Batting 0 for 7

“On behalf of the DFT screening committee I want to thank you for spending the time with us last night to share your views and your vision for our school district as a candidate. You have not received our endorsement, however we hope that should you succeed as a candidate that we would be able to have a good working relationship.”

This was the email I just received after interviewing for the endorsement of the Duluth Federation of Teachers. I had no illusions about the possibility of an endorsement although I did my best to make a case for my candidacy. I wanted the DFT endorsement committee to have no doubt that they turned their back on the best candidate for the Duluth School Board. While a couple of the seven candidates to appear before them groused that they did not expect to get the endorsement I simply told the teachers that I had asked for their endorsement seven previous times and never won it even though I would welcome the endorsement.

The interview took a little over two hours and we were asked to extemporaneously answer the same 12 questions we had already answered in print. (I’ll post my written answers at the end of this post.) I’m not sure how many times I’ve actually asked for the endorsement. I vaguely recall not being in town in 2013. Neither did I ask for the endorsement in 2003 after filing but but quickly deciding I didn’t really want a third term and ending my campaign.

The quirky interview process had all seven candidates present answer the first four questions in turn with all the teachers present. The next eight questions were asked by small groups of two or three teachers, in separate rooms, of single candidates, in four minute sessions. Each small session came with an explanation that the teachers were forbidden to ask additional questions. (It would have been unfair to the candidates who wouldn’t get to answer them.)

At one of these sessions I was told that if I had questions of the teachers it would be OK for me to ask them and so I did. This is the question I posed: “I don’t want you to give me the answer to this question but I’d like you to consider it after the endorsement process. I’d like you to ask yourself why it is unlikely that I will get an endorsement from the DFT.”

I told them that I had my theories. I didn’t share them in that four minutes but here they are: The simple answer is that I have supported the development of Charter Schools in Duluth but I think that this is too simple. I suspect that I was not endorsed for a more potent set of reasons, to wit: I’m not afraid of the teacher’s union. I have defied them during a near strike. I have publically debated one of their Presidents. I am resistant to rolling over during labor negotiations. I know where the bodies are buried and finally, the State Teacher’s Union directs local unions to keep pushing for more benefits than their district’s can afford as a way to pressure state legislators to provide more funds for school districts which always plead poverty and blame the legislature. And that’s hogwash. Duluth regularly receives about 70% of its revenue from the state.

We all collected back together for a surprise 13th question. I think it might have been here that I referred to my campaign “trading cards.” (I left a few of them in the DFT office – as little Trojan Horses. This one didn’t make cur for my trading cards. ) I told the teachers that for the past fifteen years the DFT had consistently elected the friendliest board members possible – although “supine” might be a fairer description. I pointed out that the result of this was that in April the DNT reported that 30% of Duluth students had open enrolled out of the District. By the way, Open Enrollment DOES NOT INCLUDE ENROLLMENT IN CHARTER SCHOOLS!!!!! That’s extra. (NOTE – the last two sentences are incorrect.) Additionally, and even worse, I pointed out that in the wake of the Red Plan which the DFT supported as it intimidated teacher critics into silence our District now spends $11.5 million less of its property taxes in their classrooms with mortifying consequences. I asked them if it wasn’t possible that electing board members who championed the unions, instead of taking on the role of management that is a school board’s constitutional charge, wasn’t the chief reason for our classroom overcrowding and the loss of hundreds of teachers.

I’ll let my eight loyal readers ponder that as well.

I explained all this to Claudia this morning and she made me do a little math and simplify the horror story of the last twelve years.
This is how she thought I should explain our situation:

Twenty years ago we spent over 60% of our $23 million property taxes in the classroom. Today we spend less than 10% of our $31 million in property taxes in the classroom. That’s $11.5 million less for our classrooms or, alternatively, 128 fewer members of the DFT to help bridge our yawning learning gap.

Here are my written answers to the DFT questions:

2017 Duluth Public School Board Candidate Screening Questionnaire

(Please bring a completed copy of the Questionnaire to the screening on August 8, 2017.)

1. Why did you decide to run for school board?

Like all candidates I care about public education and believe I have the experience and knowledge and temperament to help guide the Duluth Public Schools in giving our children an excellent education.

2. What strengths/qualifications would you bring to the school board?

Unsurpassed experience and knowledge and the humility to know I can still learn much from others.

3. Why are you seeking the endorsement of the DFT?

To the extent that the DFT represents the best interests of teachers I wish to build on that association.

4. What do you think are strengths of the Duluth Public Schools?

Like most public schools we educate all classes of the Duluth public and in doing so touch the greatest part of our community. Its “small d” Democracy at heart and our teachers will always be our most treasured source of success.

5. How do you believe the public education system in our district could improve? Please include specific areas for improvement and potential solutions.

By being less fearful of change and competition. Frankly, we need more financial resources and we have to work hard to win the public’s trust after a rocky decade of putting too many of our resources into infrastructure rather than labor.

6. What do you know about the labor-management process currently used in our school district? What are your thoughts about this model?

I think the Quality Steering Committee is a very healthy process. However, I think the contract negotiations process puts management at a great disadvantage which is inherent due to public law, state financing and tradition. The School Board is an afterthought in negotiations and that means real communication between the public, through the school board, and teachers barely exists.

7. What role do you think teachers can play in the decision-making process at the site and district levels?

I believe teachers ought to be drivers in decision making in an era when many layers of bureaucracy above the teachers thinks it has all the answers.

8. What experience have you had with the current school board or other community meetings where public education is a focus?

More than any other candidate by far.

9. What is the role of a school board member in relation to fellow board members, district employees, students, and the community?

To be honest, inquisitive, open, humble and fearless on behalf of our children.

10. What are your thoughts about how the school day is structured for students attending Duluth Public Schools?

I think it could change for the better but that this is unlikely to change unless new sources of revenue become available.

11. How should our individual sites operate and focus (as individual sites and in concert with the district system)?

Financial constraints make more autonomy hard to promote although I would like there to be more autonomy.

12. How should teachers and administrators be evaluated?

On merit. However, merit is notoriously subjective. I have always thought that recent student graduates could have some role in identifying the teachers who have been the most important for their success.