Structural change?

Loren Martell

Our new superintendent, John Magas, introduced his “Entry Plan” for our school district on July 21. 

Most citizens look for an “Exiting Plan” when a bureaucrat starts laying out a wonky strategy, so I’ll keep my overview brief.

Phase One of this plan consists of “relationship building, listening, learning.”  
Phase Two is more of the same, but will also include taking “strategic ac-tions to support academic excellence.”  

These “strategic actions” continue on in Phase Three, which will also embark on a “collective review of data from the first two phases.”  

This collected data will then be used to develop “a five-year strategic plan” for District 709.

Our district certainly needs a long-range strategic plan. DFL-union leaders, who have ruled the boardroom since Keith Dixon came to town, blew every-thing on a big vanity investment. When the plan’s financing scheme started fraying, they ran around like mice in a maze while our school district circled the drain. 

Actually, they did come up with one brilliant idea: sending big buses rum-bling into various towns all over the countryside, in a dotty scheme to pick up little urchins wandering along the roadside.

In the preamble to his plan, our school district’s new leader pointed out that “good intentions are no more than wishful thinking without careful planning and strategic action.”  

Everyone in Duluth should have learned by now that a harebrained plan, fueled by good intentions alone, can turn wishful thinking into a road to hell.

Save us from our saviors!

Keeping true to his plan (Phase One, listening,) our new Super was gracious enough to invite me to meet with him in his office recently. 

We met at seven in the evening. I sat on the stoop of Old Central’s Lake Ave-nue entrance for a few minutes, after I arrived, reading and occasionally looking out toward the street. I thought I would spot Mr. Magas drive up. Instead, at 7:03, he popped his head out of the door, talking on a cell phone. The man apparently had not gone home yet.

Two weeks in and our new superintendent is treading water as hard as he can. Leading ISD 709 is a pretty tough gig, even without a worldwide pandemic and a society fracturing along income and racial lines.

As luck would have it, Minnesota is the epicenter of a huge social upheaval.  The death of a handcuffed black man in Minneapolis police custody sparked violent riots that reverberated across the country – a spontaneous eruption of anger reminiscent of the 1960s. 

One issue stemming from the turmoil is a debate about scaling back the presence of police in certain environments. 

Again, Minnesota, for better or worse, is at the vanguard of this move-ment, with the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voting to dis-mantle the city’s police force.

At the beginning of my meeting with Mr. Magas, I told him one thing I’d learned from my experiences around ISD 709 is that virtually every angst from society as a whole rains down on our public school districts.

It rains again

Inspired by all the recent protests, some ISD 709 students circulated a pe-tition calling for the removal of School Resource Officers from our public schools. The petition read: “We demand that Duluth Public Schools cut all ties with the Duluth Police Department and other punitive law enforcement bodies.”

Our new superintendent addressed the School Resource Officer resolution on the agenda of this meeting. He spoke at considerable length, and I’m going to quote some of what he said so everyone can get a sense of his leader-ship style:
“I just want to express that I realize that this is not at all an easy topic to make a decision on. And, as I addressed in my Entry Plan, equity has been a driving force in my career as an educator. It’s at the heart of what I’m trying to do. And it does concern me very deeply that a decision without us really, really carefully considering and thinking and planning about what this would look like could further widen cultural divides and drive away the very voices from diverse perspectives that have less access quite often – (the voices) that I’ve just taken to inviting to the table during my Entry Plan.

“So, I’ve reached out and I’ve said I’m going to be about equity, and I’m saying that this is my work, and I’m also saying that by bringing this for-ward, I think that there’s risk involved.  I know that it has to do with people feeling heard, and knowing that they’re heard. But my first priority at this time is to make sure that we create a district plan to meaningfully engage all learners, while keeping students and staff healthy and safe during the time we’re going through. And we’re charged with doing so in a period of weeks with countless variables that are still very unclear, and a first-time COVID world pandemic.

“You’ve seen tonight that we have many opinions that have been shared by our parents, our teachers, our administration, as well as student services staff and others. Some are proposing that we replace the SROs, and some are proposing that we continue with the SROs.”

Superintendent Magas (who will hopefully yet prove himself to be a Superman for our school district) shared a sampling of this opinion, by reading from an email sent to the board from 10 school counselors: “The systemic inequality and fear many of our students face cannot be alleviated overnight or with a simple solution.  These topics deserve care and thoughtfulness and input from our school communities, to create an environment where all students can feel safe and have the ability to thrive.”

Even the people who appeared to be leaning toward keeping a police presence in our schools, as this email seemed to indicate, were all walking on eggshells with our new Super.

Some data

The Duluth school district has been using four School Resource Officers, one in each of its two middle and high schools. The cost of the 2019-20 contract was $251,906.76. 

Because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the district did not need the services of these police officers for a few months last year. It subsequently has an $84,000 credit carry-over from that contract.

One of the most interesting parts of this meeting’s presentation was a student survey conducted on the issue. I expected student support for eliminating police presence in the schools to tilt heavily west, especially at Denfeld High. In fact, support for the police was stronger at Denfeld, except for one cohort of students.  In response to the statement: “I think it’s a good idea to have an SRO or police officer at our school,” three of the four cohorts surveyed at Denfeld agreed or strongly agreed by 97%-to-99% margins.

The student cohort that varied sig-nificantly from the rest of the field was Denfeld 11th grade girls. This cohort scored the only double-digit mark against supporting police in the schools: 16% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that it is a “good idea” to have a police officer in their school.

This meeting lasted 4-1/2 hours.  In the end, our weary school board unanimously passed a resolution, the immediate impact of which was phrased this way: “Now, therefore, be it resolved that the School Board directs District administration to engage with the City of Duluth Police Department to create a School Resource Officer contract for the 2020-21 school year only, and that the contract language be considered by the School Board for deeper alignment with district philosophies and practices.”

This is what they’ll own

I’m heartened to hear our new school district leader using phrases like “careful planning and strategic action” and “collective review of data.” Because of poor previous planning, our public school district has been repeatedly forced into making tough choices about which priority can be properly funded, sort of like a father fretting over buying shoes or food for his kids, after frittering away all the family’s income on horse racing.

ISD 709’s fiscal trouble is to no small degree traceable to poor planning and poor accountability structures. During the March school board Committee of the Whole meeting, member Kelly Eder put her finger on the problem of proper accountability in our school district.

For those of you who don’t remember, Eder (through a 10-minute inter-view) took over an at-large school board seat vacated by Josh Gorham, who apparently wilted from the heat in the kitchen. As Mr. Gorham put it to the Duluth News Tribune, he’d quickly “reached the point of having no confidence in Duluth’s schools superintendent (Bill Gronseth) and … the board chair (Rosie Loeffler-Kemp.)”

The biggest item discussed during the March meeting was board approval of the district’s Achievement/Integration Plan. The plan has to be approved every three years.  

“I’m new to the school board this year,” Eder said, “so this is my first year going through this plan. I went back to educate myself, to try to be-come familiar with exactly what an Achievement/Integration Plan is. So I went and looked at the plan from July 1st, 2017 through June 30th, 2020 ... ”

Eder pointed out that she couldn’t find any assessment of data. “Where can I see assessments that have been done?” She asked, pointing out that the district is using “similar strategies” in its new 3-year plan. She said she was looking for this information, so she could “make an educated decision on strategies that we’re using, as we move forth in the district.”

Studying the plan set to expire, Eder said she’d noticed “of the first four goals, we were on track for one goal. And then there was a separate set of goals, and we met one goal, there. Now we’re moving on to the next Achievement/Integration Plan.  We have not done a proper assessment on the previous Achievement/Integration Plan, so we have data that can allow us to drive decisions, along with community input, for the next Achievement/Integration Plan.”  

She talked about her “level of frustration,” adding: “How am I supposed to figure out and vote on an Achievement/Integration Plan coming up, when I don’t see any metrics or any assessment or any data that I can make an informed decision (on)?

Can somebody help me figure out – I guess ANYTHING – right now?  I’m really frustrated … You know – this is $1.7 million a year, and how am I supposed to make an educated decision if that money’s being used in a way that is going to actually show an increase in achievement and accomplish the goals that we‘re saying it’s going to?”

William Howes, coordinator of dis-trict 709’s education equity efforts, re-sponded that he “(stood) by what’s in the plan.”

“I’m glad that you stand by the plan, and I expect you to stand by the plan because you wrote the plan,” Eder replied, still not happy. “Is there some sort of structural impediment that’s coming through the district that you’re - are there things we could be doing in terms of assessment and data collection and data crunching that would allow you, as we move forward – to find more strategies, to do things that are going to help us more with achievement gaps, close achievement gaps, or get the MCA scores for our students at Myers-Wilkins improved?  Is there something structurally that we, as a school board, can do?  Because I own this, right? We, on the school board, own every piece of this … I just don’t feel like I have the information pieces that I need.”

Mr. Howes responded that his new plan is “what we’re required to do.” He went on at length about another program that might be used as a model for accountability and various other descriptions and explications that, in specificity and substance, amounted to a bowl of steam and a bit of mustard on a mud sandwich – certainly not the hearty meal of real data being requested.

Still unhappy, Eder said: “If we look at the 2017 plan and we look at the 2020 plan, one says you want to raise MCA reading scores by 15%, and then the new plan says 6% – or 2% a year.  How did we come to these percentages, if we HAVE NO DATA? … If we don’t have data to start basing some of these decisions on, because we, as a district, haven’t taken time to collect the data or analyze the data…then (it naturally follows) we can’t use the data to make data-informed decisions … How many (A/I) Plans like this have there been –two?”

“We’ve been doing A/I Plans for 40 years,” Howes informed her.

“Forty years? Ok, so maybe we’ve been collecting data and it’s somewhere (maybe hidden away in a dusty, cobwebby Data Vault in Old Central’s basement,) but we (sure as heck) haven’t been using this data to inform our decisions…How are we going to move the achievement gap in any direction, if we are not using data to inform our decisions? I mean – I don’t know what to say, my level of frustration is great…How are we going to amend any strategy if it doesn’t work, if we’re not collecting (data) and assessing what we’re doing?”

Using data to inform decisions?  What a radical and novel idea. How in the world can an organization have no collected data measuring the effectiveness of millions of dollars of expenditures in 40 years, especially in regard to such a corrosive, persistently-failing problem? 

The people who have run our school district are going to own a lot yet, in the history of our town.