Category Archives: Duluth Schools

This’n that before I hit the sack

I had the house mostly to myself today as Claudia went to St. Paul to lobby our legislature with folks worried about the poor and homeless. It was also the week that Duluthians poured into St. Paul to lobby for Duluth. I got to stay home, read the news, grimace, finish Pardon Mon French – my next Reader column and finish Batman for my grandson. Here’s what will melt tomorrow in my front yard.

I also took a picture of a huge contrail over my house from a jet that circled twice. Wonder what that was all about?

I suggested that Claudia watch Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” as part of our viewing of French movies to get us in the mood for our trip to France. Then Claudia watched the CNN coverage of voting results in Pennsylvania. The Democrat Lamb (not to the slaughter) running against the Republican Suckthumb something or other. Poor guy was barely mentioned by President Trump, who came to Pennsylvania to huff and puff about how successful his Presidency has been and, oh yes, support Congressional Republicans. No final result yet. Lamb leads by a hair. We won’t know the results until tomorrow’s absentee ballots are counted. I think Lamb will win by a shake of his tail, maybe 350 votes out of over 200,000. Win or lose the Democrats will feel exultant and so will I. (Trump won here by 20% last November)

Time for bed.

Oh, I almost forgot. Tomorrow’s paper will have a story about how the School Board can’t wait to spend 2 million to tear down New Central High. As of my bed time 101 folks on Facebook have heaped abuse on the Board. That’s what I predicted would happen a couple days ago to friends but – last November Duluth elected a board mostly eager to turn the old school to dust. The lone exception? Alanna Oswald.

The story from yesterday on raising class sizes won’t improve voters attitude and neither will future plans to ask for more $ in a referendum.

Be advised, I spell out the “N” word in the following column – four times!

Don’t worry. I’m sure the defenders of Harper Lee and Mark Twain won’t mind.

Oh, and the Reader found or made up this cool graphic for the column I wrote: Kicking the “N” word out of ISD 709


For the second time in the last couple of weeks Linda Grover (a fellow columnist) tackles the same subject I have. Her’s is a more measured response whereas mine is a pissed off reaction to some national finger pointing at Duluth’s prissy, parochial, sensitivities as imagined by a bunch of smug, know-it-all elitists.

The one thing both columns share is an awareness of what its like to have your race made a subject of scorn in a classroom. Linda Grover, a proud Ojibwa Indian, recalls Twain’s “Injun Joe” as being a pretty hard pill to swallow. I’ll bet Sammy would have felt the same way.

Sammy was an Osage Indian kid in my sixth grade class. After hearing the author of Killers of the Flower Moon on NPR last year I have added the book to my reading list. I can’t help but wonder if Sammy’s grandparents were murdered for their mineral rights too. Solving the murders is what made today’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Ironically, today President Trump is trying to kill the FBI with the help of a lot of Republican Congressional stooges.

A Win for Equity in Duluth

The Duluth School Board is off to a strong start. Last night the new board swept aside Supt. Gronseth’s and David Kirby’s and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp’s objection to fairly distributing the Compensatory Ed funding..

It was important that Member Sandstad brought the motion and that it only started with an 80% figure for schools “earning” the funds keeping them. The new board members all voted in favor despite some early indications that they might heed the Superintendent’s reluctance.

Once again there was a good story in the Trib which gave tenacious Alanna Oswald much deserved recognition for the change.

I watched much of the public comment remotely from Bullhead City, Arizona, until I was called to dinner. I’d been following the push by the Equity group which I thought would fall through after Art Johnston and I were defeated in our reelection bids. Fortunately, my prediction proved far too pessimistic. The vote was unanimous.

You can watch the meeting here. So far 56 folks have watched some portion of the meeting online. I don’t know how many were present at the meeting but 20 people spoke in favor of Sandstad’s proposal.

Jana’s replacement

Adelle Whitefoot wrote a short story on tomorrow’s School Board meeting which will consider Nora Sandstad’s proposal to direct 80% instead of 50% of Compensatory Education funding to the schools which generate them. Good for Nora.

I emailed a comment to Adelle on the story. “Good work.”

As for Jana, Rick Lubbers informed us that she and another reporter were going to become part of an investigative reportorial team. Good luck to them both and Dig, Dig, Dig.

Cheap Schools

Did I comment on Jana Hollingsworth’s recent story about Equity? It was essentially a summary of everything reported in the past. The Duluth Schools doesn’t offer equitable treatment for its students. That would require money we spent on the Red Plan……although that was not a big part of Jana’s story. Maybe we’ve gotten to the point where that fact goes without saying.

Well then, and this is Harry Welty speaking once again. The cure for this is more money…….money unlikely to come from the legislature and unlikely to be authorized by Duluth’s voters in a referendum any time soon especially with the refusal of the old School Board to sell Central for $14 million to Edison a couple years ago.

Which segues nicely to today’s Hollingsworth story about the futie six-year effort to sell Central to someone other than another school system.

The story offers no hope of a sale. It even suggests, to me, that our Administrators were not quite as forthright with us when I served on the Board and there were three board members willing to sell the property. Perhaps the most noteworthy comment in the story came from Nora Sandstead. The story reports thusly:

Sandstad also noted that she would entertain “a very low offer” if it came with property tax revenue.

“That’s much more beneficial than a one-time $15 or even $20 million payment,” she said, referring to Edison’s offer. Public schools don’t pay property taxes.

I texted back to an interested person who noticed Nora’s willingness to unload the property on the cheap. I said that it looked like she preferred to sell the property at a loss just rather than live with the embarrassment. I think voters will keep that attitude in mind when Nora asks them for an excess operational levy.

The “subsequent post” mentioned previously that will not do justice to the subject

So the Trib did cover the biggest news related to the School District. Our Board faces a $4 million dollar deficit. I’m the one who should be doing cartwheels since I didn’t get reelected to face them. (that’s a reference to the previous post)

I do have some related news/thoughts on this subject prompted by text messages and email sent me by others but, tempting as it is to tell you about them, I won’t. I’ve got a book to write. I’ll just follow this up with my column in today’s Duluth Reader then its back to the past.


Morris and Leatherman

Tonight’s combined Human Resources and Business Committee meetings lasted two hours and forty five minutes. That’s about five minutes longer than last January’s meetings although to be fair I was out of town and not present to prolong them in 2017.

A faithful attender texted me to say that the meetings were dreary without Art Johnston and Harry Welty in attendance.

He mentioned that one of the main points of discussion was preparation for a referendum to increase the levy. In anticipation of asking the public for an increase the Administration wanted to hire Bill Morris’s polling firm to figure out how to sell it to our voters. I explained that I’d blogged about Morris on a number of previous occasions. This might make for an interesting column for the Reader in two weeks if someone else doesn’t beat me to the punch.

This is my first blog post in 2007 on Bill Morris’s baby before I realized he was the Father.

Bill’s firm is now called Morris Leatherman.

I missed the award ceremony

Not being a school board member any longer I was not scheduled to attend this month’s annual Minnesota School Board Association Conference. I was there in spirit. Thank you Alanna Oswald for sending me the programe highlighting my “President’s Award.” It took twelve years of service to get 300 plus hours of training/lobbying/planning. I think the certificate will be sent to me in the mail.

All the new Board members showed up and only one of the seven was tied up an unable to attend.

Sad news for ISD 709

One of the things I have always complimented Supt. Gronseth for is hiring some very talented administrators. One of my favorites is poised to leave, Dr. Mike Cary, our District’s Curriculum Director. He has applied for the superintendency at Cloquet and he would be a smart agreeable, leader for that District.

I’ve noted in recent months that our finances in Duluth are getting desperate and that the Curriculum Department which Keith Dixon sacrificed in the wake of the Red Plan’s Red Ink virtually wiped it out. Dr. Cary is about to preside over another evisceration of the Department and I can’t blame him for heading somewhere that he doesn’t have to watch his staff evaporate.

This tidbit was in today’s Trib but I can’t find it on the online version.

A final board dust up

Annie Harala did jump on me at the last and final School Board meeting together. Loren Martell describes the action in his Reader column.

I’m at the water-rolling-off-the duck’s-back stage of my public life and took no particular offense although some seemed intended. After the meeting Annie’s husband, at perhaps his first school board meeting, wished me well and I told him he might very well find himself at the next swearing in of Congressman Richard Nolan. Annie is Nolan’s newly appointed campaign manager. It seemed a good way to leave the Board room …… along with my second name tag, which I seem to have mislaid.

Oh no. I found it…….in the bag that my going away gift (that I’m using as a candy dish) was in.

To Loren Martell: Je suis vraiment, vraiment désolé

The title is French, my new preoccupation, meaning: I am very, very sorry.

Loren called me to let me know he was very hurt by the beginning of my last post about his column describing our final Business Committee meeting.

He didn’t give me time to apologize and all I could think was that I once again neglected some critical proof reading in my Christmas-time haste. It was true.

I checked and edited the offending implication that I was tired of Loren lecturing me. I was in fact tired of being lectured too by some of my fellow school board members. I know, I know. Its a two way street. I offered a lecture/warning to the new board about the likely inevitability of our District falling into Statutory Operating Debt. This is the video and my lecture comes a little after 2 hours and 40 minutes. I tell the newly elected school board members to begin researching SOD. Annie Harala called my description of this evenings budget cuts “flippant.”

If Loren is in any doubt about my true feelings about his coverage of the Duluth School Board in the Reader they are these:

1. I regret only that Loren never got a chance to be elected to the School Board and display his rich knowledge of our District’s financial situation.
2. I’m grateful for his tenacity, dedication and toil in explaining the long and tedious school board meetings he has attended without fail for a great many years.
3. I will regard him as a friend and ally forever.
4. I pray for his forgiveness of my occasional carelessness……Annie Harala characterized it as flippancy at our last meeting.

I will miss Loren Martell’s reporting on me

Loren is often a week late for his Reader Column because the Reader goes to print Tuesday night when we have our regular Board meeting and the day after our Business Committee meetings.

I won’t miss being lectured to by my erstwhile colleagues but it’s certainly been gratifying to read the discussions that Loren’s columns transcribe. I hope he does some reporting on last night’s final meeting. This story about our red ink, which seems only to be online, has this brief interchange between Annie Harala and your’s truly:

The reserve, which was $2,359,436 at the start of last year, tanked to nearly half a million dollars in the red. Besides pointing a finger at special education, the district is also blaming that depletion on a levy adjustment for an elementary reading curriculum and a big loss of money due to enrollment once again dropping lower than projected.

“This year,” member Welty said, questioning this last point, “using ADM figures, I came up with 60 fewer kids.” Multiplying that with “the $12,300 per kid, I calculated that at about $740,000,” which, he added, “doesn’t account for the entire $3 million deficiency in revenues.”
“Member Welty, I think you missed a section of our conversation,” the Superintendent retorted, referring to the fact that member Johnston had just asked a similar question. “That was what member Johnston just asked —” Business Chair Harala chimed in, “and then you re-asked.”
“I think that question was legitimate from Mr. Welty,” member Johnston countered. “Looking at the numbers: they don’t quite jive.”
At one point, as the meeting progressed, Harala snipped under her breath that some Board members “should put their listening ears on.”
Harala also ventured a query of her own: “I have a question, before any other Board members start asking questions again. It’s kind of a–it’s a four-part question in one, that–aaaaaaah —so I keep thinking about–you know, there are some–I’m just gonna ask them: so what can we control, with where we’re at? And what can we do about what we can control? What can’t we control with how this budget happened, and what can we do about that? I just–we need–what–this is not a good state for us to be in. And what’s the plan for moving forward? So I’d just — I’d like to hear from administration on that —”

Expressing what everyone else in the room was thinking, Mr. G. replied: “I’m not sure I followed your four-part question, but I think I know where you’re headed.”
Over the past four years, whenever our current Chair of the Business Committee has asked a finance-related question, I’ve found myself fumbling with my listening ears, wondering how in the hell I can bring myself some relief by taking them OFF.

Squeezing some blood (thoughts on education) out of a turnip.

I began deleting old email messages on my District website a few moments ago. One gives me a link to clear out all of my district information on Google without disrupting non District info I had on a separate Google account previously. Having finished my holiday decorating…..including a second “fake” Christmas Tree in the basement with grandchildren produced gingerbread cookies I think its time to wrap up my District connections including turning in that tardy campaign finance form my Board policy book and my District ID’s and parking passes. I just discovered another eight inches worth of old Board books I’d put on some shelving to toss out so I’m really freeing up space. I have three or four bins of paperwork to look through some day and clean out as well.

I left my eight loyal readers hanging a couple days ago with assurances that there were subjects school district I intended to address related to All Day Kindergarten and more thoughts on Charter Schools. Promises, Promises. I’ll turn them into bullet points: Continue reading

Fighting my Blog freeze

I began writing the second fuzzy post on Kindergarten but stopped half way through. I’ll finish it and unlike its predecessor I may even proof read it. Why did I stop? Well, as I’ve confessed before my enthusiasm for writing about the Duluth Schools is significantly blunted at the moment what with Christmas, learning French and preparing to write a book and all. And did I mention I put five hours in starting a snow sculpture yesterday. I have even backtracked on a promise to the Business Office to turn in my post election finance report.

But today Jana Hollingsworth managed to put some special ed cost numbers in the Trib that our District has been unable to scrounge up what with its penchant for picking fights with Edison. I’d like to put that in perspective here and now but I won’t. I have to try to finish a snow sculpture before a noonish Christmas Concert for my grandsons. That’s become another priority over my receding compulsion to write about everything ISD 709.

Its kind of too bad that someone like me has been pushed off the 709 School Board. I am a genuine see-both-sides-of-the-story kind of politician. I want what’s best and fair for both our public school systems in Duluth even though I was elected to serve the larger 709 schools. Now the Superintendent has reinforced his anti-Edison majority which will not bode well for passage of future operational levies. (Why should Edison families vote for 709 operational levies when they feel under assault?)

Edison is quite right to claim that its schools are being scapegoated in the current 709 financial shortfall. But 709 has a legitimate beef. Edison spends twice as much on its special ed students as 709 does and then puts 709 in the position of paying for their more generous special ed spending. That creates a bidding war that 709 can never win with parents determined to get the best education for their special needs children.

But for local taxpayers Edison is something of a godsend. Other than the cross subsidy for special ed almost all of Edison’s financing comes from State taxpayers. To keep the numbers grossly simplified lets say each public school child (not counting special ed kids) costs $10,000 a year to teach. To keep things just as simple lets say that Edison has 1,000 students and ISD 709 has 9,000 for a total of 10,000 students. (In reality Edison has more and 709 less) This would mean that Edison gets $10 million for its kids and ISD 709 $90 million or a total of $100 million.

Normally 709 taxpayers would cover about 20% of the costs of local public school kids while the state would cover about 75% of those costs. Twenty percent of 10,000 students would cost local taxpayers $20 million each year or $2 million for every thousand students. Ah, but the state pays the full freight (not counting the cross subsidy) for Edison’s thousand students. Local taxpayers thus get a $2 million savings. Even when you subtract out the cross subsidy local taxpayers are getting a nice subsidy courtesy of state taxpayers.

That doesn’t mean that 709 doesn’t feel the burn as parents pull their children out of 709 school for Edison’s special education which then bills 709 for its more generous spending. Yes, yes, yes. The state law only lets Edison charge 90% of its special ed costs to 709 but considering they are spending double on each special ed student that’s a very modest break.

I’ll keep things grossly oversimplified again. Assuming that 20% of Edison’s students are special ed students (200 kids) and cost double what 709 spends. And assuming that the costs are $20,000 for Edison SPED students and $10,000 for 709 kids. And then, completely forgetting the 10% reimbursement discount. Edison could demand $4 million from 709 or two million more than 709 would pay to educate Edison’s SPED students if they were all in 709 schools.

The actual numbers can be found in today’s Trib story. To me they strongly suggest that some compromise ought to be sought in state statute. They also suggest another reason for the 709 schools to be resistant to the sale of Central to Edison. Edison would be able to charge special ed costs to 709 for 9th through 12th grade students that currently attend 709. That would be a special ed enrollment jump of about 25% for Edison meaning more costs charged to 709.

It took the News Tribune to ferret out this information and so local 709 junkies can be sorry to see Jana Hollingsworth leave the education beat. There is no trust or cooperation between Edison and 709. The bridge I might have formed has been severed by the voters and that is a loss. My daughter was an Edison SPED teacher for the last couple of years until she left for another Independent School District and, through her eyes, I had an inkling of that took place in Edison. At double the spending of 709 they offer wonderful special ed services but even they have their challenges.

I’ll add one other marvelously oversimplified wrinkle to this story. At present Minnesota taxpayers are able to deduct all of their state and local taxes from their federal tax returns. The Congressional Republicans and President Trump are diminishing that deduction with the soon-to-be approved new tax changes. They don’t want the penurious (cheap) super Republican southern states to look so bad by comparison with Blue states in their public ed spending. I called that the “Deep Southification” of America in a recent post. Its better that northerners are penalized for having better schools. My hero, Lincoln, must be rolling in his Springfield grave over that.

If Minnesotan’s tire of funding the cost of Special Education because they can no longer deduct those costs from their Federal taxes it could be curtains for lots of children. Its too bad that Republicans only care about children when they are in utero instead of after they are born.

Two fuzzies, a referendum and a gift horse (2F,R,Horse) – A prologue


My last post ended as though I was washing my hands of the Duluth Schools thusly: “Not my problem. My last meeting is Tuesday night. I lost. I’m free.”

Then my one remaining success on the Duluth School Board, Alanna Oswald, sent me an email which kindly punctured my balloon. She pointed out that a special Thursday meeting has been added to our schedule to “fix” our belatedly announced budget shortfall of two million plus bucks. We, the school board, have to do something because if we don’t the shortfall is enough to put us into Statutory Operating Debt otherwise known as Financial Hell. Its where the frog is pithed (made brain dead) just before a couple of high school freshman start carving it up for a lesson in anatomy. So, I will be resurrected zombie-like and made to slap some band aids on our budget before a new posse is sworn in to save the day after.

[I say Alanna is my only remaining success because Art Johnston, (who I helped “tame” the way one might attempt to turn a bobcat into a house cat) and I have both been forcibly retired by the voters. I worked my tuchus off to elect Alanna two years ago and she is by far the only person on the school board who understands our school’s workings as well as our top administrators. I fear the rest of the board will ignore her in deference to the Superintendent.]

So……there is no washing my hands of the District just yet…..especially since I’m keeping my campaign checking account open until the 2019 election just in case. And that means I woke up at 2AM with the Duluth Schools on my fevered brain…..sacre bleu. (I told you I’ve been studying French.)

First fuzzy (and not a warm one) Special Education funding: Continue reading

Doomsayer ignored

I’ve had a month to recover from my most recent election defeat. I was quick to cast a gimlet eye on the satisfied reaction of the News Trib’s editors who viewed my warnings as over the top doomsday talk rather than as a necessary warning.

Well, I can be an I-told-you-so as well as a prophet so I’ll belatedly link to yesterday’s banner headline in the Trib “Duluth school cuts loom.” We have lost a three million dollar reserve which we painfully cobbled together in my four years on the School Board. We have a couple day’s reserve of one tenth of a million dollars. Statutory Operating Debt (SOD) and State intervention is just around the corner.

As for the three fresh new faces who are going to cure our ills with positivity…….only one of them, Josh Gorham, has made a habit of attending school board meetings both before and since his election.