Between a Rockridge and a hard place

That was my groaner at last night’s special meeting of the Duluth School Board. It was so inspired I used it twice and so bad that the second time I said it Nora Sandstad thought I owed the Board an apology.

We had three “facilities” issues on our plate last night A. approval of changes in our ten year building maintenance plan made necessary by putting two new projects on it (the Rockridge makeover and playground mulching) B. OK’ing a contract for the Stowe Playground renovation C. Approving a five year bond to pay for these projects. Somewhere in all of this was a new roof for Lakewood Elementary. Jana Hollingsworth explains it all in the DNT today.

I went along with the Board majority on all of this pleasantly but grudgingly. The Board majority painted us into a corner by its refusal to consider selling our buildings to “competitors.” When other deals fell through we had no back-ups to sell the costly white elephants to. This undermined a primary element of the original Red Plan financing scheme that promised we could help finance the mega-plan by selling off our unneeded facilities for $29 million. That would have helped us retire some of the bonds which we are now being forced to repay annually from our General Fund to the tune of $3.4 million (34 teachers worth).

I couldn’t blame Art and Alanna for symbolic votes against some of our decisions but having been painted into a corner I saw little else we could do but walk away across the freshly painted surface. I have spent the last year objecting to being put in that corner but once there I was stuck an no symbolic vote was going to undo the damage.

The chief drivers of our decision making have softened up a bit. After the last election it was the Superintendent and Chair Harala and Clerk Rosie Loeffler-Kemp who were in the driver’s seat. Fighting our “competitors” off tooth and nail was the order of the day and in the first year they were allied with this year’s Chairman Dr. David Kirby and Nora Sandstad. There is obviously some history between some of these folks. During the 2013 election Annie posted wedding photo’s on Facebook which showed Rosie, Nora and another candidate for the Board that year, Renee Van Nett, together with the wedding party. Renee is now a leader in the DFL so I’ll probably see her at Saturday’s endorsing convention. She will also be a candidate for the City Council this year.

David has proven to be the best and fairest Chairman of the School Board of the four I’ve served with in this term and Nora has grown comfortable charting her own course. But Annie and Rosie have

remained in lockstep with the Superintendent until the Mulch parents pulled them away. Somehow history has been rewritten and Rosie, a bit of a Superintendent Groupie, is now being hailed as the person who brought the fight against rubber mulch to our table. She did bake three cakes for the Mulch fundraiser.

I got a tongue lashing from an old school board buddy, George Balach, on Memorial Day about the mulch. He’d made calls to experts and concluded that its not a threat and was incensed at what he regarded as the waste of money to remove it. I’ll refrain from recapping my thinking but its evolved and if my readers want to plug “mulch” into the search function they can follow that evolution.

George may get his way. I’ve heard discouraging reports that we may not get the suitable bid to replace the mulch we were hoping for. I’ve even heard that there has been an extension in the short bidding period we set up. I suspect that a good bid could have come through had “we” not dragged our feet month’s earlier. Maybe it still will. If you are on my side and not George’s keep your fingers crossed.

There was a second end-of-year story in today’s paper – principal transfers. Two transfers in particular have alarmed parents. The story mentions unhappiness at the transfer of Mr. Glockle from Laura Mac. Even more parents have weighed in on the transfer of new principal, Amy Warden, from Homecroft. Coincidentally, Homecroft is where I first met Bill Gronseth ten or twelve years ago when he held the same position.

Homecroft has had a transient set of principals for a number of years. When Warden was selected the parents were part of the interview process and they were assured that she would be placed there for a long time for the sake of stability. They feel that promise is being broken. That she has been popular with families and staff makes the breaking of the promise all that more hurtful. Worse, and problematic in my judgement, is the reduction of the position to a half time position. The newly assigned principal, Darren Sheldon from tiny Lakeside, manages our District’s Title One programs half-time and spends many days at our Administrative offices. I think that could be a deal breaker and I do have some say over that along with my fellow board members. BTW – Darren has been a treat to visit at Lakewood on the days I’ve been invited to read to classes. He’s a natural kid person and I think he would go down easy in Homecroft if he was full time.

This is a situation where my instincts are to stay out of the Administration’s way. We (the Board) choose our Superintendent. The Superintendent handles staffing. I have felt strongly about this since about 1982 when I was called to substitute for a popular science/math teacher that irritated an Albrook School Board member so much that he was taken out of his classes. I took his place for a week or two while the District looked for a permanent replacement who could teach in the hard to fill math and science subject areas. After a week I was offered the job but I’m lousy at math as social studies is my area of expertise. I declined the offer and have no idea who took my place. That was an instance of gross overreach by a school board member and I will do no such thing.

Oh yeah, and one more facilities issue was raised and mentioned in the DNT. What are we going to do with the $18 million anticipated fix ups Old Central requires? I kept my mouth shut as various board members talked about previous efforts to sell it off but its a not a new issue. In about 2002 I seconded a motion from then Board member, Garry Krause, to consider selling the building. I did it “for the purpose of discussion.” Garry had met a developer who was interested in buying the building but nothing ever came of those discussions. A man later to be an ally of mine on another facilities issue, Gary Glass, loudly objected to any discussion of Central’s sale. The Developer? George Sherman.