Onward, tin soldiers

by Loren Martell

Another school board chapter is in the history books.  The deeply resonant, halting alto voice of Rosie Loeffler-Kemp will no longer direct the Board’s meetings.  L.-K. has stepped down.  Her Board ally and former vice-Chair, Jill Lofald, has taken over as Chair.  

Lofald’s voice, almost as loud as L.-K.’s, is whetted with a brisker tone and never halts one bit.  Jill-Lo’s speaking cadence is revved up with certainty and can-do chutzpah, perennially full steam ahead. 

During the school board’s annual organizational meeting, Jill Lofald won the Board’s power position with a 6-1 vote.  Alanna Oswald cast the lone dissenting vote.  Member Oswald cast her vote for a very capable and deserving candidate: Alanna Oswald.  Sally Trnka nominated member Oswald for Chair and then voted for Lofald, which seemed a bit tacky: I’ll nominate you and then I’ll leave you hanging out there all alone, voting for yourself.  

A lot of hidden machinations likely occurred in determining how this played out.  The scuttlebutt I picked up is that Loeffler-Kemp held onto the possibility of serving another term as Chair, until nearly the last minute.  There was a lot of scrambling and power positioning, when she decided against it.  I suspect the only outside influence on this election came from the East/West equity group.

A growing force in the boardroom, this group of citizens was present for this meeting--seated clustered together, clearly vested in the outcome. 

There seemed to be an overt effort to create an image of Board “unity” in the election.  Lofald’s victory as Chair appeared to be a nod to the old guard--a continuation of Loeffler-Kemp’s influence--while Board newcomer, Kelly Eder, soundly defeated old-guard nominee, David Kirby, for the vice-Chair position.  Kirby only received two votes: his own and Loeffler-Kemp’s.   

Alanna Oswald will continue as Board Clerk and Sally Trnka was re-elected as Board Treasurer.  Both of these nominations were uncontested; members Oswald and Trinka won unanimously, by acclamation.     

Oh, what visions

If the East/West equity advocates did apply some pressure in this election, I have trouble seeing their logic.  While lobbying relentlessly for money to address the equity problem, the group has tended to back people for power positions who don’t know anything about the budget.  

Kelly Eder has only been on the school board for a few months.  She was asked one budget question during her ten-minute interview for the position she now occupies, and had no answer.  When Jill Lofald ran for the school board, just two years ago, she frankly admitted dealing with the budget would not be her “strong suit.”  

The budget has not been Lofald’s strong suit.  A year back, she actually complained to her colleagues: “I don’t know why we keep hanging our hat on the budget.  There are so many other things we should be visioning.”  This comment came from the leader of a school district that had just cut a million and a half dollars mid-year from its budget to avoid slipping into statutory operating debt status.  

Lofald objected to asking the candidates vying to fill Josh Gorham’s empty school board seat ANY questions about the budget.  She wanted to instead ask them a question about what their vision was for the future.  Since Keith Dixon came to town, “vision” in the boardroom has been synonymous with “fantasy” and “spin.”  

The troubles plaguing our school district largely stem from fantasy and spin running over due diligence and fiscal control.    

Since Keith Dixon’s days, bureaucrats have effectively run the show in the boardroom with virtually no check-and-balance from elected officials.  The Superintendent is responsible for administrative control and the school board is supposed to be responsible for controlling expenditures of taxpayer money.  

The Board’s power over the purse was again eroded during this meeting.  A resolution was passed, raising Administration’s power to sign contracts from what it used to be--$25,000--to $100,000.  Only Alanna Oswald and Sally Trnka voted against approving this expansion of Administration’s power.  Jill Lofald voted in favor of the change.  

Vote for me

Like her predecessor, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, Jill Lofald cares deeply about ISD 709 and the mission of educating children.  She’s a long-time teacher and a strong advocate for children.  Like so many other Board members who have come out of the DFL/teacher union ranks over the years, Jill Lofald clearly wants with all her heart to make our school district the best game in town.   

Also like so many of the other DFL Board optimists over the years, Lofald believes success is enhanced by an enthusiastic projection of success.  A “big part” of her job, as she herself has said, is to encourage a positive view of the district in the community.  

This is what she told her colleagues this evening, as she pitched her case to be handed the ring of power:

“I think, as a Board, we know I’ve been a hard worker.  I take my position on the Board very seriously, and come to Board meetings well-prepared and willing to discuss.  The other thing I want to share with you about what I feel my strength is on the Board is that I am working with all of you.  That I’m a consensus builder, and that I personally don’t often come--I mean--I don’t always come to a Board meeting completely set on how we’re going to go on a certain vote or a certain topic.  I’ve done my research, and I’m willing to listen to you.  And when I feel there’s been voices brought to the table from my Board, I’m willing to even change my vote to make sure that, as a Board, we’re working together.  I am--I would lead the Board more as a team, and I would be paying attention to your needs as Board members.  What do you need from me?  What do you need to work with, to bring forward any of the issues that member Oswald (whose campaign pitch to her colleagues will follow in this article) has said, and work hard to do it in the best way for our kids and our staff and our students.  I think my years in education, leading a classroom, gives me great communication skills here, at this table.  I think it’s hard to follow parliamentary procedure, but I’ve taught it for thirty-some years.  Not that I’m always going to get the amendments or the second amendments, I’m going to look to that Clerk to help me out, but I think my communication skills publicly--I think I would be a good face for the media when we have some tough issues coming.  I think that I can speak with that and give our community a strong, positive perception of our Board.  So I would appreciate your vote, and I’ll be humbled no matter which way we go.  And no matter which way we go, we’re gonna work together as a team to move our district forward.” 

Alanna Oswald’s pitch:  “I’d like to think I’m one of the most transparent Board members on the Board, and one of the most accessible ones.  I believe in a very balanced approach to our public schools and to the decisions I make.  Those decisions deserve the entire community, and not just portions of it.  I believe in open agenda meetings.  And I believe we should all be participating in them.  I believe we can change our meeting structure to be more relevant to district business and to be more streamlined.  I believe the role of the Chair is to facilitate information between the Superintendent and the rest of the Board, and to ensure that all Board members’ voices are heard and valued, so we can represent our entire community in a strong fashion.  I believe the boundary study should be delayed, to include the new Superintendent’s opinion on the matter.  It should not be hurriedly pushed through, accomplishing only some of what we set out to do.  And that takes up your time, being it’s been so controversial."  I wasn't sure whose time was being referred to, but member O continued: "I’m also the most senior member on the Board who hasn’t been Chair.  I’ve had four years on here, and have a lot of experience through that.  I’ve also been building relationships--very personal, purposely--among Administration and staff, and with the community and the teachers and students in my first four years.  And I believe that being Chair will only enhance that level of trust at keeping kids at the center of our discussions.  I’m also heavily involved in many community groups and citizens who are often marginalized in our education system and believe I can bring them to the table in various ways where their voices can not only be heard, but thoughtful action really can happen.  I look forward to pursuing these dreams and helping our Board be as strong as it can possibly be.”

The winner, the spoils

Of these two speeches, the one from the victor warrants a closer examination.  The statement that most jumped out at me was Lofald’s claim of teaching parliamentary procedure for thirty-some years.  Teaching debate and teaching parliamentary procedure are not one-and-the-same.  I’m not sure what trouble she anticipates as she tries to “get” amendments to motions, but I haven’t picked up much evidence of expertise.  When district 4 representative Lofald was first elected to the Board, she brought the house down with ripples of laughter by confusing “Nay” and “Aye,” the two parliamentary words used to vote against-or-for an action item on the floor, with “Nay” and Yayyy!”

 
The new Chair’s postulation that she has a “good face” to create “a positive perception” through the media can be largely translated as an ability to spin a positive story.  I also question her claim of being completely open-minded at Board meetings, with no preset bias.  Over her two-year tenure, she has often expressed displeasure, especially with member Oswald, for asking Administration frank, detailed questions.  Lofald’s team concept essentially condenses down to a harmonious brigade of tin soldiers marching cheerfully on the heels of the Superintendent.  She has a very strong pro-Administration bias.  

The school board’s status as a co-sharer of boardroom power has been chipping away since Keith Dixon’s tenure.  Metaphorically beating his chest, Administration’s alpha figure once brayed: “We’re trying to get things back in order…There are a number of things, over time, that have been transferred out of the Superintendent’s Office that should be in the Superintendent’s Office…In reality, when it comes to working with the Board and communications and other matters, in our judgment--in my judgment--that should come to me.”  

Bill Gronseth is the Super smiling, now.  He couldn’t have asked for a better going-away present.  He and his Administration are going to have a field day running the show with Jill Lofald, who refers to administrators collectively as “Our Leadership.”  

On the march

A big shakeup has been initiated by Administration for the new year.  Mr. G. and his administrators are recommending major changes in the way the Board conducts its business.  These changes will theoretically allow the Board to use its time more efficiently. 
   
Alterations made to bylaw 203.2, Order of Regular School Board Meeting, will allow the school board to adopt a “consent” agenda, like the city council operates.  The district’s CFO explained that the change would allow blanket approval of “regular process portions of meetings, like approving minutes, approving reports, that the Board feels comfortable doing with one resolution.” 

Administration is also recommending a change to bylaw 213, School Board Committees.  During the Business Committee meeting held on 1/14/20, Committee Chair Trnka asked CFO Erickson if Administration was recommending “removing all of our committees?”   

“What this (change) does,” Erickson explained, “is rather than identifying permanent standing committees as part of the policy, it would allow…the Board to create any committee through a resolution.  So that, once that resolution has been created, that becomes a committee, and it doesn’t have to be identified specifically in the policy.”  

Administration is recommending the creation of a new Policy Committee, which is a good move.  For years, marginalized, minority members of the school board have advocated for a separate Policy Committee.  Now that the Administrative gods have spoken, tin soldiers will likely finally march.  Other recommendations include combining HR and Business, and splitting Facilities off into a separate ad hoc committee.  It wasn’t clear what would happen with the Education Committee.  

Member Oswald expressed caution about going “backwards” with public transparency.  Whatever form meetings now take, she said they should still be posted, video recorded and “on the record.”  The question is: Would this proposed game plan turn out to be more beneficial to the public, the Board itself, or Administration?  If I had to bet right now, given our new Chair’s predilection and the pattern I’ve witnessed for years, I know where I’d lay my money down.  

Tin soldiers marching onward through the dust, shiny armor ruined with rust.