A letter on my making an ass of myself

I last used Richard Thomas’s cartoon of me in this blog post of January 3rd.

I had a bad December but of all the frustrations the Kangaroo Court with Mary Rice took the cake. Its ancient history now but at the time the majority of the School Board felt emboldened enough to add a merry Christmas censure to my December. One of the folks who took umbrage at my behavior wrote a critical letter about it to the Duluth News Tribune. I decided to write her a letter which I share with you today.

January 5, 2015

Dear Barbara,

It was good to see you again at the recent School Board meeting although I rather wish it had been in different circumstances.

I can’t honestly disagree with your appraisal of my recent school board behavior. I was frankly, chagrined with myself. I have a list of explanations but I know they are largely rationalizations and I’m particularly unhappy that they have made my advocacy for Art Johnston less credible, at least for the time being. I’ll just chalk that up to my being human.

I would like to give you a thumbnail of my arguments, those that occur to me now.

I believe the true grievance of the school board majority is more irritation than fear. Art was elected by a majority of his district’s citizens who apparently feel as I do that the Long Range Facilities Plan was flawed and should have been voted on. I am confident that you disagree with both of us. However, in our civil society political differences cannot be a basis for removal from office.

I will have plenty of time to make the public case for Art so I will only say with more certainty than before I was elected that the Red Plan drained the District’s local levy by diverting classroom spending to building payments. That has cost us our seven hour day, much of a once rich music program and raised the number of students per classroom to a distressing level while we laid off teachers to pay for those bonds.

I have long been troubled by the School Board members who have denied this even during the three years in which they transferred six million dollars from the General fund directly to make building bond payments.

I asked our Chief Financial Officer if I could look at old records and he told me that he’d have to say no to that unless I could get the board majority’s permission to do so. There was little chance of that. Fortunately I’m a bit of a pack rat and kept one board book from my eight previous years on the School Board. The year was 1997 and in comparing that year with our recently completed 2014 I discovered ample proof of this transference of money from operations to debt service, to wit:

In 1997 our local property tax levy was $22.5 million of which $2.5 million went to debt service leaving twenty million for the classroom.

In 2014 our local property tax levy was $33.5 million of which $21 million went to debt service leaving $10.5 million for the classroom.*

Among the distressing explanations given by our LRFP Board enthusiasts for our current class sizes is the one proffered by Judy Seliga-Punyko that it is all the fault of special education mandates.

I’ve asked our finance people about this and am willing to concede that we may have a (single) million dollar special ed cost burden due to our urban district and some difficulty in negotiating more favorable expenditures of special ed costs with some of our charter schools. But surely you can see that one million in additional special education costs due to mandates hardly covers the loss of $9.5 million operational costs to the Red Plan’s building bond transfers.

I know this is likely to be a sore point for you because you were among Special Education’s most vigorous advocates twenty some years ago. You may very well agree with Judy Seliga-Punyko that Art’s behavior and mine are wanting but using Special education to shuck off the responsibility of the transfer of so much money to debt service is magical thinking.

I’ve blamed my waltz around the School Board room on the failings of human nature. On the other hand, what drove me to dance is a single minded faith in the electorate to make decisions at the ballot box whether for good or ill. Poor decisions are just as valid as wise ones. Art’s election is as close to sacred as we can get in the secular world. Now the Board is planning on undoing it because of character assassination and a desire to be rid of him. It’s bad enough that Duluth never got to vote on the Red Plan’s initial cost of $257 million or its $60 million in upgrades. But we did get to vote on one of its critics and he has been reelected. I can’t fault myself for getting frantic about that. We are talking about Art’s exercise of his First Amendment Rights here.

If the school board proceeds to his removal the decision will be adjudicated and if they do I think the voters of Western Duluth will rebuke the Board by reelecting him yet again by an even more commanding majority than he achieved in 2013.

I’ve never had much truck for those would subvert our election processes through misinformation, vote rigging or vote buying on the scale of the Koch Brothers. That is why I’ve never forgotten a story I was told twenty years ago by a friend of mine on the Duluth School Board.

It seems a woman was watching her television twenty-five years ago when she heard something rustling under her picture window. Low and behold two figures clad in black were uprooting her “vote no” sign and racing with it to their car. A swift call to the police got the car pulled over with its cache of “vote no” signs. A woman, once rumored to have been intent on running for the school board, had dressed her child to help her steal the offending political messages that conflicted with her own preferences.

That’s the kind of information that comes to a school board member. A former Duluth Chief of police once told me how a bunch of school administrators he investigated were using the District’s heavy equipment to build their summer cabins. It was all hushed up, of course.

As for the sign thief’s actions I attribute that bit of madness to the same condition that impelled me to make an ass of myself to defend a man who has been the subject of malicious and unjustified character assassination. We humans sometimes just don’t take the time to stop and think about the consequences of our actions.
Barbara, my wife Claudia is embarked on a mission similar to yours. She has been enrolled at United Theological Seminary for the past year. She’s not sure just where she will go with this study yet but I’ve marveled at her capacity to read. Twenty books a semester is about par for the course, and she reads them all. She’s taking her classes pass/fail which is funny because she would have gotten straight A’s as near as I can tell. Still, it’s one way to eliminate unnecessary stress. I wish I knew how to follow her example. Instead, as per usual, I just add to hers. That’s pretty inconsiderate of me.

Perhaps we could have a cup of coffee some time your schedule permitting. I’d be on my best behavior.

Feel free to give me a call.

Best wishes,

Harry Welty

* My memory for numbers is a little fuzzy and I may be off by a million or so. It’s been several months since I last looked through the records. It might be that the cuts to classroom dollars today compared to 1997 is eight or ten million dollars rather than the $9.5 million this letter mentioned.