O, Captain!

by Loren Martell

Old Central was locked again (the third time in recent months) when I showed up for the school board’s Business Committee on 8/13/18. A young woman and I were rescued by the Superintendent’s secretary, who was clocking out for the day. 
“I don’t know why they keep doing this.” The secretary said, letting us in. 
As we stepped through the doorway, the young woman told me she was “just going to text Bill (assumingly referring to the Superintendent)” to let her in. 
Another woman, middle-aged, also showed up for the meeting. Both women seemed to be connected to the district. I’m pretty sure I was the only stakeholder in the room, based merely on the fact that I pay the bill. 
This meeting was another tough one. Anticipating the slow passage of time, tasting of eternity, I hunted out a cushioned chair as soon I arrived. As hour after hour ticked past — 1-2-3 — I once again tipped my hat to our Board for sheer effort. Make no mistake: no one willingly puts up with this kind of agony if he or she doesn’t care about public education. 

The Board’s regular monthly meetings are better attended than committee meetings by the general public. Sometimes citizens who show up are given special recognition because they also really care. Last month, some people were recognized for their work with Z.E.Y.ZONE, an after-school program offered in collaboration with the YMCA in ISD 709’s elementary schools. The acronym, K.E.Y., stands for: “Knowledge, Enrichment and Youth development.” Over 1000 students participate in the program, and it really does make a difference in their lives. 
The people associated with this program are on a paved path to heaven. I describe all the good-hearted people I’ve observed in the boardroom this way, in the book I am writing: 
“Paradoxically, given the tenor of this analysis, involvement in the Red Plan raised my awareness of the goodness that exists in the human race. Many people have an innate desire to contribute and leave something better behind in their wake. In the boardroom of ISD 709, I witnessed citizens who were very deeply passionate about the interests of children. Incredibly dedicated to the mission of helping every child procure the best education possible, these good people volunteered many hours of their time and gave money. Their dedication to public education is the best hope for the future, and I was largely seen as a negative force on their positive intentions. 

I understand this point of view. I recognize and respect the saintliness of these good people, but it will take more than saintly hearts to make it through the stormy seas ahead. Many a good sailor has ended up at the bottom of the ocean because of rash decisions made by a maniacal Captain. More tough questioning — maybe even outright mutiny — may be required if public education is going to survive the voyage that is coming. After what I’ve witnessed, I have little doubt traditional public schools will sink like bricks if school districts don’t use precious resources more wisely than the Board of Education exercised in Duluth, MN, and do much better strategic planning.” 

Still on the subject of good and bad

For those not paying close attention to the soap opera titled, “As the District Turns,” our school board for a while flirted with the idea of taking away the public’s right to vote on $2.55 million of the public schools’ levy, making the money an automatic annual tax approved by the Board. One of the arguments made was that the City and County have taxing authorities that don’t require a referendum.

If I were a city councilor or a county commissioner, I would love our school board. Having the school board around would be like having a sibling who keeps screwing up and creating so much constant drama, straight Cs and no negative interactions with law enforcement is enough to qualify you for “good kid” status. 

Our school board shoved the Red Plan through with no vote at all. On top of that, after the Board took away our right to vote, one of our elected representatives broke all his promises to the central corridor of the city. Duluth’s central residents had no vote and effectively no representation in regard to the largest school consolidation project in the history of the state. 

For a lot of people, our city council has been increasingly resembling our school board. Can you imagine the mood at meetings if, without a vote, the council had run up a $481 million bill on a facilities project that went south in every aspect of its financing and left city hall in the shape Old Central is in--the front entrance a boarded-up pigeon roost, and the structure needing $25 million in repairs? 

The Superintendent explained his justification for using the taxing authority to the Board this way: “Five years ago, we were still at the tail end of the (Red Plan.) We were still finishing up four projects and there was still quite a bit of discussion about the long-range facilities plan and how it went forward, and so there was greater sensitivity to really just let the voters make that decision…It would be helpful,” he added, “if you would just slide it over (now).” 

This nonchalant language relit a fire in me. Had our school board again traded trust for power and used the taxing authority, I would have raised all kinds of civic commotion from every venue I could get into, and the good, saintly people of our fair city would have had very good reason to frown once more upon a pesky troublemaker. 

 The banished, vanished CFO 

Two months ago, in June, I found Old Central locked up on both floors and had to pound my way into the building. After all my effort, I was astonished to discover the primary item I’d shown up to look at — the budget — was not on the Business Committee agenda. 
The Board had been begging for “updates” on the budget for months to no avail. I assumed there was no way Administration could delay any longer. The June meeting is the last regular meeting of the fiscal year. The district has to submit a budget to the state for the next fiscal year by the end of June.
The unhappiness of some Board members was evident in the clipped tone of their voices when they addressed former CFO, Doug Hasler. After the meeting, I spoke with Mr. Hasler for quite a while outside his office. 
“I have to ask you, Doug,” I said, “did you fully understand the mess you were diving into when you came here?”
“Well, Loren,” Mr. H. replied, “all school districts are challenging.”
“This one is definitely challenging.” I agreed. “In fact, taking over the finances of this place I would compare to being hired as a doctor and immediately being told to save a wheezing, gagging patient that has about five minutes to live.” 
Mr. Hasler laughed, completely unaware that the doctor would soon have to save himself. During the Human Resources meeting, preceding this evening’s Business Committee meeting, the Superintendent told his Board he was “hoping to do interviews next week with four candidates” for the now-vacant CFO position. “Hopefully,” Super G. added, “we’ll have some strong candidates” to take over the role of ISD’s Financial Physician on upcoming episodes of our civic soap opera. 

With no Chief Financial Officer and time running out, the school board approved a placeholder budget during a special meeting called in June, so the district could make its deadline with the state. The real budget was shuttled off, on the taxpayers’ dime, to an organization called the Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium. The intent was to have ARRC use its finance expertise to come up with something the school board could vote on. 

 The budget is back

The results of a fiscal experiment were revealed to our Board during this meeting. ARCC apparently discovered three areas on the revenue side of the budget that needed revising. The organization’s financial detectives discovered student enrollment to be overestimated in two grade levels. “Additional changes needed to be made,” as the Superintendent put it, in the estimated costs of special education, as well as trimming back some anticipated monies apportioned by St. Louis county. 

On the expenditure side of the ledger, Super G. told the Board that, “by running through historical data,” the experts had found ISD 709 needed to increase spending in some areas, but could decrease in a few other areas. The overall net result of the whole exercise was a bottom-line determination that our school district has to “decrease (its) expenditures by $1.9 million” in its fiscal ‘19 budget. 

“To do that,” Super G. declared, “we scoured the budget. Peggy (Blalock, the Finance Manager) spent a lot of time with ARCC, going over each item (and) going over budgets with each of our departments.”
During this “scouring” process, our public school district discovered one little corner of the budget it hadn’t yet raided.
“We have a Federal Trust Fund that over time builds up.” The Superintendent informed our attentive Board. “It’s based on Federal employees that are paid for from Federal funds. Each year, we put in money to pay for things like severance insurance--things like that. Over time, we put away more than we use, so it tends to build up. Right now, there’s enough money in there so we can increase our insurance payments from the Federal Trust, rather than (from) the General Fund.” 

This “one-time” maneuver is expected to reduce expenditures from the General Fund by more than a million dollars ($1.2 million) next year. To achieve a total target cut of $1.9 million, the Board was advised to also approve taking $400,000 from Special Education, raiding $200,000 more from the enfeebled maintenance fund and squeezing $100,000 from “various district-level budget adjustments,” which the Superintendent further described as “$5000 here, $10,000 there…anywhere we could make reductions.” 

Mr. Gronseth next presented a list of proposed cuts in nine categories of district operations, ranging from “Administration” to “Fiscal and other fixed costs.” Each category included the cost from the preliminary budget adopted by the Board last Spring, and the new “modified” expenditures, reflecting the latest cuts. Total expenditures for all 9 categories dropped from $108,364,256 to $106,126,933. 

Missing from all of this was what, specifically, would be cut in each category; something that did not sit well with member Oswald. 
“I understand your list,” member O. began, “but I still lack detail of what and where these cuts are. And I can’t count the number of times that people talk to me and tell me that they were told the school board directed this cut — this negotiation, whatever it is — and I have no knowledge of it, because I don’t see what that (cut) is in this one-page document. And that’s a really large frustration of my job, looking at a budget. I would really like to know when I’m making cuts that impact people, and impact things--and what those are. Not necessarily to micromanage them, but to take ownership and responsibility for them.” 

During the 8 years of his tenure, former Board member Art Johnston cracked the whip relentlessly on this same issue--the school board kept in the dark about specific cuts and other budget details. During this meeting, the individual who ousted Mr. Johnston from his 4th district seat showed everyone why the supreme leader of our school district, Captain Gronseth, prayed daily she would win in the last election. 

“I think (this) is just the way our job rolls.” Member Lofald began her put-down of member O’s complaint. “We are going to be blamed for things that have made decisions in specific buildings. But what we can share with our constituents is that, we, as a Board, give direction to our leadership, and they know best where the best cuts have to be made…And so, our response to constituents is that we are trusting our leadership to make cuts that aren’t impacting instruction or students’ learning, as best they can.”

Member L. continued her lecture: “If we’re going to come into a Board meeting and then get nit-picky…then all of our personal baggage comes into the conversation in here, which I don’t think that is going to move us forward. And so, I do believe the budget — it is a big part of our vote — (but) it seems like, even in our campaigning — you, know — we were supposed to be the best financial Board members that we can be, and sometimes I think we all hang our hat on trying to understand the budget, when I think there’s so much more we can be visioning…”

Lofald went on about how the Board should let “our leadership” go “where it needs to go.” 
We’ve obviously had exemplary leadership in ISD 709 for several years now, and it’s probably pointless to repeat that the Board is responsible for fiscal control. How can you claim to be performing due diligence towards this primary responsibility if all you’re doing is sitting there, repeating over and over, “We trust Administration!” It’s like a ship’s navigator being unable to read navigational charts. 

“I thought we were supposed to be heading south. It’s beginning to feel a bit chilly! Is that ice I’m spotting up ahead?” 
“The Captain says it can get pretty chilly by the Equator. Just put on a sweater, you party poop, and keep smiling!”
Business Committee Chair Trnka complained that she and her colleagues are “always operating in a pressure cooker.”
Our school board has been in been in a reactive stance for years — jumping from one hot, pressured crisis to another. It has been evident to anyone paying attention that the people who would ultimately have to come in and turn down the heat would be Duluth’s taxpayers. 
 
A layout of the coming “ask”

The other big item from this Business Committee meeting was a resolution the Board is being advised to approve during the August regular meeting, to put a tax levy referendum on this November’s election ballot. The levy will be in three tiers.
The first tier is for basic district operations. The “ask” is for voters to approve $371.78/per student. This will be added to the $424/per student the school board moved from voter-approved money to Board-approved money five years ago, for a total of $795.78/per student. 
The second tier is an “ask” for $575/per student to theoretically fund things like hiring more teachers to reduce class size. 
The third tier is another “ask” for $335/per student to upgrade district technology. 
Superintendent Gronseth told the Board $8500 is the enrollment number being used in these calculations. Using this figure, all of these levy numbers combined add up to a $14,499,130 million annual bill for district operations. This would be on top of the multiple millions taxpayers are still paying off on the Red Plan.

While promoting the tech levy during this meeting, the Superintendent said the money would be used to replace “our old technology.”
We just spent millions on “cutting-edge” SMART Board technology (millions we’re still paying off!) and our “leadership” keeps referring to the equipment just installed in every classroom as “old” and “ancient.” 
What a journey we’ve all had to the promised land. O Captain, my Captain! Some of us are having a hard time following you any further.