The problems of one little school district…

For six months since my election I’ve been blogging like someone walking on eggs. Even so, the traffic to my blog has been pretty big. The other day one of my fellow Board members urged me to stop blogging although this board member was quick to tell me that they never read my blog. I explained that that would not happen. I also mentioned that many years ago, twelve or thirteen, a previous school board wanted me to stop talking about what was happening in our schools behind the scenes. That was before blogs but I was doing essentially the same thing in my old rarely updated website Sadly, in trying to remove all the Duluth News Tribune stories I also embedded in my website I seem to have accidentally removed a couple years worth of my “posts” which I called my “school board diary.” If I ever write a memoir of being on the school board I will rue the day I deferred to the Trib’s then publisher and removed way too much.

There is so much I would have liked to write about over the past six months. I may never fully return to my old candor because I am, as I told my Board at the last meeting, part of a team. If you have a couple of folks on your team shooting baskets into the other team’s hoops you will have a very hard time winning. I guess the question is which hoops belong to your team.

This posts title begins with a paraphrase of a line from one of the greatest movies of all time, “Casablanca.” Its delivered by Humphrey Bogart (Rick) near the climax when he tells Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) “…the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It puts the movie into perspective because the audience has been rooting for the two characters to get together from the start when Ilsa asks Rick’s piano player to “Play it again Sam.”

(Spoiler Alert!) World War II is about to break out and Ilsa’s nobel husband (a huge surprise to Rick) must escape to America to prevent dark days from devouring the World. Rick message, Ilsa must go with him.

Its not just the metaphor of the movie people see on the screen that draws my attention to the troubles of a lone little school district, its they metaphor of how the movie was made.

Casablanca was based on an overtly anti nazi play that was written before America had joined the War. The script hadn’t been completed when it went into production and the actors, some of whom didn’t want to be in it, didn’t know how it would end and thus were uncertain of what emotions to deliver to the film crew. America itself hadn’t fully thrown itself into the War and many Americans would have resisted the war strenuously had the Japanese not bombed Pearl Harbor. In subtle ways the movie amplifies this uncertainty about the future with three years of hard fighting yet ahead for America.

I see nothing but trouble for the Duluth School District. Three weeks after being sworn in on the Board I was showed a brief glimpse of a budget forecast that showed a $9.6 million deficit projected at about the time I’ll consider running for reelection. I’ve been pestering the Finance Director for more information for three months since with little to show for it. I didn’t get a copy of the spreadsheet until a week after our Board set the final “paramaters” for our negotiations with the teachers over their contract. The spread sheet shows the ominous acronym SOD at the bottom of the calculations where the deficits are totaled up. SOD stands for Statutory Operating Debt. Its a subject I’ve written about many times in the blog over the last eight years.

If we fall into SOD again (and I would love our Finance Director to explain how we can avoid this) it will not be pretty.

I ran for the School Board three times unsuccessfully in the early 1990’s after the District had fallen into SOD. One year the Board decided to stop offering any extra curricular activities. All sports were cancelled. Duluth rallied and passed the hat to fund them for a year from contributions not taxes. Would Duluth do this again? Hermantown’s Board which seems to be in no fiscal turmoil whatsoever recently decided to stop cheerleading. Hermantown’s public changed their mind. What would happen in Duluth if the Board revisited its old solution to SOD?

I like people. I like my fellow Board members today. I liked the Board members I beat up during the height of the Red Plan fight. Some of them had been my closest friends. I like something else even better. I like honesty. It comes from both sides of my family. My Mother’s father who I blog about lots, George Robb, was the Kansas State Auditor for 24 years running. A war hero appointed to fill a disgraced Auditor’s shoes he told my Mother that a man who has lost his reputation has lost everything. It was his job to keep every municipality in Kansas honest during his years of service.

My Dad was outraged by municipal corruption as a teenager. He loved the Hatch Act. He quit his job working for the Kansas State Insurance Commissioner after he suggested that his boss stop accepting gifts from the insurers his agency investigated. The advice wasn’t welcome. We moved to Minnesota where my Dad taught Business Law at the State Teacher’s College in Mankato.

My honesty hasn’t endeared me to everyone. (BTW, I call it honesty rather than the truth because I can’t vouch for getting everything right.) Seven years ago when I ran for the Board eager to trim the Red Plan I was denounced as a profane crazy man three days before the election in the Tribune’s Budgeteer. Three years ago the Trib’s editor called up and left a message that he was going to publish a story the next day about how I laughed about death threats sent to another man’s children. Then last fall, two weeks before the election all the news outlets in Duluth were contacted and told my campaign manager was a pedophile. I guess I’m not everybody’s cup of tea.

But I did get elected seven years after I first warned Duluth the Red Plan was a disaster in the making. Now I’m looking at a modest ability to reduce class sizes for two or three years before SOD forces us to undo that tiny good and cram even more kids in our classes or cut programs or cut extracurriculars or who knows what else?

How have I been coping? Well, as many know from reading this blog I’ve been to the hospital to make sure I’m not prone to a heart attack. I’ve also been digging around surreptitiously trying to figure out the answers to questions I haven’t found easy to pry out of our administration. I’ve also volunteered at Life House to get a good look at the kids our schools are failing. And I’ve been reading lots of history. That’s where I keep reminding myself of the hill of beans Duluth’s Schools amount to.

I’ve read four great histories since I was seated on the School Board. They have centered on two Eras of American excess, The Gilded Age, in the 1890’s and the Jazz Age, in the 1920’s. The last was perhaps my tenth book on Abraham Lincoln. I’ve had a building interest in Lincoln since I told my Mom in junior high that I was ugly. Rather than disagree with me she said that I should think of Abe Lincoln who was an incredibly ugly man. It was the best thing she ever could have told me.

Here’s a cartoon of Abe holding up the Emancipation Proclamation.

Abe Lincoln took a beating with more serenity than any other politician I’ve ever seen. (Although Obama puts up with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh pretty well) He had a singular purpose. He wanted to preserve the “Union” that the Founding Father’s had brought together four score and seven years earlier. He aimed to do it by honoring the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence which said it was self evident that “All man are created equal.” As the Civil War broke out the Declaration’s high aims were not his chief concern. It was the Constitution which Abe felt obliged the states to remain in the union forever that he had in mind. He denied that they had a right to secede. (I’ve always thought Lincoln was probably wrong about this) When, after two years of unexpected brutal fighting, Lincoln began leaning on the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, which had assigned slaves only three quarter’s worth of their humanity, he further outraged his critics.

So, I’m a profane, child threatening, friend of child abusers. Well, OK, Maybe. At least I haven’t been the Duluth School Board…Well, not until that last election. I really do hope to make a great improvement of it even as I stare statutory operating debt in the face. I’ll need all the self deprecation I can muster with a heavy dose of historical perspective to survive my observation that we can’t afford the teacher’s contract we are hell bent to approve. Maybe I hate teachers as much as I hate children?