Bye-bye, Bill

Former Duluth school superintendent leaves a stained legacy in his wake

Loren Martell

Our public school district’s leader for the past 8½ years has finally flown the coop. Bill Gronseth certainly had a wild ride. His meteoric rise from elementary teacher to the district’s top administrator is a tale of striving vocational ambition, served up with a big dollop of pandering solicitousness to the party line and his superior.  

Bill was Keith Dixon’s loyal fan from the moment the cotton-topped hustler stormed into town.

As principal of HomeCroft Elementary, he waxed about the wonderful path his boss had put our public schools on, in collusion with Johnson Controls and the obsequious school board: “I want to tell you of an amazing journey. It began with a roomful of teachers, parents, architects and engineers. Everyone had ideas and dreams…The group developed a solid vision. Through the architects’ and engineers’ magic (backed by the taxpayers’ wallets,) the vision was interpreted into blueprints…I wish you could have been in my shoes when the teachers walked into the building for the first time this fall…During the open house, I was greeting people in the hallways with Superintendent Keith Dixon. I watched as everyone explored with wide-eyed excitement…The Duluth School Board deserves thanks for everything that happened…They had a plan and saw it through. They showed they cared about all students. May they keep up their good work.”    

What’s that smell?

Back in 2011, the power clique that jammed through a huge facilities in-vestment without a vote still retained a narrow lock on the school board, thanks to Tim Grover’s betrayal of his constituents.

At-large member, Tom Kasper, elected two years earlier, also eventually sold out to this group. In 2011, however, Kasper was still casting some votes with the board’s nonconformists: Art Johnston and Gary Glass.

The board’s DFL and union visionaries wanted the person who shared their vision, Keith Dixon’s assistant, to replace his master at the helm. They encountered a problem, however, when one of their usually stalwart allies – Mary Cameron – threw her support to another candidate: I.V. Foster.

Cameron has been the only black school board member in all the years I’ve been going in the boardroom and she wanted to promote diversity in the district from the top: by hiring an African-American for the superintendent job.

Cameron’s defection from the ranks broke up the Red Planners’ four-vote lock, and the political horse-trading was on. Glass, Johnston, and Kasper opposed Bill Gronseth, who many Red Plan opponents had already nicknamed: Dixon-lite.

Ann Wasson, Judy Seliga-Punyko and Tim Grover argued that Gronseth was the natural choice, for continuity, etc. (This was, in a way, true.  Mr. G. certainly knew the lay of the land. He’d been on the scene of the crime, sort of speak.)

There was, however, one more candidate in the mix: Stan Mack.

Mack was by far the most qualified person for the job. He’d been in the system for decades as a teacher and administrator in several Minnesota school districts, including South St. Paul, Northfield, Eveleth, Osseo and Burnsville. He also had put in a long stint in Robbinsdale, a Twin Cities metro area district with an enrollment of 12,500.

In his eight years as superintendent, Mack managed to rebuild that district’s depleted reserve fund. After looking over ISD 709’s books, Mack described the millions coming out of the budget to pay for buildings as “major leakage from the general fund, caused by School Board action.”

While promoting the funding scheme for his grand idea, Dixon actually said: “Let’s fund about $125 million of the project (final, official cost: $317,644,206.62) through increased taxes and let’s have the school district fund the rest.”  

Looking back at these words now should enlighten everyone as to why some board members were adamantly opposed to more Dixon, in the form of Dixon-lite.
Foster had limited experience as superintendent of a small K-8 district in Illinois.

Dixon’s former assistant had zero superintending experience and only an M.A. degree. Initially, no candidate could win a majority vote, so – exhibiting their usual bold chutzpah – the Red Planners actually tried to push through a resolution to offer Dixon, himself, a contract to come back. Mercifully, the attempt failed and the horse-trading was back on.  

Cameron was stuck on Foster, and Glass supported her effort. The members backing Mack –Johnston and Kasper – decided to move their way. Foster had solid credentials and apparently had done a good job in Illinois. They concluded he would at least be a new beginning, as well as a big leap forward in diversifying the organization and providing a positive role model for black students.

So Mack lost out, and I.V. Foster garnered the necessary votes to become the new head honcho.

Whether Mr. Foster would have demonstrated he had the right stuff will remain an unanswered question.

Technically, he lost his position because he didn’t have the proper credentials to be employed as a superintendent in Minnesota schools. On Dec. 19, 2011, after only five and a half months in the superintendent’s office, he was put on administrative leave. A few weeks later, on Jan. 6, 2012, his resignation was accepted by the board. The district continued to pay his salary (about $50,000) until March 2012, as well as all his contract benefits, including health insurance, through June, and $12,000 for relocation expenses.

The public, thoroughly disgusted with the school board by this time, railed at it for hiring someone who didn’t have a license to work in Minnesota. Some movers and shakers meanwhile backed the board’s decision to pressure Foster out, claiming the man had not shown the commitment needed to deal with ISD 709’s myriad problems. 

Former Mayor Ness said: “He’s a good person and his heart is in the right place, (but) we haven’t seen the sort of leadership that the district so desperately needs.” The News Tribune wrote an article suggesting Foster had been shirking on the job, taking too much time off, too many junkets, etc. (Employee records, obtained by the paper, verified he’d been out of the office more than 25% of the time during his five-plus months on the job, for vacation, professional and sick leave.)

Others in our community argued the new superintendent should simply be given an opportunity to apply for/get a license.
Several community leaders disputed claims about his alleged laissez-faire attitude towards his job and community involvement. They felt the board’s deposal of him was a naked power play and smelled to high heaven of cronyism mixed with a bit of rank racism. 

Only Mary Cameron and Art John-ston opposed accepting Foster’s resig-nation.  Gary Glass was gone by then; his term ended a week earlier.
Tim Grover was also gone, but the dynamic Red Plan duo of Ann Wasson and Judy Seliga-Punyko corralled Kasper and newly-elected rubberstamper, Mike Miernicki. Again armed with four votes, they seized the opportunity to usher in Bill Gronseth, who would keep playing the game the way they wanted it played. They got what they wanted, as always, but the whole episode emanated a lot of conspiratorial stink.

In the wake of all the abrasion and conspiratorial stink of the Red Plan, it was an especially unfortunate way for Bill to take over the reins.  

Caught in a red web

Bill’s last regular meeting was on June 6. Current board chair, Jill Lofald, who is cut from the exact same cloth as Wasson/Seliga-Punyko, and would cheerfully rubberstamp the Red Plan –including no vote from the public – all over again, led the tribute to our departing leader:

“Bill…as Superintendent, you led the work necessary to complete portions of the long-range facilities plan; you engaged our community through the ‘think kids’ meetings; and you passed two education levy referendums (which helped raise the levy from $11 million when Dixon came to town, to over $40 million today.)

During your tenure, our district implemented achievement strategies (which have produced very little success.) We developed an online high school and fabrication labs. We strengthened the career and technical education program (while STC sat empty during your entire time as head of the district.)”

Lofald went on about several more successes of the Gronseth Administration, then praised Mr. G. for his leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic. She threw accolades at him for his selflessness as a leader: “You have publicly credited everyone in the district many times…”

I wasn’t going to bother recording something for the public comment period of this meeting, but knew the adoring praise from the DFL/union people was going to be over the top.

I felt compelled to say something, to counter their public relations blitz: “You are a dedicated educator, Bill…” I said, after observing this to be true the past 8½ years, then continued on with what else I’d observed: “but I also have to add that I never believed you were the best fit for the job, because you were so biased towards one side of an intense civic debate. That bias did negatively affect your ability to lead. I believe some of the failings of the consolidation project could have been mitigated with a more open and honest discussion of those problems, and I know there are many wounds in this city that have never been addressed.”

After taking over as ISD 709’s new super, Bill praised Dixon’s “great leadership skills.” He told the News Tribune he and Keith shared “similar philosophies” and described the man as his “mentor.”  

Bill was less openly aggressive than his mentor, but played just as rough toward any dissenters to the narrative he was selling. His strategy was to ignore them as much as possible and run them over whenever he could.  

From the moment he walked into the boardroom as the top administrator, his mission was to finish what his predecessor started, and then bury it as deeply as he could. Bill convened only with his allies, boxed everyone else out, and fed as much spin as he could to the media and the public. He was blind to the fact that this strategy would only lock him into a closed-loop cycle of friction and failure.

The closest Bill came to admitting the truth occurred during the lead-up to the district’s 2013 levy referendum, when he admitted some “mistakes” were made with the Red Plan, but then added: “We can’t go back and undo any of that…We’ve laid a firm foundation for this community. Our students have new or like-new facilities that are gonna serve this community for decades to come.”

We might want to recheck the foundation, if we’re expecting it to last for decades to come. Our school district’s facilities extravaganza left the organization about as firm as a big, quivering pile of cherry-red Jell-O. 

Following Bill’s lead for more than eight years, the majority of the school board denied the link between enrollment/budget problems and a failed capital project. This denial cost the district in two ways: (1) It greatly hampered coming up with a plan to solve the problem, and (2) it eroded faith and trust.

A wise leader would have approached the public, hat in hand, and come clean with a bit of humility, but this approach was not natural to Bill’s temperament.

He preferred to pull strings in the shadows and spin, spin, spin – scapegoating the state and cheap Duluthians: “For 20 years or more, the district has dealt with flat or nearly flat aid from the state despite rising costs, (and) on top of that, the state in recent years has held back money owed school districts, forcing them to borrow and eat into reserves…There are communities that have triple the (operating) levy Duluth has. For them, class size isn’t as big of an issue.”

Following this lead, the school board majority members played the victim card and ignored the consequences of their decisions – the capital levy and spiraling expense of employee contracts – as though the burdens didn’t even exist.
Those who tried to speak the truth were attacked. Under Bill’s leadership, the boardroom imploded into a vicious verbal knife fight that spiraled out of control for a year and even got dragged into the federal court system.

Final credits and discredits

Bill gave his allies lots of praise, but treated opponents as second-class citizens, even when it became increasingly evident their concerns were legitimate. He gave them no respect for their insight and intelligence, or the fortitude they had shown in fighting for what they cared about in their town.

Rather than reaching out and trying to mend fences, he got involved in politics and tried to purge all opposition from the boardroom. When the strategy backfired, he found himself riding on the back of a tiger he couldn’t tame. His escape attempts became a running joke. He tried to leave town seven times.

To be fair, I’ll reiterate two things: Though he was an ardent cheerleader, Bill did not start the Red Plan, but did inherit the unenviable task of cleaning up the ruins.

Our former super was a dedicated educator who did care about his job. He was once quoted in the News Tribune about the “aha” moment in education. Elaborating further, Mr. G. proclaimed: “Learning is not a dry topic. It’s a real, exciting, sometimes exhilarating interaction that occurs when one human being helps another grow in knowledge and understanding.”

Meant to be supportive and enhancing, the impetuous adventure our school district veered into under Keith Dixon – in a cursory and patently stupid way – largely marred this beautiful intention. Even if he didn’t start us down the errant path, Bill got all caught up in the trappings of his predecessor. He and the Red Plan are now permanently linked, leaving his legacy forever stained.