Necroscopy of a meeting, Part 4

When I got home Fox was on and I just caught myself before I handed a subway sandwich to Claudia. Late night dining. Claudia said I sounded good which for her is always a relief. But of course this few seconds was just a snippet of my appeal to the Board. The Tribune’s story gave more detail but I want to do the proceedings justice so I’m going to add some more detail.

Our Board has turned down Art’s and my requests to record more of our meetings but civilian Marci Hoff has been recording them for years. Recently Marcy figured out how to put her videos on youtube. When she finishes up burning and uploading it in the next few days I will link to it.


If you read my “good cop” appeal to Chair Harala before the meeting you know that I’ve described the rule of the Chair for the past ten years as dictatorial and contrasted it with how the Chair was more or less an equal in my first eight years on the school board.

I had fenced vigorously for our agenda and resolution not to be replaced which Chair Harala took to be her right under our Board Policies. When we came to the meeting the three of us who called it had no idea what the Chair or the majority intended to do. I still don’t know.

In any event we wrangled for 24 minutes about what we should do until Member Sandstad, our St. Louis County Attorney, dismissed my arguments by saying the law we quoted didn’t specifically say the Chair couldn’t reset the agenda. I took that as a very strong hint that the meeting would be over with in ten minutes and I objected that what was about to happen was illegal and invited another court case like the one we had endured a year earlier. I then hesitated as I recalled all the uncomfortable things I might have to dredge up said I was reluctant to go there in a meeting and thus put at jeopardy a fairly good working relationship we all had established…….and then Chair Harala opened the door. She asked if I would like to amend our agenda by removing the presentation we had listed to be made by our administration. I had already told Annie that we din’t care if it was dropped as nothing new was likely to come from it. When I made the motion it passed with a unanimous vote. The other four members were acceding to our agenda after an unnecessary half hour tussle. We could have gone right to the meeting had this willingness been shared with the minority from the beginning.


I took furious notes of the main points that our 19 speakers made – 15 for the sale, 4 against it. Several speakers told us they would not vote for future operational levies which echoed many of the messages we’d received from emails and letters to the editor. A couple of the speakers were especially notable including the first to sign up, retired 30-year County Attorney, Clay Odden who was sitting next to his old friend and sale opponent, Bill Westholm.

I’ll paraphrase: Mr. Odden explained he had been talked into voting for the Red Plan by his old Friend Westholm. My notes are incomplete but I think Clay expressed a sense that the Red Plan had not worked out as he had hoped. He mentioned his thirty years as a St. Louis County Attorney and then added pointedly that he thought we could really use a county attorney on our Board.

He went on to say

he thought there was a serious disconnect between our Board and the community and emphasized that $14 million dollars was not “chump change.” He said the way we were treating it was “irrational” and finished by warning us that while he had never voted against a referendum for the schools in the past that if we didn’t take this offer he would not be voting for future operational levies. I couldn’t help but wonder what Bill Westholm thought. Unlike our April meeting at Lincoln Middle School this time Mr. Westholm said nothing to the School Board.


A gregarious fellow, Bob Hill spoke. He was one of the four opponents to speak. He described himself as “confused,” an apt phrase for what was to follow, because he’d never seen the taxes for building Northstar Academy on his property taxes. That is because they are on the property taxes. They are State taxes and Duluth’s portion of state taxes is roughly our percentage of the population or about 2% of the expense.

Bob acknowledged that there was “angst” in the community and added that he had not been a Red Plan supporter or apparently of Supt. Keith Dixon which gave him some credibility in my eyes. He thought the idea of selling should be put up for election an idea that wouldn’t work in this case but should have been applied to the half billion dollar Red Plan.

He asked what the property was really worth and then popped out the figure of $60 million which I believe our Chair has used in public and which is one of the ridiculous bits of misinformation that this meeting was meant to counter. Try six or seven million.

He groused that the three of us who made this special meeting happen should have quietly gone along with the majority. I wish Mr. Hill had served on the School Board I served on that brought Edison about. For the next two years the minority members spoke for hours on end about how they wanted to stop it much to the annoyance of the majority. It was their right as elected representatives just as it was the minority’s right to try to alter a destructive decision that will reverberate through ISD 709 for a decade or more to come.

Finally Bob directed his criticism at me, without naming me, explaining that those of us who had family working or attending Edison were biased and should recuse ourselves from voting…”if [we] have a conscience.”


Finally Judy Punyko-Seliga spoke, saving the best for last. Her’s induced something I am usually very careful to squelch but failed to control – repeated and reflexive eye rolling.

She said those of us in favor of the sale were hypocrites because we had wanted a vote on the Red Plan were not advocating one for this. Among a great many other objections to this I might note that the opening for a negotiation was a mere two weeks but if I had a year’s time I’d jump at the chance to give Duluth the opportunity to take this one time money.

Judy described our forcing a meeting as “bullying and vicious,” this from a woman who shut of microphones, attempted to have Art Johnston arrested, and then insisted on futilely throwing two hundred grand to remove Art from the School Board and much, much more.

She waxed poetic about how the property has recently been rezoned making it incredibly sellable without noting it had a valuation of only $8 million dollars, three building that were salvage only that would cost up to 2 million to demolish, forested hillsides that should not be developed lest it lead to flooding, even fewer than its former 34 develop-able acres (out of 77) because of recent City zoning changes that made them nature trails.

She complained that the City hadn’t been able to vote on the construction of Northstar as though the legislature hadn’t set the finance rules.

She said she would love to have an unelected Board like Edison’s reminding me how she tried to engineer an extra unelected year on the Duluth School Board.

She said some of the Board members, and like Mr. Hill she was referring to me, had sneaked around to “negotiate” with the Tischer Creek Building Company but failed to note that our Administration, once her Administration, had twice refused to take offers of ten million for Central to the School Board leaving me to find out for myself if we could unload our white elephant with no help from the Administration.

And finally she grandly concluded by saying Snowflake was not our problem. Whew! What a lot of wind.


After my soliloquy Rosie Loeffler-Kemp stressed two things. First, our recently approved Code of Ethics and the poorly understood expectation that board members: “uphold the decision of the school board, even if my position concerning the issue was different.” But upholding a decision and keeping your mouth shut are quite different things. The Supreme Court ruled some abortions constitutional. By Rosie’s understanding no politician should oppose that ruling or to stick to legislative issues no one should oppose Obamacare or lax gun control laws or the levels of taxation or anything else.

As I pointed out earlier after Edison was created its opponants couldn’t bring themselves to stop carping about it. Opponents of selling Central for a pittance at some remote date have no obligation to let that decision stand without challenge. As long as the majority will is to do this we have to endure it but we don’t or shouldn’t have to support it. Upholding does not mean sullen support.

And secondly Rosie said:


In fact, all four of the majority Board members regurgitated this until it became a mantra. How wrong they were. In the public’s mind or at least Mr. Hills Central is a veritable Fort Knox and not a drain on our District’s finances. Its worth sixty million but he is still repeating this fantastical number. This community needed more than the four days from public input to slam bam decision to digest the claims and counter claims and yet even now, five weeks later, nonsense like Mr. Hill’s still smolders.

Here is just a small sample of new information:

* Central is worth a likely $7 million.
* The last appraisal is ten years old suggesting that there has been no serious marketing effort but only one of pie-in-the-sky cluelessness.
* Selling property was a key promise of the financing of the Red Plan.
* Failing to sell $27 million dollars of building by 2012 has forced the Board to transfer $18 million dollars out of the General Fund for bond repayments.
* The $3.3 million deficit we face next year could be offset by not having to transfer almost the same exact amount from the transfers to bond payments next year and for the next three following years.
* The sale of Central with an enrollment cap to Edison is no more of a threat and in fact less of a long term threat to Denfeld, East and other 709 schools than a new DPSA school without an enrollment cap.
* Most of the Special Ed costs said to be siphoned away from ISD 709 by the DPSA are little more than “pass through” costs that we don’t have to spend because the special ed kids aren’t our responsibility. In fact, we only have to pass on 90% of those costs to the DPSA.


Earlier in the day four of the Red Plan school board members got together for who knows what reason. Old times sake maybe or plotting how to attack a sale to Edison. Their party included Judy, Ann Wasson, Laura Condon and Tim Grover. Tim was an interesting addition because, like me, he was a vigorous supporter of the Edison schools. He didn’t come to our Monday night meeting in any case. Of them, only Judy Seliga-Punyko added heat to Monday night’s light.


That was one of my teacher, Mrs. Jones, spelling words for us in seventh grade. One of the meetings attendees was miffed that after signing up to speak about Parliamentary Procedure his name was not called. He told me he came up after the meeting to ask Chair Harala – how come? It was an oversight or a mix up which the thwarted speaker did not take kindly too. He suggested that perhaps it was some “chicanery” at work, to which Chair Harala told him to watch his words.

Chair Harala may regret not recognizing the Duluth Reader’s top columnist, John Ramos. He had never attended a school board meeting before and I gathered he got an eye full. His might be an interesting column on Friday.

At 2076 words this is an exceptionally long post. I don’t quite have the stamina to proof read it at the moment. I have been working especially hard to carefully edit my posts for the past two months. I don’t know if I’ll get back to do this one similar justice. For now I’m just going to push the “upload” button and hope for the best.