A warning to Minnesota School Board members before engaging the legal services of Attorney Kevin Rupp

Background:

I am Harry Welty. I served on the Duluth School Board from 1995 through 2003. I attended every MSBA conference in those eight years. This is my second conference since getting reelected to our Board in 2013. I’ve never had my eyes opened so wide at our conference as I did at last night’s two hour beginner’s negotiation session.

Our district is infamous for its fractiousness. That was true when I was on the board the first time and we brought in one of Minnesota’s first charter schools despite significant union opposition. After I retired from the Board in Jan 2004 things got hot again when our District imposed a quarter billion building bond without voter approval. I publicly opposed this decision and led a campaign to encourage our Board to give the decision to the voters. They did not yield and then, again without allowing public participation, raised the projects cost by an additional sixty million. Counting interest the plan is nearly half a billion dollars to. To pay for it we laid off a great many teachers and crammed kids into classes and lost better than ten percent of our students to open enrollment. Now that I’ve regained a position on the Board getting financial details about the past is like pulling hen’s teeth. No one will tell us where, for instance, $84 million of “soft costs” for the project just completed went to. As board members yourselves, MSBA members can understand my concern for this breach of fiduciary responsibility.

The real tragedy is that our School Board with the advice of Mr. Rupp has been fatally preoccupied with the attempt to remove a fellow school board member on the flimsiest of trumped up charges for the past nine months. It is rare to remove board members let alone for simply exercising their first amendment rights.

Nonetheless, this has been Mr. Rupp’s baby since June of last year. For me this detour from education has been an astonishing turn of events. It will continue all through this year until the next fall’s election. If he is removed this board member will almost certainly be re-elected by his unhappy voters who’s schools have not fared well under the new plan with a massive student exodus.

I should confess at the outset that my board recently censured me for divulging the fire sale price of a property once valued at nearly $30 million. It was sold for a pittance. I was in the wrong and voted to censure myself as well. Now, on to what I learned at the Conference Wednesday night about how Kevin Rupp has represented us over and beyond his role in prolonging a divisive and expensive legal civil war that has made the running of our schools a secondary issue we have little time for.

At our recent January organizational meeting we considered the routine resolutions re-instituting our banking and our four law firms. A motion was and made and defeated to dispense with the services of Mr. Rupp’s firm.

I listed nine concerns about Rupp’s service the most egregious being his recommendation (hidden from public view and from me) that the Board accuse my colleague of having spewed racist comments. This was laughable as the targeted board member, Art Johnston, is the only Board member who serves on Duluth’s NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) chapter. Also Art’s campaign manager was recently elected President of our NAACP chapter. For eight months Art has had to live with this (dare I say it?) black cloud invented by Mr. Rupp hanging over his head. It was pure character assassination.

Last night I was aghast to learn that another of my complaints against Mr. Rupp was for more grievous than I initially thought it was. He allowed our District to violate state law by keeping me out of a meeting during our contract negotiations that should have been open not only to me but to the public.

I’ve never revealed the full story on my blog until now for the sake of getting along but comity is long gone from the Duluth School Board and its time to face facts coldly. Last March I was left livid when our Superintendent, Mr. Gronseth, followed Mr. Rupp’s advice to exclude me from negotiations. This was despite Board conversations guaranteeing me access to the meetings and despite our board policy that made me a member of our negotiation’s team.

This would have been a new experience for me. Although I had served on the Duluth School Board from 1995-2003 and voted on four teacher master agreements I had never actually sat across the bargaining table. Last night I learned that in some larger districts attorneys and administrators will try to keep board members at a remove from the negotiations. But I got elected pointing out that Duluth was in massive fiscal trouble. I had made it clear I wanted to exercise my right under our own policy to be a part of the negotiations. Our Chairman, Mike Miernicki, and our Superintendent knew I would attend a March negotiation meeting. It was not a surprise when I showed up.

But I was surprised when I found a large gathering of about twenty teachers and half a dozen of we management negotiators. It had been suggested that these were very secretive meetings. Instead it was very open and the door to the room was left wide open. I got there early and sat at the table across from many old teacher acquaintances. But when our administrators and Attorney Rupp entered our Director of Human Resources, Tim Sworsky, asked me to move back from the table and ushered fellow Board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp into my seat without explanation. I thought perhaps that he was having me be gentlemanly.

After half an hour of friendly rhetorical speeches by the teachers we took their latest offer and broke up into separate “caucuses” to dicker among ourselves away from the folks across the table. I followed behind the rest of the management “team” to the Superintendent’s office to palaver in secret with my team. Just as I got to the door of the Superintendent’s Cabinet Room, HR Director Sworsky turned around and told me that I wasn’t part of the group. Why Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, who had been ushered into my seat at her first negations session, was permitted into this caucus and not me despite our board policy I had no time to contemplate. Reeling, I sat down in a coach in the main office while the door was closed behind the grown-ups. That’s how I felt and that’s not a good feeling for the most senior member of the school board to feel. I had eight full years service compared to seven by our second most senior member.

It didn’t take me long to start fuming. At 11:15 AM I texted the Superintendent: “ I don’t do livid. I’m close to making an exception. You are violating school board policy and you have a very unhappy SB member in your foyer.”

I expected the Superintendent to check with the attorney and admit me very quickly. I sat for about five minutes waiting for common sense to break out while my eyes were glued to the door. At the end of a short hallway the Superintendent skulked out and furtively looked over his shoulder back into his main office where I sat stewing on his couch. He saw me staring at him while he ducked into what I presume was his private washroom. I wondered if he’d read my text. When he reappeared a minute later to return to the caucus I called out to him, “Superintendent, I sent you a text message.” He ducked back into the Cabinet Room. I was very angry.

I felt no good would come from remaining in the Superintendent’s Office in such a foul mood so I left the building to cool off. I drove to a parking ramp near Duluth’s sky-walk and began walking back and forth to walk off some of my humiliation. It didn’t work. Then I got a text message.

At 11:25 AM Supt Gronseth: “Just came our [out] to talk to you-please speak with Chair Miernicki.”

At 11:26 AM Board Member Welty writes: “I left him an angry [phone] message when I was shut out of the meeting. But I will call him again.”

At: 11:29 AM Board Member Welty: “Left him an even more furious message.”

Half an hour later at 12:02 AM Supt. Gronseth wrote: “We are back in session.”

I drove back at entered the larger open meeting but after it broke up a short while later with counter offers I departed, resigned to skipping any further negotiation sessions but still furious.

I kept this story under wraps to ensure that the Board didn’t get sucked into an ugly row although I did share it with the education reporter at the local paper who never covers the interpersonal relations of Board members. After I cooled off the Superintendent told me it had been Chair Miernicki’s responsibility for keeping me out of the “caucus.” The superintendent told me that he just couldn’t persuade Chair Miernicki to be reasonable. This seemed unlikely because the Chair had assured me I could participate but I took his explanation on good faith. Board members did exchange some heated email for some days afterward but no one ever could explain why the assurances made to me had been abandoned. This episode was the first of what would become a long list of grievances I would hold towards attorney Rupp.

That brings me up to last night at the MSBA conference. I attended a two-hour session on negotiations for beginners led by some very experienced MSBA staff negotiators. I heard basics that our board and negotiators seemed never to have considered during our negotiations that led to our approval of two two-year contracts. I took a lot of notes especially when I learned that our attorney , Mr. Rupp, failed to defend my rights during our negotiations.

Remembering my experience with Kevin Rupp I asked the MSBA’s Bill Kraut: “How many school districts have no Board members on negotiating teams? Mr. Kraut turned the question back to the 140 or so school board members in attendance. No one in the room raised their hand except me.

Then Mr. Kraut went on to say something that astonished me, The public not only can attend the open meetings but can’t be prevented from attending the caucus meetings of the School District when they break from the general sessions. Any Minnesotan could demand admittance because they are public meetings except, apparently, one school board member in Duluth. I raised my hand for a follow up question.

“If a school board member is denied access to the caucus is that kosher?”

Mr. Kraut took a few moments to consider this question. He seemed taken aback. Then he authoritatively said “NO.”

I feel like a prize fool. Our attorney, Kevin Rupp, originally from a big Twin Cities law firm that I voted hire years ago, didn’t pass on this elementary bit of state law that was explained to us in a beginner’s class on negotiations. Kevin Rupp kept his mouth shut during my angry texting or worse, he let our district deny an elected board member with a fiduciary responsibility to be admitted to a caucus that every Minnesotan had the legal right to attend. It wasn’t just our District policy he refused to enforce. It was the state’s Open Meeting law.

When I get back to Duluth I’ll find my seven other objections to Mr. Rupp’s service and post them also. For the time being I’ll just mention one of those complaints from that list. With Mr. Rupp’s negotiating assistance the relatively poor Duluth School District managed by 2013 to place Duluth 15th on the list of Minnesota’s highest paid teachers. Not surprisingly, Duluth also has some of the most overcrowded classrooms in the State.

If we weren’t busy following Mr. Rupp’s legal advice to remove a school board member for asking too many questions we might have time to deal with such critical issues.