Mern’s take on the schools

At our outdoor church service today an old school administrator mossied over to ask me if I had my talking points ready for the School Board campaign. My friend paraphrased a recent letter from School Board member Mike Miernicki which my fellow congregant suggested implied that only people who loved kids should run for the Board. I said I hadn’t read it.

So, I came home and found it. It was a paean to a recently departed County Board member, Steve O’Neil. Steve was one-of-a-kind. I remember taking left over food from our church years ago to homes he helped set up to house homeless people.

The part that raised hackles with my fellow congregant was this:

Let us endorse and support candidates who want to improve our city and school district. We need to elect caring, compassionate people. We need public servants who want to work hard to improve what we have.

We should turn away from candidates who are angry and vindictive and who aren’t concerned with moving forward together.

We have a beautiful city with a bright future. The July 17 editorial brought hope. We can all work to continue Duluth’s long legacy of caring.

I have always liked “Mern,” as he was affectionately called by by his students. I occasionally substituted for him thirty years ago. As a School Board member I was extremely impressed with his work as an Athletic Director turned “Activities” Director when all of East’s student activities were put under his care. I was also glad when he won a spot on the Duluth School Board.

That said I think its a bit unfair of Mike to use a fond remembrance of a saintly politician to cast aspersions on as yet unknown candidates. There is a recent history in Duluth which leaves little doubt as to what Mike is driving at – the Red Plan. More specifically for Mike, now a School Board member, is the terrible ratio of students to teachers in classrooms. In the high schools its about ten more kids per class than when I served on the Board seven years ago. Mern’s a retired teacher and he’s been there. He knows a solution is needed and yet the bitterness over the Red Plan’s undemocratic imposition on voters, which led to several years of increased taxes including a 12% jump last year, prevents the passage of an excess levy which could mitigate the pain.

I have a hard time imagining Duluth’s voters agreeing to pass a referendum this fall no matter how critical it is to alleviate the trauma in our schools. Mike’s tactic of shaming apparently unsupportive voters will only infuriate them as it did my friend at church.

And yet Mike is not guilty of imposing the Red Plan. He was, in fact, elected two years ago without having to declare whether he had been supportive of it or not. He’s come to the School Board with a long history of loving the schools and our kids and his hands tied by past decisions he had no control over. I feel his frustration. And yet I think a very different approach is needed to win support from the voters who are so disaffected. No one has apologized to them. Not the old Superintendent who skipped town when the class number began skyrocketing. Not the old Board members who hid behind their lawyers and their head start on critics who began challenging them too late. Not the local paper which keeps harping on how bad the old facilities were despite genuine skepticism that their condition necessitated the biggest school building plan in State history. Not the former supporters of the Red Plan that called themselves “Move Forward Duluth” and who kept saying that not being for the plan was anti-child. Now its more obvious that Duluth was sold a bill of goods that was great for Johnson Control’s pockets but not our own. We got new schools and families who are able have been jumping ship like rats on a burning boat ever since.

That’s Mike’s dilemma. I hope it will be mine too. Then I hope to help solve the problem.

These are our schools, our children and our city’s future. Mike’s right about that even if he uses the Pro Red Planner’s catch phrase “move forward.” That’s a phrase in dire need of retirement.