Not so stinkin Lincoln

Every old Northern city has a Lincoln school in it. It was a post Civil War tradition. In my old hometown of Mankato we lived two blocks from that City’s Lincoln Junior. When I attended a different junior high we all called the richest school in our community “Stinkin Lincoln.”

I write this post as one more response to Loren Martell’s piece in the Duluth Reader. In it he mentions some horrific things he was told when he knocked on doors two years ago for his school board campaign. Art Johnston and I both did the same and all three of us heard similar tales. These were in large part the basis of my infamous comment that our schools were suffering “gangrene.”

Two years ago we were still reeling from the Red Plan. Lincoln Middle School’s new principal Brenda Vatthauer got the shock of her life and feared that she had bitten off more than she could chew. I want to tell my readers that one of the very best hires made in the last couple of years is Ms. Vatthauer. I’ve mostly stayed out of her hair but my first meeting with her revealed to me that she was a woman of exceptional common sense, good humor and innovation. She has made great strides despite too few resources to calm down what had been a school flying apart. It still isn’t a piece of cake at Lincoln but I want it noted that the school is in good hands no thanks to the folks to fixed our schools with the Red Plan.

Art Johnston’s data requests

When I came home from the Geek Squad with my computer I found the mail waiting for me including one of my big yellow envelopes from ISD 709. It had a couple interesting items in it. It included our monthly payment of claims and I leafed through it awkwardly because every other page was upside down. I saw the recent charge from Mary Rice’s law firm for her calculated kneecapping of Art Johnston. I worried that it was a second $43,000 charge so I called Art up to compare notes. He thought this represented the only charge from her firm. I’ll ask about that at our next business committee meeting.

Art was driving off to a skiing race in the Twin Cities when I called him. This is how he’s been coping with the stress of shuttling between board events and his attorneys. (I’ve done the same but I started swimming again – 1,000 yards at a crack) This hasn’t stopped him from going above and beyond his board duties. Last week he attended both the appearance of Malcom X’s daughter at Myers-Wilkens Elementary and a meeting of the Civility folks down my street at Pilgrim Congregational Church. No other Board members attended either function.

About the latter he passed on one interesting observation. Its speaker told the gathered that one thing missing from the Civility list is an instruction to always speak to facts and always present evidence for your opinions. This is above and beyond Art and my call for “truth” in the pledge but it is a bird of a feather.

Of course, so much evidence is withheld from Art that it makes his job very difficult. A recent example is the refusal of the School Board to ask for an accounting of the mysterious $84 million in “soft costs” that were spent on the Red Plan. Only God and JCI knows where it went.

The principle justification for the Administration to deny his requests for information seems to be that the majority of the Board is unwilling to let it be ferreted out. That’s what our CFO told me last year. If a majority of the Board approved my requests he’d oblige me.

Art has kept some track of the many requests he’s put in that have been ignored for the past five years. His attorney gave him some boilerplate language and directions on how to make such requests. He told me during our conversation that he’d put in eight completely formalized requests for data in recent months including costs of attorneys. To date only one has been acknowledged formally and that’s one of the things I called to tell him.

In today’s packet was a letter from Bill Hanson to Art copied to all board members. It says:

I am writing in response to your January 26, 2015 Minnesota Government Data practices Act (MGDPA) request for information on five years’ worth of legal bills. As you realize, this represents approximately 200 multi-page invoices. The MGDPA does allow us to redact any data that would reveal privileged information. We will do this redacting at our expense, as required by the MGDPA. Any copies you request would be charged at our standard rate.

This letter leaves me with a couple questions. One, if Art is a Board member and privy to all privileged information why should the district take time to redact any of it? Golly, Art only wants the hourly billing not the legal work. And besides, we board members all got the un-redacted report from Mary Rice. If the redacting is unnecessary I would much prefer that it not be done at the public’s expense. As for charging Art for photocopies I can only expect that this will be a bit of a cash cow for the District. I’ll bet they (we) don’t charge 10 cents a copy times 200 times X number of pages.

Anyway, its nice to know that one of Art’s eight data requests is being addressed. Only seven to go.

Beyond Patience

That title is meant to be a joke.

Hooray! I’ve got my computer back. Think of it as my Thor’s Hammer. I can almost fly with it.

This post is supposed to be about last week’s school board meeting. I prepared notes to type up but I think I will be content at this point to see what Loren Martell reports about our meeting. He always listens to a recording of it before or as he writes it. I rely on memory and whatever illegible notes I took on my official board book during the meeting. I took lots of them last week.

I read with some trepidation the “Patience” post. I hadn’t proof read it and I worried that I might have been too dyspeptic since I was in a gloomy mood when writing it. No worries. Its surprising cogent and I only spotted one missing comma and one wrong preposition (if for of) and a “too” where there should have been a to.

Erik Satie is playing on Pandora in the background. I have even more post ideas that I’d like to address but they are accumulating so rapidly I find myself in the position of Sisyphus at the bottom of his eternally unclimbable mountain.

Speaking of beyond patience that seems to be Loren Martell’s condition. I read yesterday’s column “Where have all the Children Gone?“in the Reader and as always I recommend it. I will hasten to apologize for sounding like the always eternally optimistic Member Loeffler-Kemp but its worth remembering that things are not quite as grim for many of our children as Loren’s column makes it sound. Sure, classes are crowded and our course offerings have been trimmed but for bright and well-adjusted kids living with emotionally healthy families will get by. Resiliency is the word academics and social workers throw around to account for this. That doesn’t mean things aren’t tough. The letters we received from the Denfeld teachers spells this out. Now that I have my comupter back I’ll put some of them on the blog.

As for the finances of the District Loren is right to acknowledge that our steep financial fall has softened. Yes, promises that the Red Plan would pay for itself were always a joke. Yes, School Board ate up the old reserve to keep our slashing of teachers to a draconian minimum. Yes, we have stopped transferring six million of year out of operations to pay off debt service (by raising taxes in excess of 10% in two successive years). But, the fact of the matter is, for the moment the descent has stalled. Loren is right to fret about our continuing enrollment decline. Art Johnston put the cost of losing another 200 students at $2 million. That’s if they generate $10,000 from the state. At one recent meeting we were told they only generate $6,800 in state funding per student.

Even if the Edison Schools draw another 700 students out of the ISD 709 schools our best students will still get a good education in our schools. But what a loss in opportunities the Red Plan will have cost them. And let’s hope the teachers at East don’t feel compelled to join their Denfeld colleagues in agonizing that the kids in their classes have fallen behind those of the pre-Red Plan days.

I can’t fault Loren’s fears. I too am frustrated. I’m particularly aggrieved when I remember that before the Johnston imbroglio I had planned to read in every elementary school over and over this month. February has been “I love to read” month every year since I first got elected to the School Board.In my earlier service on the Board I made reading pilgrimages to the elementary schools all year.I still have my gorilla slippers and favorite books waiting in my attic for return engagements. Its just that I’m too busy putting together a defense of Art Johnston because of this stupid pogrom.

I’m not quite beyond patience but I’m close to it.


The last post will be improved upon by the next. Even before I took a week away from the trauma of life on the Duluth School Board I was smothered by a very long to-do list. Its longer now. I took my computer in to be improved upon yesterday. I have had two or three different virus fighting software warring against each other (so its been theorized) resulting in very pokey performance. I have so much to do now I hate the waiting time for things to upload. So, I’ll be without my computer for another couple days. When its back I will have a new back up capability which will relieve some of my anxiety about losing my stored data in a crash. The laptop is four years old and hard drives give out in four or five years…….or so the salesmen have told me.

So, that last post was put together badly on my cell phone. I’m doing this with my wife’s computer which only has the drawback of not holding the oodles of files that I can draw from for posts like this.

Since Art Johnston’s travails began last June at the hands of two successive vindictive School Board chairs and an overzealous school administrator I’ve relied upon the good sense of the majority to put an end to this pogrom. So much for good sense. My back up was next November’s election. That’s a ways away and I’ll need time too make the case that we need a new majority on this board. That case is being made for me by every story that shows up in the Tribune. The one today is just the worst of a recent string of hideous stories. I failed to link to it in the last post and only managed to copy the introduction. Here’s the link to the story of how ISD 709’s graduation rate took a hideous plunge last year. I’ll confess that the more I think about this the angrier I get. Damn me for being an I told you so (that’s a really unpleasant characteristic) but this is just the sort of thing I warned might happen when we were plied with Dr. Dixon’s happy talk about the wonderful things that would happen if we went ahead and
“saved” so much money by building the Red Plan under his direction.

I think the editors who write the headlines are pretty fed up with us and who can blame them. We don’t even catch much sympathy in the good stories like today’s mention that we will save a couple hundred thousand dollars a year on renegotiating our initial Red Plan bonding. The story’s title has “Red Plan” in it with no mention of good news.

It gets worse. I mentioned that a reporter called me in yesterday’s post. Susan Du writes for City Pages and she called me out of the blue (after finding my blog) thinking I would bad mouth Senator Wigor for his legislation requiring districts to have policies about social promotion. I joked with her about it (although my joking is not so obvious in the quotes she pulls from me) and the desire of so many legislators to play school board. I asked her to send me a link to the story when it was published and here it is. Nice reading for the folks in the Twin Cities. Sorry, I know its a downer, but I refuse to live in self denial when I talk to the press. It would have been even worse if Ms. Du had read about our lousy grad rates and not just the remedial education our graduates face in college.

Of course, we members of the Duluth School Board have no time for such trifling matters. We have a blood feud to conduct.

I took lots of notes about our meeting last night. It started out pretty well but when Art Johnston made his predictible routine remarks about WADMs (enrollment declines) Mike Miernicki and Chair Seliga-Punyko couldn’t help but ignore the advice I always give grade school kids about ignoring kids on the playground who annoy them. -IGNORE THEM PLEASE!. This resulted in a nasty non-productive, fifteen minute, hissy fit in which Chair Seliga-Punyko lost all touch with Parliamentary procedure.

Ironically, Art’s never answered WADM questions actually led to a productive conversation after a ten minute war over points of order when our two student representatives on the board asked some good questions about where 187 students lost since the beginning of the school year might have gone to. Tommy Olafson (Denfeld) asked whether we do exit interviews with departing students and Jude Goosens (East High) asked about the impact of alternative schools. I followed up by asking about dropouts.

As if the student representative’s hadn’t already proven themselves adept at getting past our adult imaturities Rosie Loeffler-Kemp proceeded to give them a short lecture about her conviction that our role as Board members was to be positive salesmen for the good things happening in our district.

I titled this post patience. It was supposed to lead to my thoughts about preparing for the school board elections. But I see, however, as I review what I’ve written here, that it really applies to that characteristic that will help me endure the next eight or nine months of being on this school board. I hope that was not too uncivil a thing for me to say.

a 4% drop in the grad rate?

Duluth schools see “frustrating” drop in graduation rates
The Duluth school district’s graduation rate took a step backward in 2014, dropping nearly 4 percentage points. Statewide graduation rates were released by the Minnesota Department of Education on Tuesday, showing Duluth’s rate fell from 78.7 percent to 74.8 percent. The new…

I need my computer back to blog about this.

press chats

At the moment I’m undoing years of neglect of my computer and other tools for communication. This post is being tapped out on my new android phone because the computer is being cleaned up. I much prefer doing this on a keyboard.

I got two interesting calls today. the first was from Loren Martell. It was a message clarifying what I had told him over the phone a week ago. He wanted to make sure he quoted me right for his next column.

I told him I was sure he was correct and to quote away. The last thing I told him might be misconstrued so I’ll explain myself here.

I told Loren that paying teachers more for working in our more challenging schools would be like “hazard pay.” I can think of lots of justifications for doing this but on a practical level can’t support it.

My Second call was from City Pages out of the Twin Cities. They wanted my take on Senator Wiger’s bill.

They expected me to say it was none of his beeswax but I commended him. I also expressed skepticism that such a law would remedy the problem of “social promotion.” After all, we apparently already have that policy which Wiger’s law addresses but still kids are being promoted without the requisite skills.

I said much more but I really hate typing on my phone.

Catching up upon my return from Eden

Apparently our Duluth School Board’s crusade to excommunicate Art Johnston is not the only thing that has caught the State legislature’s attention this year. Our Denfeld teachers have gotten wider notice while I was out of Duluth and blissfully ignorant:

Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood) says he is responding to the concerns of 24 Duluth Denfeld teachers. A letter written to school administrators, according to Wiger, says that students are being passed to the next class or grade level without passing grades
“You probably do more of a disservice by continually promoting someone if at some point they’re lost,” said Sen. Wiger in a phoner interview on Friday. “Then, inevitably, when you go to the workforce if you’re not prepared, then we have failed as a system.
The bill will be introduced Monday and then reviewed by the Senate Education Committee in the coming weeks.

But apparently, according to the District, we are already addressing the problem.

Sunday Opinion

About 24 Denfeld teachers took the chance that almost nobody else does in these days of email an texting. They signed letters to the School Board and mailed them to the Superintendent. The consequences are antique. We are required to make them public and public they became with a long story in the News Trib titled “Failing Grades? You pass.”

“No Child Left Behind” wasn’t supposed to let this happen. But guess what? Things are as bad as I remember them being forty years ago as a new teacher. I’ll make the challenge clear with my own family’s example. My wife and I began buying and reading books to our children at a breakneck pace when they were little. Our grandchildren have a library bigger than the one I had by the time I graduated from college. But in some communities whole neighborhoods have been found to have only a handful of books for hundreds of families. And yet the children in those intellectually deprived neighborhoods have to compete with my family’s children. Schools aren’t supposed to live by that old motto, “life ain’t fair,” but that’s what’s happening.

Currently Senator Terri Bonoff (the same legislator who is trying to prevent school boards from capriciously removing unpopular colleagues) is facing a lot of flack for pushing a bill that would compensate teachers more on the basis of their competence than their seniority. It would be interesting to interview the teachers, who are frustrated that kids are getting passed without showing they can do the work, about how they would feel about such a program.

We will be having a March school board meeting to talk about these concerns about student progress because of the letters. However it has come with a bit of a rebuke to the teachers for having taken their complaints directly to the School Board and, because of their old fashioned letters, to the News Tribune and the larger public. I’m delighted.

There is a Sunday editorial today about this which takes the principals of two schools to task for not returning the Trib’s phone calls. I sympathize with them. Like the teachers they know no good deed (like speaking candidly) goes unpunished in ISD 709.

There are two accompanying columns. One by a substitute teacher puts a lot of the blame on inattentive parents. The other by Joseph Legueri has a table of how Duluth area schools compare in terms of their students need for remediation after graduation. Unhelpfully it does not show the results from Duluth’s schools. It ends with this observation and a question: The “obvious” problem is that, at present, high school coursework does not seem to align with what students need to know when they leave high school. Who is to blame for that?

While it may be true that we aren’t successfully teaching kids what they must know to avoid remediation in college I’m not so sure that the obvious question posed by Mr. Legueri is the question we must ask ourselves. Whatever it is we should be asking ourselves, however, should provoke us to ask “Who is to blame?” Better yet we could ask ourselves, Who can fix this?

I’d start with our teachers, the ones who wrote the letters. Even if they don’t have all the requisite administrative degrees I’ll bet they could rejigger our system for the better.

Some Valentines Day Miscellaney

As of 6:58 this morning my website had a stupendous number of hits. It was 7,143. That is better than three times the average number of hits per day on my blog but what makes it truly amazing is that it was not an entire day’s worth of activity. It was only based on visits from midnight to just before 7 AM. I won’t get today’s full statistics until about ten o’clock tomorrow.

If I had any doubt about whether my vigorous posting drives traffic these hits pretty well make the case. It wans when I go silent and waxes strong when I have something to say. That’s good because I will have little to say for next week’s school break. Shortly after I get back I might even have a functioning website set up to take donations for the Johnston Defense fund. I’ve already paid for the website’s domain name. Good, Art’s attorneys don’t work for free not even for the defense of our First Amendment Rights.

My last big post of the day is the one before this. Its already written in rough draft but it should be polished up. Before I work on it I have a couple small items I’d like to share of no great concern to the Art Johnston Saga. They are:

One -Officer Brad Wick won the highest award that can be bestowed on public safety officers at the White House. Twenty years ago Officer Wick was assigned to my children’s school Chester Park and I saw him often during those years when he paid it a call.

Two – I’ve particularly been enjoying the Bygones session since the beginning of the year. I moved to Duluth forty years ago in late August after my marriage. I subscribed to the Tribune within days and so lately every bygones section contains the local news I first read as I became familiar with my new home. A couple days ago there was one that described how the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld that state’s ban on public employee strikes. The Bygones story reports that this decision will have no impact on a planned strike by Superior, Wisconsin teachers that is set to begin the following week.

Teachers in Minnesota were strike happy by this time when I moved to Duluth to teach in Proctor. I mentioned in an earlier post how today’s Education Minnesota (our only teacher’s union) was then two separate competing unions. The laws in Minnesota had been changed in about 1971 to permit teachers to strike and by the time I began teaching the unions were really going to town. Minnesota’s strike mania must have bled over to Superior but Wisconsin hadn’t cleared the way yet legally. I guess the Superior teachers weren’t going to let that stop them.

Those who wonder at Governor Walker’s virulent anti-public employ stance should remember that there has always been a more stubborn conservative streak in that state and it has continued to the present.

The snowy school board meeting last Tuesday

I’ll be working on this after playing with my grandsons and packing for a school break trip. We’re going someplace warm.

Now it’s good enough:

Retired Chair Mike Miernicki has sent out what appears to be an apology for his deportment at our Tuesday meeting. It was a long meeting.

It began with the regularly scheduled Education Committee which could easily have taken a couple hours by itself. However, Chair Seliga-Punyko evidently decided this was just the time to hold a Committee of the Whole to discuss next year’s budget. That might have been a safe move before I joined Art on the School Board but, like Art, I too ask lots of budget questions and our District has lots of financial problems that need explaining.

The Education meeting took closer to two hours. We had three long power point presentations in a row. Actually, even at two hours our Education meetings are much shorter than they were in the old days when I first served on the School Board. The Dixon Administration may have gotten our administrators used to keeping Board members blissfully unaware.

I had told Claudia, who was cooking a lamb stew, that I thought I would be home by seven. She skeptically suggested it would be nine o’clock. Split the difference and you will see why I had to reheat my stew when I got home.

Snow had begun falling by the time I was pulling up to Old Central. A predicted three-inch snowfall was now projected to become a six-inch dump. As the Budget meeting got later into the night Mike and Judy began to fuss that our meeting was too long especially when Art asked questions. They warned that we would face difficult driving conditions if we didn’t get moving. Mike had another reason to be anxious.

Readers of the Trib must have seen the supportive story about Bill Westholm last weekend. I explained his quarter century long battle with multiple sclerosis. It’s been getting tougher. After our January School Board meeting Art and I found Mike standing over Bill on Old Central’s first floor. Bill’s legs had given way. We helped find a chair with wheels and pushed the good natured Westholm to a side door where Mike pulled up his car to get Bill inside. Mike sent us both a thank you email for helping him a while back. That was a surreal considering what Bill and Mike have planned for Art.

So, as the snow raged and time ground on Mike began pulling long faces with every question Art and I asked about District finances. He exhaled audibly several times and put his hands to his head as he is often pictured doing in News Tribune photos. Finally, having endured enough Mike complained that he had worked all day and hadn’t eaten anything since a bowl of cereal that morning. He mentioned the snowy driving and I’m sure he had Bill in mind since he would be driving his good friend home. That would have delayed his supper even longer.

I come prepared to ask questions and plan on spending as much time as it takes to satisfy myself that I have done the public’s duty. The brief meetings of the Dixon Era were not my style and our finances are critical. I had a lot of questions for Mr. Hanson. At last year’s first budget meeting I discovered that our spread sheets showed us being in Statutory Operating Debt. I still suspect that was true and that only some technical feints spared us having to wear that label.

The message of the meeting was that things were good. The Central Sale allowed us to put most of that money in our Budget Reserve and I learned that only about a million and a half of it would be spent immediately. Of course, at that rate it will be gone long before the Red Plan is paid off. But the era of drawing operational money away, something like twenty-six million so far, and using it to pay off Red Plan debt is over now.

This good news is not, however, Nirvana. We will not be adding significantly to our teaching corps and we still have very big classes. It was obvious to me if not to others that there would be no surplus available for a seven-period day which would require over $800,000 of additional spending each school year. We were being held in the status quo’s state of suspension.

At some point in the meeting I mentioned the Edison push to build a high school and pointed out that losing another 600 students over four years would be very tough on ISD 709. Each secondary student we lost would be a loss of about $7,000 from the state.

I told the Board that building the high school would put Edison in a tight financial situation and at some risk. I said I hoped we would consider meeting with Edison to see if we could establish a more amicable relationship with them and perhaps dissuade them from pulling so many more students out of our system.

I then suggested that we could pitch this idea at the Quality Steering Committee which Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has been reappointed to. Its composed of teachers and administrators and is tasked to think through such problems. I even said that I’d like to attend the meeting myself.

No, I couldn’t attend the meeting, Chair Seliga-Punyko told me. Rosie was her appointee so I couldn’t go. I didn’t argue but Judy had no right to prevent me from attending.

On the Board I served on long before this one, any Board member could attend any meeting whether appointed by the Chair or not. Thanks to Dixon the times have changed. It didn’t even matter that these were all pretty much public meetings. I saved my complaints for the blog. And if anyone wants to tell on me to the majority they can report I have no interest in attending until the Dixon Era is finally put to rest.

Next Superintendent Gronseth set me straight explaining that only 40% of Edison’s ninth graders went on to ISD 709 schools. Sixty percent he claimed went to Marshall or the Harbor City International High school downtown. That came as a surprise to me and suggested that it would be Marshall that had the most to lose if Edison built a high school. I’d like to see the Superintendent’s research on this.

Art Johnston defended my concern. He said that 40 percent of 600 was still 250 kids. At $7,000 a head that’s quite a chunk of change even if it’s not all 600 students. But no one was interested in following up. Both Mike and Judy were eager to end the meeting. Mike complained about his appetite and the weather and Judy kept interrupting Art Johnston to speed up the meeting. I imagine she’s especially testy because she expected Art to have been removed in January and there is no sign that the magic hearing is anywhere close to dislodging her nemesis.

I’m still puzzling over the Superintendent’s dismissive attitude. I’m also puzzling over the numbers he gave me. Marshall has just under 500 students. Edison has 150 kids per grade. It’s hard to believe that half of Edison’s students move on to an expensive private school.

Even if this is true we have problems. Bill Hanson explained that so far this year we’ve lost 187 students since the beginning of the year. Bill is convinced that these kids have left town. Once again I’d like to see the research.

I mentioned earlier that Jana Hollingsworth was at the Edison meeting that night and missed our very pregnant meeting. As a result, Jana had to interview Bill Hanson the next day without having to endure our questions like the school board did. Her story about our finances sounded almost cheerful. I’m sure Bill was delighted not to have rain on your parade school board members around as he passed along the good financial news to the Tribune.

The last time one of my blog posts became a news story…

…I was censured by the School Board for telling the truth.

Jana Hollingsworth called me up after reading my posts about lobbying in St. Paul and she gives you more of the details in the Tribune.

It begins:

A bill introduced in the Minnesota Senate this session would eliminate a school board’s authority to remove members.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, introduced the bill after hearing for a couple of years from a constituent who was upset about the practice, she said Friday. The Duluth School Board currently is pursuing such action against one of its members.

What will it cost?

At our recent Budget Committee the Board got into the weeds about how to save money next school year. One suggestion was to save $50,000 every other year (half a teacher) by holding our elections when the City Council races are held. For those who want the Red Plan to be forgotten that would be a great way to have it disappear into the maw of other pressing City Business.

One more way we could save even more money, perhaps a million dollars (ten teachers), would be to drop the legal persecution of Art Johnston.

When I traveled down to St. Paul to lobby the legislature he told me his attorney had sent a letter to our District outlining the same sorts of things our attorney Kevin Rupp laid out for our school board. (You may recall that I was censured in part because I gave this “confidential” legal analysis to the press) Since then the District sent the Board members the letter from Art’s attorney.

I may risk Censure by mentioning the name of a Minnesota case in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a candidate for public office. That case was Republican Party of Minnesota v White. The losing parties in that case were forced to pay out $1.37 million. Of course, we have insurance to pay all but a deductible of that expense. But only for Art’s attorney’s billing not for “OUR” attorney’s billing.

I will also give you the quote of the US Supreme Court which is found in the letter from Art’s attorneys. It comes from a fifty year old case Bond v. Floyd: “The manifest function of the First Amendment in a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy.” His attorneys point out that our Board’s resolution of removal “blatantly disregards this basic principle.”

I think the public ought to get a look at the game our School Board is playing and the letter from Art’s attorneys.

Chair Seliga-Punyko was grateful to read attorney Anderson’s scolding message to Art Johnston. She wrote to the board:

Mr. Hanson –

Thank you so much for getting back to the board with the requested information in such a timely manner. I appreciate the response from our very experienced attorney and your role in securing that information. We appreciate all you do.

A reminder to all board members to heed the advice of OUR attorney.

“OUR attorney” indeed! If you are a voter he sure ain’t yours.

Kevin Rupp – pioneering the use of the school board purge

Readers of of my blog have ample examples of my regard for our School District’s attorney Kevin Rupp.

Its the law spelled out in the last post that he is currently mining to remove School Board members. Art Johnston, his current quarry, has briefly described three recent cases of Mr. Rupp’s pioneering work. So far its garnered Mr. Rupp about $100,000 from the Duluth School District since the crusade to remove Art began last June.

Art explained these three cases in a letter he wrote to the MSBA’s (Minnesota School Board Association) staff. Here is an excerpt:

On the other hand school board members can, and have been removed for minor claims;such removal is not under the purview of a court of law; and believe it or not, such removal can be done without a recall petition, rather it can be done with only a vote of four fellow school board member. The school board can bypasses the vote of the people that elected the ousted members. Literally, the school board becomes the judge, jury, and executioner of the removed member; and the sole elector of a replacement member. What’s happening here is not a hypothetical situation. I will give three recent examples:

(details are thought to be accurate, but are based on second-hand information or news

Farmington, 2010. A board member was charged with various things, like disclosure of attorney/client material, data practice disclosures, and making a motion to have his incurred attorney fees paid for by the school. Most sources said this was a vendetta between the Superintendent and Board member asking questions. There was an investigation and hearing conducted by judges and attorneys hired by the district. There was no malfeasance or nonfeasance in the claims. The board censured the wayward member, and unsuccessfully asked the County and city attorneys to file criminal charges as a basis for removal. cost $20,000 to $40,000 in legal fees.

St. Francis, 2013. A board member was charged with plagiarism, despite the board member having evidence of permission to copy an article. Those selected and paid for by the district conducted the investigation and hearing. There was no malfeasance or nonfeasance claims. The board originally censored the wayward members, but after he filed a data practice act request against the Superintendent, the board moved to remove him. The charged board member did not seek legal assistance and had no money to defend himself.

Result: Lots of bad PR; and in the next election those board members supporting removal were not reelected, and the Superintendent is now on
administrative leave.

Duluth, June 2014 to present. This is involving me so I won’t go into details except that there are no claims of malfeasance or nonfeasance, nor any criminal claims being brought forward. An investigator was hired by the district’s attorney and found the original charges to be unfounded, but that I violated school policy. A hearing has not occurred yet. Such hearing would be conducted by and presided over at the choice of the district’s lawyer, and would be outside any court of law.

Result: Lots of bad PR and chaos at board meetings. This case has generated a lot of regional coverage. There has been a lot of damage to the school reputation. Estimated cost to date: $80,000 to $100,000 (including my attorney fees). No scheduled hearing, but pending. Expected to go on for quite some time, and much more costly.

These three cases show the ugliness that is taking place, the lack of due process being
used by Districts and Superintendents, and the difficulty and costliness that the targeted board member suffers in trying to get a neutral hearing. It also shows that all these cases have all occurred without proof, or even claims, of malfeasance.

And it also shows that Superintendents are usually the driving force behind the removal, and that Boards can abuse the system and go after fellow Board members for less than honorable reasons.

In talking to other school board members across the state, these situations are becoming more common, and there is an unsettled nervousness about this happening to them, and a fear to speak up.

About my recent lobbying in St. Paul

In a couple previous posts, like this one, I mentioned that I was in St. Paul with Art lobbying. I was there because a law has been introduced to put the same limits on school boards that exist for other local elected bodies. They would have a more rigorous requirement for removing their members than currently exists. This law was introduced by a Senator who saw first hand what happened in St. Francis.

Changing the law will not protect Art retroactively but after his experience both of us were eager to tell legislators how the current legislation is being abused.

In the fundraising web page I’m setting up I explain how this Minnesota state law works:

The Facts

Minnesota’s laws for removing locally elected officials generally require proof of nonfeasance or malfeasance. However, the state altered its laws regarding the removal of school board members. The reason for this change is not clear but now an elected board member can be removed at the majority’s whim. This is what has happened in Duluth.

Ironically Minnesota has never given voters the power to recall elected officials unless nonfeasance or malfeasance has been proven. Thus voters have a much more difficult hurdle to jump before removing a disagreeable School Board member than his/her fellow school board members have. They don’t even have to pay attention to a judge’s recommendation that the errant board member be allowed to stay. After the hearing they can disregard the judge.

What the current statute says:

123B.09, subdivision 9.Removing board members.

The board may remove, for proper cause, any member or officer of the board and fill the vacancy; but such removal must be by a concurrent vote of at least four members, at a meeting of whose time, place, and object the charged member has been duly notified, with the reasons for such proposed removal and after an opportunity to be heard in defense against the removal.

Currently this language is being addressed in Senate File 539 which will treat elected school board members like other locally elected officials. It will take more than grudges and old scores to settle in order to remove a school board member.

Last week this bill had yet to find a sponsor but its now in the hopper.

and some welcome literary criticism

Regarding this 1400 word post one of my new corespondents offered me some literary criticism. I was delighted. It was the first literary analysis of my blog ever and probably the first I’ve gotten on any of my writing since high school.

I was taken by a sentence in one of your posts recently. When I went to find it, I believe it was changed to: “I just think they are blinded by their self righteousness.” I believe the former was, “They are blinded by the knowledge of their own goodness.” I liked the latter. It is lyrical and comes across as profound but not pretentious.

I explained that I have gotten into the habit of editing my posts immediately after posting them. I do this knowing that I’ll find typos a little more easily looking directly on the blog. I don’t worry about bad mistakes or poor word choice when I do this late into the evening because only the Ukrainians or Australians are reading at that time of the night. Even during the day I don’t worry about it too much. To me its like letting folks watch me sculpt my snow sculptures. I don’t mind if they see them in the process of construction. There is always the possibility that they will copy an unpolished text and spread it around but I haven’t worried about that as much as perhaps I should.

I just checked to see if I could find an earlier version of this post. My blog software does periodic saves during my writing but there was no evidence of my putative earlier sentence. Its quite likely that is how I first put it. I agree that the preferred language is more straightforward and less hackneyed. As for poetic……that may have been an accident on my part.

If I did switch to harping about “Self righteousness” that’s probably because its a phrase that everyone is familiar with whereas “goodness” seems a little more childlike. I guess I opted for old fart wording to sound more sophisticated. That doesn’t say much for sophistication does it?

What I read and watch

I’m not sure why my Buddy sent me to this page on Nora Robert’s recreational reading. She’s an author whose pseudonym I’ve run across many times when I’ve googled my grandfather George Robb. Her pseudo is J.D. Robb.

I read it and its as good an occasion to post one of my book posts. I’m currently reading a curious novel called Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. BTW I haven’t read this NYTimes book review. Hitler hasn’t taken over France yet but, as in the movie Cabaret placed in Germany of the same era, his shadows are already casting themselves against events.

Its been a while since I read a book to Claudia but we have two others waiting in the wings. These two are histories rather than historical novels. The first is about the Spanish Civil War and the second is Wild Swans Three Daughters of China.

These three should keep us for most of the year although I’ll have my own history books to peruse while Claudia is stuck behind a mountain of books for her various theology classes.

We keep escaping when we can either to books or movies or good television. We have several television series to livestream the first of them being House of Cards and we take in movies. I wrote a blog post on Selma and The Imitation Game a few weeks ago but I wasn’t satisfied with it so I never uploaded it.

I just wanted to reassure my readers, once again, that in addition to my family I have other things to take my mind off the Duluth School Board.

They don’t read my blog…

…but their friends tell them what I write.

More later.

To my eight loyal readers; I feel like a contractor having to explain to my clients why I dropped work when I did. I’ll be living that experience shortly when my attic is fixed up into a proper office with real storage space. I have little doubt that they will set my project aside from time to time to rush to others that they are working on concurrently. That, in fact, is what I’ve been doing. One of my recent projects is setting up a website for Art Johnston to raise money for his defense. I’ve been postponing doing this for ten months in hopes our Board would back off their insanity. Now we are probably past the point of no return and I’ve gotten some legal advice that fund raising for Art shouldn’t be a problem for me.

The comment at the beginning of this post has been a teaser for the past couple of days of blog inactivity. It was meant to get my readers to return. Frankly, it almost explains itself. It refers to what Rosie told me after our Monday meeting. She said that she hadn’t read my blog but friends of her’s who had reported my comments to her. I actually wrote a rather long piece about this to put in the post but its sitting in my computer wondering if I’ll ever return to it. I probably won’t since it spun off in several unrelated tangents. That happens sometimes leaving me to drop posts that have become unfocused.

I did make one point in the piece that’s is worth considering. In politics as in life we are all subject to by a couple remorseless conditions. One is that “perception is reality” or that what people think happened, even if it didn’t, is taken as the truth. Two is that an unrebutted argument is treated as more credible than one that is challenged. Over my political life these conditions have made me very sensitive to comments that others have made about me. If I were Rosie I’d do more than just take me to task. Of course, Rosie doesn’t have a blog to write and natter incessantly like me. But she could have sat me down and made me reconsider what I’d written for later amendments and corrections.

Judy Seliga-Punyko, our new chairperson, has also made it clear that she wished I would shelve my blog. Her name has appeared in my blog over the years and like Rosie’s it will continue to reappear. The Red Plan which we took opposite positions on made that inevitable. The worst drubbing I ever got in print was for Judy’s benefit when I ran against her in 2007. In response to my debates with Judy the Chair’s husband has also taken a few gallant whacks at me. I’m generally quick to respond either in print or in my blog.

If Rosie’s friends want to spare her my comments they might suggest to her that she call me up to have a cup of coffee to talk about the Duluth School Board’s civil war. I’d be quick to accept her invitation although I’m done extending the first move toward peace talks. I was rebuffed pretty thoroughly during our recent Christmas holiday.

As for the post Rosie objected too – I refuse to feel any shame about mentioning Rosie’s paternalistic treatment of a black fellow when her school board majority put Art Johnston’s face on the front page of our local paper with their accusations that he is a racist and dangerous.

All I know is that if I planned on running for the School Board again and I had a colleague (like that darned Harry Welty) who was chronicling my every move I’d read that blog day and night to make sure my story wasn’t mangled beyond recognition. I would never recommend hiding in a closet. That’s what Jamie Lee Curtis did in that movie Halloween.

A better idea?

Last night the Edison Board voted to pursue a high school.

This is a big deal and my next post will explain what I told our School Board about Edison at last night’s School Board Committee of the Whole to discuss next year’s Budget.

I wondered why the Trib’s education reporter was absent from our meeting but today’s story answered this question. Jana has a nose for news and Edison was the place to be not that our meeting was unworthy of coverage. The DNT just doesn’t have the people to cover us like it did when I served on the Board eleven years ago. Back then it had two reporters dedicated to all things educational.

Ironically an Edison parent came over a few minutes ago to do some work for us and told us she was thrilled with the decision. I’m not surprised. She recognized my name but she wasn’t sure who I was. Good. I need all the humility I can muster.

Two gratifying emails

I felt a lot better cranking out those posts yesterday. They are still just a fraction of what I am eager to write about but they prompted two emails which were most gratifying. The second one came this morning:

On Wed, Feb 11, 2015 at 12:21 PM, *** ****** wrote:

Thanks Harry,

Am a big fan of your blog and would be in the dark with out it. Without you and Art there would be no democratic process or discourse. Hang in there, ***

To which I replied:

And Thank you. Writing in my blog often feels like writing into a great void. I know I’ve got readers but they don’t often comment.


The first came last night and was a follow up on some earlier email correspondence. Here’s my reply:


I’m putting my replies in your text .


Mr Welty,

Admittedly, I’m a little late to the party when it comes to all things school district business. If I remember correctly, somehow the district/JCI convinced a judge that the paperwork, contracts, promises etc were JCI’s private property and not subject to FOI requests? No one appealed this?

That was JCI’s claim and a very weak one it was. That, however, was not the substance of the lawsuit. We claimed that they violated the law (court case law) by getting a no bid contract. Our attorney was removed from the case because there was an appearance (that the Judge himself noted was not demonstrated in fact) that he had a conflict having talked to a school board member while he was representing the suing party.

My anger with this situation is fresh since I am late to the party…It is also my understanding that Glass, Johnson, Martell and you have all filed FOI requests that are being ignored? (Illegally?) Continue reading

Do I head to St. Paul again tomorrow?

I went to the Minnesota Department of Education’s Title One committee meeting in the Fall and found it very interesting. The last time I came back with a CD of all the statistics related to the state’s education. If only I had time to wade through it. I’m thinking about heading there again tomorrow.

That would be a bit ambitious for me since I went down to the capitol to lobby with Art Johnston last week. Oh yeah, that’s another post I’ve been meaning to write. Oh and there’s that one on the Edison schools and how we are probably blowing a chance to avoid having them take another 700 of our students. And there’s lots more about Rosie and and and….

These’ll keep. I’ve got contractors coming over in a few minutes to look over the attic I’m determined to turn it into an office big enough to store my bankers boxes, filing cabinets and folders. That’ll be a month of dust but maybe I’ll have a good place to work well ahead of the 2015 election campaign. That would be a blessing.