Just stop me, please!

by Loren Martell

On 2/9/11, the Duluth News Tribune printed the following article on its Opinion Page: “While not illegal, plagiarism also isn’t right, and there isn’t a school official anywhere who’d stand for it from a student. So how should students and others at Superior High School react upon learning their assistant principal, Bill Punyko — the husband of Duluth School Board chairwoman Judy Seliga-Punyko — was part of an attempt to submit for publication in the News Tribune a plagiarized letter to the editor? The scheme unraveled Saturday when Punyko accidentally included the News Tribune’s letters address in an e-mail he sent to a swimmer his wife used to coach. The letter to the editor was attached to the e-mail, and the e-mail offered instructions about how the swimmer could submit the letter as though he was the one who had written it.

‘You have to put your name on it, address, phone number, and email (address),’ Punyko directed in the e-mail. ‘They (the News Tribune Opinion page staff) will call you and ask if you wrote it and if it’s been printed anywhere else. The answers are yes you wrote it and no it’s not been published anywhere else.’
(If) the recipient followed through and done as instructed, he wouldn’t have been the one who wrote the letter.” The Duluth News Tribune observed. “In other words, Punyko instructed the recipient to lie to the News Tribune and to take credit for a written work that wasn’t his own.
‘I will be writing more in the future,’ the paper further quoted from the fake letter, ‘and need ghost authors to put their names on letters. Thanks for your help.’”
Mr. Punkyo was attempting to surreptitiously criticize a letter to the editor I’d had published in the paper, and whenever I see another critical letter I have just cause to be suspicious of its origin. Incidentally, I did like Mr. Punkyo’s creative description of “ghost authors.” I disagreed, however, with the paper’s charge of plagiarism. I would have described the whole incident as fraud or forgery. 

By this time, the political fight in Duluth had become quite fractious. I’d written an article questioning the cost of the pools, the wisdom of building them, (and, of course, who was pushing them.) The article prompted the school board Chairwoman’s husband to attempt a public attack without publicly using his own name. Things get edgy in these kinds of civic fights and no one’s perfect. I can be legitimately criticized for some of my actions as well (especially, at times, for going too far and being less than tactful,) but I did fight aboveboard and owned every move I made. 

Explaining his actions, Mr. Punkyo told the paper: “Because I’m married to my wife, I am not entitled to have an opinion…People who have opposed the school district have dominated the conversation and the dialogue.” 
I frankly didn’t buy any part of this argument. The spouse of a public official certainly is entitled to have an opinion and I don’t believe the Chairwoman disagreed with any part of her husband’s letter. Furthermore, I and none of my allies opposed the school district. We opposed a cadre of movers and shakers who had commandeered the reins of power and were forcing Duluth to make a bad investment in the school district. 

They took away our right to vote, leaving only one tool at our disposal to counter their ambitious use (and abuse) of power: blessed free speech. 
   
A wary eye isn’t warranted?

Our public school district is requesting the citizens of Duluth pay more taxes for the children’s education. The district’s budget has been circling the drain for several years and the push for more money from all ISD 709’s constituency is an intense, full-court press. That constituency includes pretty much the same list of movers and shakers (or their chosen successors) that have been ruling our city for well over a decade.

Some people accuse me of being cynical, disrespectful and condescending in observing this power clique in action, but I have no appetite for the happy-talk spin they seem to crave. I’ve been fed enough spin for ten lifetimes since Keith Dixon came to town. 
My favorite example of happy-talk spin is contained in this quote, from former Board member and Chairwoman, Judy Seliga-Punkyo: “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…” 

From the year Keith Dixon came to town, to the year Judy S.-P. described ISD 709’s financial picture as “great,” the district’s reserve fund dropped from $30,151,202 to $14,717,348, enrollment dropped from 10,772 to 9,293, costing the district $6.5 million in annual State aid, the district’s budget plummeted $4 million into the red, and the tax burden jumped from $12,887,713.38 to $23,264,756.73.

In 2013, three years later, the tax burden climbed to $28,928,408, the reserve dropped to $1,934,777 and the district was forced to un-designate an insurance fund to avoid slipping into statutory operating debt status. 
By 2016, enrollment dropped to 8,365 and the tax burden climbed to $33,149,646. 
Just two more years later (2018,) the district was forced to cut operations by $1.5 million midyear, to again dodge statutory operating debt status, and the once-bountiful $30 million reserve was all but gone — down to just $111,148. The bond rating dropped into the basement — a dismal Ba1--and enrollment dropped to 8116, representing, over eight years, another $6 million loss in annual State aid.

Meanwhile, a huge capital project, forced down the public’s throat with no vote, continued going south, riddled with erroneous predictions. Enrollment was supposed to “stabilize” at 9600, and our public school system should be awash in extra money gained from “efficiency savings.” Four million ($4,083,572.39) is supposed to be available in this year’s budget. Judy S.-P. confidently predicted the Board would be happily spending the extra money “to fund teachers and educational programs.” 

GREAT! Could not be GREATER!! Let me pause to reverently recite the prayer of the common, faithful citizenry: Dear, Lord: No matter how much self-serving nonsense my leaders subject me to, please stop--just stop!--me from being condescending, disrespectful and cynical.