In the midst of a crisis

School board picks a new superintendent

Loren Martell

Given the fiscally-strapped soap opera our public school district has been the past decade, just running the operation is a daunting job. Hiring a new superintendent, on top of doing that job, was going to be a full workload for the school board without anything else (including a viral pandemic) added.  

Our overwhelmed board wisely decided to move a controversial school boundaries change (initiated by a superintendent leaving town) to a back burner. If board members are going to risk implementing boundary changes, however, it’s probably best they don’t wait too long. For ISD 709, demographic studies have had the shelve life of overripe bananas. The last firm — RSP — predicted total enrollment for the 2019-20 school year to be 8,273, in its first five-year projection. Just two years later (April, 2017,) the firm dropped its projection for the same year to 7,758, a difference of 515 students--more than twice the enrollment of some of our schools.  

The board has been touting the district’s “stability” a lot lately, a word I’ve heard many times. Keith Dixon famously said, “We’re still going through all the instability to get to the stability.” ISD 709 is 1400 students below where Dixon said enrollment would be by now, but at least for the last few years the district hasn’t lost students. Will roiling up school boundaries have a good or bad effect on the “stability” we’ve attained at the bottom of the barrel? Stay tuned.  

The super just kept loading it on

Our departing leader – Bill Gronseth – has also been pushing a risky venture for the most precious piece of real estate in the center of our town. Mr. G.’s plan is an awful idea extended out from Keith Dixon’s awful idea. Everything about the process so far has felt like déjà vu all over again: Administration handing out a resolution during the meeting rather than three days before, as it is supposed to; the Board Chair declaring full support for the resolution without even reading it.  

Strangely, Covid-19 may have been our salvation on this one. The DFL had the ball rolling: Mary Murphy had House File 3992 moving in the State assembly and Eric Simonson had Senate File 3722 moving in the State Senate. The whole thing was set up to be a dog-and-pony show mirroring the Red Plan: a phony public comment period after the train was already running full speed down the tracks and impossible to stop, a farcical Review & Comment process from the MDE.  

Hopefully, curtailment of the state’s legislative session will put the brakes on this plunge, and give the new superintendent a chance to reconsider how he wants to start his tenure.

A serious issue, zany times

On a good day, our public school district can be zany. Add a potentially deadly virus to the mix, and we start entering terra incognita on the zany scale. To be fair, the school board has worked really hard, and did due diligence on many levels. Given their salary, members probably earned about 2 cents an hour throughout the superintendent selection process. The mere fact that they dealt with Covid-19 and kept things moving — putting themselves in jeopardy to some degree — to get this civic job done, deserves kudos.  

But I still have to ask: Why did they let the superintendent dump so much on them, to begin with? Why in the world would they have also agreed to start revamping their entire committee structure, when they already had a full agenda on the table — WITHOUT Covid-19?

 The board knocked itself out with a major committee restructuring, in the midst of all this mayhem, so it could theoretically gain more “efficient” use of its time. Before Bill Gronseth’s administration nudged our ever-pliable representatives into this change, there were three standing committees and one regular meeting a month.  Now there are two standing committee meetings, a regular meeting and a Committee of the Whole meeting.  

Only three board members attend the standing committee meetings, instead of all seven, as it used to be, but the whole Board now attends a monthly Committee of the Whole meeting. This meeting is essentially just the old Education Standing Committee, with a bunch of other sundry stuff thrown in. Often referred to by its comical acronym, COW, it was bound to be a real doozy to milk.  

The first one, held on March 9, lasted nearly three hours, and didn’t include any “reports” from the standing committees, which are supposed to be forthcoming in the future. I sat through the virgin run of this experiment, and can report that it is difficult to see the time efficiency gained. All I see is that there are now going to be two vital monthly meetings held with only three board members present. Chair Lofald said during the March COW meeting that she envisions the rest of the board “just simply saying, ‘Thank you. Good job,’” to the three members on these two important committees.  

What I envision is four out seven members of a school board, poorly versed in its own policy and even less versed in the district’s finances, no longer getting direct information through these committees (and subsequently less able to effectively represent the public’s interest.)  

Speaking of the public

The biggest problem in the boardroom remains around transparency and public access to its government. Even the News Tribune blasted the school board for violating Data Practice law, by refusing to release the names of superintendent candidates.

“The laws must be followed to ensure the public remains informed and government never operates in secret.” The newspaper properly lectured. The board also refused to record the candidate interviews, and then even tried to ban anyone else from recording public meetings — another clear violation of citizens’ rights. Only board member Oswald voted against this overreach of power.

The board defended its actions by arguing — validly — that candidates in the second round would have an unfair advantage if the first interviews were in the public realm. The second round could watch the first round, learn the questions and hear how previous candidates had responded. Eventually, the board relented with a compromise: A unanimous resolution was passed to record the first round, but only release it after the second round was over. Both recordings would be released on YouTube for one weekend. That way, the board reasoned, it could provide public access while keeping Covid-19-carrying citizens out of the Administration building.  

Once again, however, our board found itself in violation of the law. If all board members meet in a building, citizens must be given physical access to that building.  Because the board had already passed the resolution, and everything was in such a state of perturbation, the board Chair Jill Lofald unilaterally rescinded what had already been voted on and passed. Through the chair’s action, the school board doubled down on its refusal to record the interviews, and instead set up a remote viewing site for live-streaming in the basketball gym of Old Central.  

The scuttlebutt I picked up was that some candidates for the superintendent job, coming from other states, were upset about the interviews possibly ending up in the public realm. I heard (unverified) rumors that some candidates even threatened to drop out, if the school board proceeded. Apparently these candidates feared that if they weren’t hired by ISD 709, other potential employers and search companies would be able pre-judge their viability by watching ISD 709’s interview. I lobbied for the school board to still record the interviews and just not release them on the internet.  

The school board flat-out refused, arguing that ISD 709 had never before recorded these types of interviews, and no other school district in the state had, either. We were in a special set of circumstances, however, with all kinds of new and extraordinary measures being taken.  

The board considered meeting via internet. “If we were doing this from our homes we could then close this off to the public” is the way Chair Lofald put it. 

Citizens ended up in the basketball gym. By refusing to record, the school board effectively gave people two choices: gather in a public building something every other official was discouraging — or miss out forever on the selection process for one of the most important positions in local government. The school board placed a shell of total privacy-protection around candidates seeking a public position, at a risk to the public.  

The main item on the agenda

Again, the task to select a new superintendent was a marathon, especially under the cloud of a global pandemic. The board’s interviews and deliberations took about 13 hours, and there were also sessions with several other community stakeholders.

It all came down to the evening of Wednesday, March 25. In a five-to-two vote, the board hired John Magas, from Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Who voted how was kept secret, but from what I gathered — after watching every minute of the 13 hours — I suspect the five female board members voted for Mr. Magas, and the two males voted for Michael Funk, from Albert Lea, Minnesota.

John Magas of Green Bay, Wis., was chosen as the new superintendent of the Duluth school system.
John Magas of Green Bay, Wis., was chosen as the new superintendent of the Duluth school system.

I backed Mr. Funk, and not just because it would have been great to refer to him as “Super Funk.” The man had 11 years experience as the superintendent of the Albert Lea school district and had been very successful in that role. He was a person with a lot of leadership experience, including as the commander of 400 troops in the war-torn country of Kosovo. Mr. Funk was the kind of guy who could slough off the superfluous and get down to the nub of what was real.  

I ran into him on the bottom floor of Old Central, between interviews. I said I didn’t know if he’d picked up on the fact yet, but Duluth was a party machine town. I said the school district, especially, is completely controlled by the DFL and the unions and he would only get one viewpoint from our school board. I said, “You can ‘win’ with them, of course; they win everything — but look at the cost. What aggrieves me most, listening to them, is their derisive attitude towards the voices of ‘dissention’ they’ve succeeded in removing from the room.”

I brought up the prime example of the DFL’s derision: Art Johnston. Mr. Funk — who had watched several of our board meetings — showed that he was informed and unbiased by observing that Mr. Johnston was “smart.”  

I can spot flimflam from a long way off and Mr. Funk was not flimflam. He was a straight shooter. He told me he would take a new look at what was being proposed for the Central property. He said the plan looked to him to be the same pattern that had gotten our district into so much trouble, which it is. 

As part of his well-considered strategic plan for ISD 709, Mr. Funk said he wanted to “go back to the future,” and reexamine what we had with the Secondary Tech Center on the Central campus.

Mr. Funk was proud of the limited number of times he’d had to go to the taxpayers in Albert Lea and talked often about “maximizing” resources. He clearly had in-depth knowledge of Minnesota school district finance.  

The man the board hired from Green Bay — John Magas — had an interesting life story. He told the board that he came from extreme poverty and in his youth was a child some adults worried about. He’d spent time in Mexico, teaching English as a second language, and had worked with Native American tribes in the western U.S.  He said he’d even taught English in a slaughterhouse for a while, as part of a GED program. (I’ll leave it for readers to decide if teaching amid blood and gore is good experience for leading ISD 709.) Mr. Magas seemed very earnest and honest and trustworthy, an exemplary human being.  

The other finalist candidates (both from Minnesota,) however — Mr. Funk and Mr. Ron Wagner, from Minneapolis — had looked more deeply into ISD 709 and had more specific ideas than Mr. Magas. Mr. Wagner (who got no votes) already had a 100-day plan, outlining what he intended to do.

Mr. Magas will have to jump from being an assistant to a superintendent, roughly comparable in effect, if not scale, to the vice-president taking over the presidency.  He’s going to have to make that transition while getting up to speed on Minnesota Finance and on the history of a complicated school district. When I spoke to him out of earshot of the school board, I got the sense he knew little about that history.  

Of course the new man deserves a chance, but I’ll still state my concerns. I’m worried the DFL will wrap this new, affable leader around its finger. I’m worried we are now locked into a foolish plan on a central treasure — financed by another scheme promising big savings from borrowing millions — and that ISD 709 will continue to be kept afloat by clobbering the taxpayers and begging more from the state.