To Take or Not to Take

by Loren Martell

Old Duluth Central High. Photo credit: Ted Heineken
Old Duluth Central High. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

Our school board met on 7/26/18 to officially approve putting a tax levy referendum on the November ballot, and also to vote on whether or not it would “convert” $300 of the base levy from being voter-approved to Board-approved. The good news is that the vote on the resolution that would have taken away the public’s authority over $2.55 million a year was a 3-3 tie, with member Oswald absent. A 3-3 tie meant the measure failed and the public retained its right to vote. 

Walking into the room, after listening to the issue debated for the past few months, I had Chair Kirby pegged as the swing vote. I was pretty certain members Sandstad and Trnka were going to vote “Nay,” and I was absolutely certain members Loeffler-Kemp, Lofald and Gorham were going to vote “Yea,” to take away the public’s right to have say over its own money. 

The vote came down exactly the way I thought it would with the five--and, in the end, Kirby joined with Sandstad and Trnka in opposing. 
 

Two voices who argued to take the money

Member Loeffler-Kemp was gung-ho to convert $300 per student of tax levy money ($2.55 million a year) to Board-approved (and taking away the public’s right to vote,) from the moment the authority was placed in front of her. She described her allies’ speeches as “eloquent” during the debate, and spent a good part of the meeting staring at member Lofald, nodding approvingly at her comments. 

If you attend meetings, you will soon discover member L.-K.’s penchant for nodding quite vigorously at anything that fits into her world view. 
Member Gorham made a high-sounding statement: “The community elected me to this chair because they believe in me and support me to make the best decision. I believe making this decision (taking away the public’s right to vote) stabilizes things for our students and staff to provide the education that as school board members we are charged to ensure is upheld.” 

Maybe this was a bit presumptuous on my part, but I, too, kept thinking about the community that elected Mr. Gorham. Some respect was long-overdue to the public of Duluth, and he did run for the Board as a “Servant Leader.” Somehow I just couldn’t fit robbing the public of its right to vote into my definition of a Servant Leader. 

Keith Dixon also described himself as a Servant Leader. Servant Leaders like this might one day put dictators out of business. 
  
Member Lofald 

The taxing authority at the heart of this debate was first offered to school districts in 2013. 158 districts have implemented it--though a number of districts are not using it to the maximum of $300 per student. According to the MDE, of the 158 Boards who are using the authority, 36 used it in the way our Board was considering using it during this meeting: taking money that the voters had once decided on, and converting it to the Board’s authority. To add some further perspective: five years ago, there were 336 independent school districts in Minnesota. Because of consolidation, that figure has now dropped to 331. 

This background information may help put member Lofald’s remarks into proper context. Of the three members arguing in favor of the Board taking the $300, Lofald spoke out the most. She began by agreeing with a statement by member Sandstad, that the timing wasn’t exactly terrific for the Board to be making this move:

“The timing for us to do the Board-approved is a little — is a little — tense. Or,” backing off, she tried to rephrase, “not tense, it’s a little — it’s not the best timing, I guess! You said it right, member Sandstad. I also know that we have great, positive feedback on our data (from a recently conducted survey,) so, again, you could see that data both ways. You could say we had great results, and so I feel confident of taking Board-approval (and taking away the public’s right to vote,) because they (the survey respondents) agree that they’re going to fund us…”

Lofald further justified approval of the resolution by pointing out that “158 school boards decided to take their ability as a Board to make this decision. I don’t--I think it’s somewhat — I think we are making it into a like--the voters have to vote on this. And I think that’s in OUR rhetoric — right up here--mine, too. When, in actuality, it’s an extension of some monies we’ve already been given, and the State has changed it’s ability for us to secure it, and I actually think it’s a strong Board that would take our Board direction and go forward…”

From the start of the debate, a few months ago, the central argument made by the Board members leaning towards taking away the public’s right to vote was that they were just extending existing monies. Implementing the levying authority wouldn’t raise taxes; it MERELY switched approval of the funds from the public’s right to vote, to the Board assuming authority to take the money without the muss and fuss of getting permission from the fickle citizens. 

During her multiple speeches, Lofald won this meeting’s “Contradictory Remark Award,” with this statement: “I don’t want to see a headline or anything that I voted against it (the public’s right to vote,) and so now, obviously, I don’t have confidence in the voters, because I do!” 
This logic was so impeccable, no one could possibly argue against it. 
I was the only citizen to speak from the public podium, and Lofald took offense at my remarks. If the recently conducted district survey is to be believed, ISD 709 has a well of support in this community it frankly doesn’t deserve. I asked the Board why it would risk “poisoning that well” by sending a message to the public that it does not trust them. The implied subtext of my question was: “Really — the Duluth school board is going to send out a message that YOU don’t trust the PUBLIC?” 

Lofald said: “I don’t like ‘poison the well.’ I think that’s charging rhetoric. That is dramatic rhetoric. And I’m not gonna let it — I’m not gonna let that bully me into (not) making a courageous vote on taking the $300 as Board-approved, tonight.”
I included the “not” in Lofald’s statement, assuming she meant to insert it where I have it. Pointing out that the Board ran the risk of poisoning its well of support in this community by taking away the public’s right to vote felt like bullying to member Lofald? Listening to her words from the audience, I was pretty sure my hard-charging, dramatic rhetoric would have been bested, hands down, in an oratory competition. “Poisoning the well” is a common expression that aptly described what the Board’s action might do in the community. 

The words “bullying” and “civility” are tossed about often these days, and I think too often used as a shield to deflect criticism. One of my favorite quotes from a local official on the subject is from former school board member, Harry Welty, now a Republican candidate for the eighth district congressional seat: “If I am at war with anything, it is the milquetoast moderates who believe civility is the equivalent of good government.” Mr. Welty further described civility as a “desirable virtue that is too often used as a means of discouraging honest discourse.” 

I personally have always been a fan of the British Parliament, where they just lay out in the open what they think and feel: “MP Witherston is a bullying, dictating cad, and an embarrassment to the crown.” “Hear, hear!” 
The Red Planners used the same dramatic language Lofald employed. They described their action to shove the plan through without a vote as an act of courage. They were the eloquent voices articulating the greater good; they were brave souls fighting and “moving forward” through their selfless deeds “for the children.” Then, just as now, however, whenever they spoke about “courage,” the only action they were advocating was to grab a big sturdy stick and clobber the public over the head. 

The Board members supporting this action were essentially treating the public — we, the people —as though we were the district’s ATM machine, from which they wanted to begin automatically withdrawing, without our approval, $2.55 million a year. 
I personally think it’s high time the Board finally showed some real courage, by admitting what truly happened. Let’s see the Board of Education show some true bravery by going after Johnson Controls, which clearly scammed our city, or by calling Keith Dixon out on the carpet for being a wrecking ball and egomaniac. Let’s see it demand the Minnesota Department of Education finally admit what a horrendous job it did in the Red Plan’s Review & Comment process, and force the state of Minnesota to pony up some reparations to the good people of Duluth who got taken to the cleaners by the scam. 

In the survey that supplanted our vote on the Red Plan, the slick marketer, Bill Morris (the same individual who conducted the latest survey,) included these lines: “The cost of each proposal would range between 257 million dollars and 271 million dollars. But, due to savings and sales of unused property, almost half of that total is already paid for.” 

The range of costs given for the three plans on the table at the time was grossly inaccurate. The Red Plan eventually cost $315 million, $481 million with bond interest. Anyone can see “almost half the total” has not (and never will be) paid for by savings and sales of properties. The Red Plan is also more than 1000 students below its projected enrollment. The current basic education formula from the State is $6,312 per student. Multiplying 1000 by $6,312 = $6,312,000 annually in lost aid. If our representatives are truly in a courageous mood, let’s hear them address all this. 

When the former “representative” of the 3rd district broke all his campaign promises and sold out to the Red Plan, the Duluth News Tribune editorialized that “his turnabout was courageous, to say the least,” and he’d broken all his election promises “with the best interest of his constituents in mind.” 
Breaking your campaign promises is a “courageous” act? Breaking all your promises to your constituents is in their “best interest?” 
I don’t know what kind of Orwellian vision you keep trying to sell me, establishment of Duluth, but I’ve never bought it, and I’m still not buying. 
 
The Superintendent speaks

Mr. Gronseth told the Board he tries really hard to put “a personal context” on all the decisions he makes as the chief administrative officer. “With this particular topic,” he said, “my mind does change, depending on which lens I’m viewing it through. When I’m viewing it through the lens of a student or of a teacher, I’d say: ‘WOW! Yeah! Why wouldn’t you do that (take away the public’s right to vote and secure the money)? (That way,) you’re not taking chance with my future. You’re fully putting it (the money) in place.’” 

Mr. G. amended his last statement, by adding: “ — at least a little bit. We’re still going to have cuts, if things go sideways for some reason (like angering the public by stealing its right to vote,) but at least there’s some security there. And I would by thankful for that support, if I were looking through that lens.”

The Super-man then changed the magnification of his microscope and peered through another lens: “If I look at it from someone who is upset with the district, or has some disagreement with the district, then I’m gonna say, ‘NO! I get to make that decision! And I’ll tell you what that decision is right now--before I hear anything.’ And so, I do see it through those (different) lenses.” 

The disparaging term that has been thrown at boardroom critics for years is that they’re “anti-district,” which by implication also means the troublesome beasts are “anti-education” and “anti-children.” In reality, critics have been anti-bad government. It was refreshing, however, to hear Super G. acknowledge for the very first time that an issue being debated in the boardroom could be seen through more than one lens. 

 
The arguments against the take

Board member Sandstad was the strongest voice against the Board using this authority, with one big caveat:
“I think timing is everything, here. And this is unfortunate timing: to be discussing switching $300 (per student, $2.55 million a year) that was voter-approved funds to being Board-approved funds. Doing it (making the “switch”) two, three months before asking the community for more money is not a smart move, in my mind. And that’s my concern about voting on this $300...but my understanding is also if they (the duty-bound voters) fail to do so (approve this tax money for our use) — if they don’t do their jobs in supporting the district — we, as a Board, can do our job in December, or January or anytime through September of next year, and act on this $300 at that time…” 

The speech was a peace offering — an olive branch — with a warning note attached: “If we back off on using this authority, Joe and Jane Taxpayer, you’d better do the right thing and pay up to support the little kids’ education, because if you don’t, next year we are going to get out the cattle prods and show you who’s really boss!”

What I’ve discovered in my decade-long encounter with ISD 709 is that dealing with the district is like doing combat with a monster that keeps morphing into different shapes and never dies. This is what will likely occur if the voters don’t give the Board what it wants: next year, our elected leaders will put together another multi-million dollar levy referendum (at least $3½, $4 million or more,) and then use this taxing authority to secure $2.55 million of it. They’ll place the referendum on the ballot, hoping to score voter-approval of all the money above and beyond the $2.55 million in an off-year election, when only local offices are in play and the DFL/union political machine tends to dominate, because of low voter turnout. 

Plotting out future scenarios is not going to stop me from savoring a rare victory for the public in the boardroom, however. Member Sandstad, who initially came out strongly in favor of using the taxing authority, deserves credit for being judicious enough to reconsider. She has often shown more insight and independence than is generally exhibited by the DFL-endorsed power clique. 

Board Chair Kirby agreed with Sandstad’s position: “I think we can give people the option of voting…people have asked about transparency, and what we’re doing, and I think this will help that. I think we should give the voters the chance to vote on this $300.” 
Business Committee Chair, Sally Trnka added: “I actually think that people are feeling frustrated and a little burned-out, and we can create a message to them that helps them find faith in something they have direct control over: which is how we’re funding our schools.” 
Through my lens, these three Board members were the courageous ones during this meeting.