is being used in these calculations. 300 x 8500 = $2.55 million. That’s how much the public would lose the right to vote on every year.

The Board is now set to vote on this issue at a special meeting held in Old Central on Thursday, July 26, at 4:30, but a few moments from this meeting are worth highlighting.
The Superintendent’s feathers were a bit ruffled by any discussion at all on the matter during this July meeting. He pointed out that in the “agenda setting” (more accurately described as: the secret, inner-circle agenda meetings,) “it was decided it would be on the August agenda.”
“The conundrum Superintendent Gronseth (is complaining about,)” Member Oswald observed, “could be totally avoided if we had open agenda-setting sessions.”
Like his mentor--Keith Dixon--our current Superintendent loves these secret meetings. He loves to play Master Puppeteer behind closed doors. The ever-vigilant Member O. calling Super G. out on the mat for his obtuse bellyaching about a problem caused by intentional secrecy was the best moment of this open meeting.

“I’d really like to encourage us to pass this (resolution, which will rob the public of its right to vote) tonight.” Member Lofald told her fellow Board colleagues. “Are we concerned about a Board-approved versus a Voter-approved technique? Does that make us nervous?”
Lofald’s rambling speech was classic boardroom DFL. After wondering out loud if “the community would know that we are doing this (dispossessing the public of its right to vote) with the best information and direction and understanding of complicated school issues that we take the time to understand…” she started fumbling through the numbers around the issue, hitting only two out five correctly.

She described the Board of Education as “just this small little Board asking for this $300...” so that “when the levy comes, we can still maintain $745? Of the $795? Or the $741 of the $795? Something like that, instead of going all the way down to the $425.”
Only the $300 and $795 (repeated twice) were correct, but two out of five is better than Mike and Judy’s perfect zero. You’re showing improvement, DFL!
We’ll learn whether or not our school board again decides to trade trust for power on the evening of Thursday, July 26th, the day this paper comes out.
   
Committee of the Whole meeting, 7/19/18

Two days after the regular July meeting, the Board met again, for a presentation from a fellow named Peter Leatherman. Mr. Leatherman is the partner of Bill Morris, the slick marketer who conducted the infamous Red Plan survey. Since the Red Plan days, the two men have teamed up to form the Morris/Leatherman agency. The M/L firm was hired by the Board to conduct another Bill Morris stilt-survey, to help the district “tailor” its questions in regard to a tax increase referendum that will be on the ballot next November. Taxpayers coughed up $20,000 for the survey. The DFL always believes in making the people being hanged pay for their own rope.

This special meeting was called so the Board could listen to Leatherman lay out the results of the survey.
From the vibe I picked up in the room, several members of our school board got a boost of confidence from what they were hearing. Leatherman described Duluth as a benign tax environment, where the subject of a tax increase is generally not met with hostility. The survey results in fact showed 2-1 support for handing over more money to district 709.

Really? By a 2-1 margin, Duluthians are willing to step through the fleecing barn again, like a herd of submissive sheep, without even demanding any kind of change from a school district that has functioned so abysmally?
I found that astonishing.
Leatherman did say there was some fluidity to the numbers, and some factor could yet arise as a “deal-breaker,” especially with the class of voters he described as “persuadables.”
Persuadable citizens are requested to wear identification tags with a bright smiley-face insignia.
I haven’t gotten my hands on the survey yet, but from watching the presentation I sensed that the questions failed to tease out how deeply citizens believed the district could deliver on what was promised. If you’re willing to give the school district more money because you want lower class sizes, for example, how much faith do you have that lower class sizes will actually happen?

Five years ago, a lot of people gave the district money because they believed the levy would significantly reduce class size, and were greatly disappointed when it didn’t happen. Several citizens have expressed this disappointment from the public podium in the boardroom and some teachers from East High wrote a letter to the Board two years ago, expressing disappointment that the levy had had almost no effect on class size in their school.

One of the strangest moments during the presentation occurred when Leatherman pointed out that a significant percentage of citizens, who opposed a tax increase, wanted the district to draw the money out of its reserve balance instead. This statement seemed to crack nearly everyone up, and I’m not talking about a little, tittering, embarrassed giggle.

The boardroom filled with a big, raucous guffaw, and once again I sat there like a party-pooping wet blanket, unable to crack even the littlest smile.
My hang-up is that I always think about the public’s money exactly the same way I think of my own. If I were trying to solicit support from a revenue source to aid in the operation of my business, and a survey of the stockholders of that revenue source said they would prefer I take some of the money out of my own bank account, I can’t imagine breaking into a big laugh about the fact that I didn’t have ANY nest egg AT ALL, nothing in reserve.

“I did have thirty million dollars of ready cash twelve years ago, but I blew it all. Isn’t that a HOOT!”
I’m hoping to lay out some of the survey numbers in later articles, but ISD 709 is hard to keep up with these days. The place perfectly fits Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” And that only half describes it.
Our public school district is also a power-of-positive-thinking seminar, wrapped in a spy novel, inside a three-ring circus with lots of high-wire acts. The Superintendent is on the highest wire, praying the good people of Duluth will hold out a safety net.