Last week as I was rummaging through a file cabinet of family memorabilia I opened up a folder about my son. Inside were pictures of all his classmates from second grade. One smiling young lady with long golden hair is now my colleague on the Duluth School Board, Annie Harala.
If ever I was primed to look forward to a new colleague it was surely Annie. She asked me if I remembered the incident with the lamb eyeballs. How could I forget? A few years back when my son, Robb, decided washing dishes wasn’t a mentally challenging enough career path he began taking classes at Lake Superior College. In short order he began thinking about becoming and EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). Because of the lamb eyeballs I was skeptical about this and a later higher trajectory ambition of his to become a doctor. I just wasn’t sure he was ready for blood and guts.
Annie and Robb both had Mrs. Lemons in their second grade class at Chester Park. Mrs. Lemons, who had also taught Robb’s older sister had some connection with folks in animal husbandry (farming). One day she brought a bucket of lamb eyeballs into her class for educational purposes or maybe Easter. We got an anxious call from the school that day. As soon as Robb got a gander at the eyeballs staring back at him he was out like a light. It didn’t bother any of the other kids. Like Annie it gave them a fun reminiscence and me some concern that my son was pursuing the wrong job.
Annie easily came out on top in the at large race for school board when I finally ran again in 2013. That was easy to anticipate, far easier than my second place finish.
Duluth was still recovering from the Red Plan and Annie had no political baggage from that brouhaha. She was young, energetic, and had a following of young teachers that she had helped place throughout Duluth as volunteers. My daughter’s friends at Edison told Keely that they were thrilled that Annie was a candidate. That Annie might have had some reservations about Edison no doubt did not occur them. Annie’s Mother is also a long time acquaintance of mine having been a teacher in the Duluth Schools from the time I first began running for the School Board. She was around at the time that ISD 709 teachers got bruised feelings when my school board invited Edison into Duluth. [Public school teachers often suffer from damaged egos. The teachers in Wisconsin where Scotty Walker is busy busting their chops and their unions must be little more than mush these days. But I digress.]
Growing into the job
Annie wasted little time stretching her arms. From day one she asked probing questions, was business-like and had an intuitive feel for the job. I’ve been teaching and poking around the schools for forty years but I’ve missed out on lots of history since I stepped off the Board in 2004. For all these voids in my experience Annie has an easy command.
Of all the chairmen of committees Annie is the most natural leader. If I were to fault her for anything it is in being too sensitive about the other board member’s distaste for Art Johnston. She often artlessly parrots the other board members when they try to get Art to stop commenting on any subject that he is concerned about. This almost always guarantees a much longer discussion. This almost happened at last night’s school board meeting.
When WADM’s came up and Art’s light went on Mike Miernicki, who now sits beside me, let loose a loud distraught exhalation before plunging his head into his hands. Then, no doubt to Mike’s amazement, Art simply noted pleasantly that he was glad to see our student enrollment had ticked up by fifteen students. This is Mike’s kneejerk reaction to Art’s every comment.
It didn’t take long for the other board members to inculcate Annie with their phobic allergy. In particular Judy Seliga-Punyko gathered the three female board members around her. From the beginning I saw them huddled in conferences after every meeting out by the parking lot. It was coalition building; a natural part of the political process. I can only imagine what stories Judy told her new colleagues. I got the same from Art as I became his first ally in two years. There is one other coalition between Mike Miernicki and Bill Westholm that that goes back to their days as students in Denfeld High School.
I had not anticipated the immediate coalition that formed between Annie, Rosie and Judy. I knew that Rosie and Judy had natural antagonisms going back to my earlier service on the Board. I also knew that Rosie had served in a position that was in some respects more exalted when she served as the president of the Minnesota State Parent, Teacher, Student Assn. (PTSA) Rosie had preceded Judy as the President of the Duluth PTSA, where the original antagonism surfaced. I would have thought this formidable background would have made Rosie a little less Judy’s follower than she quickly seemed to become. You would never have known that Art had once urged Rosie to run for the School Board.
These alliances were less obvious in the first three months after we were seated. That’s partly because I told Art that we should back off asking questions about things like Red Plan soft costs for several months in order to build up some trust. We had bright sunny meetings during that all too brief period. That ended once we began asking questions. The three coalitions congealed into two – five board members to two.
Ducks in a Row
One moment in our first month on the Board aptly illustrates the paths we were taking.
The Minnesota School Board Association has its annual conference in January at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I drove down with Art in his car in snowy weather with his wipers on the blink. I spent a fair amount of my time hanging out his car window with a long scraper keeping the windows free of snow so we could see ahead.
I returned with Mike and Bill which (fodder for future posts) because Art was planning to visit one of his children after the conference. I left the conference before its final gathering because Mike and Bill wanted to get an early start home. That left four of us behind.
When he returned from the convention Art described the pivotal scene for me. Art was in the convention hall waiting for his fellow board members to arrive so as to sit with them.
Judy Seliga-Punyko strode into the Center’s ballroom first and walked right past Art without turning her head in his direction. Judy was followed by Rosie who, emulating the leader, also walked past Art without turning her head. Right behind them followed Annie whose heart was not yet turned to stone. Annie didn’t break her stride as she kept up her elders but she did turn toward Art looking resigned and gave Art an apologetic shrug. The die was cast.