Category Archives: Duluth Schools

Child centered decision making

I was sent a couple of public emails this morning addressed to the School Board from two unhappy ISD 709 parents.

The first described the treatment of a child by the principal of one of our schools. It was not happy reading. I also have no idea if it was fair or accurate. I received similar missives when I was a school board member and I always resisted weighing them with much force until I had gotten a chance to interview all parties. Whether they are completely accurate or not the treatment of the students did not suggest much humanity. I suspect the District is having a hard time offering such a product in the climate that seems to have descended with Dr. Dixon.

I have taken the liberty of editing the other email which strikes me as unquestionably legitimate criticism. Continue reading

Thank you, thank you, thank you

I paid no attention to tonight’s school board meeting as my wife and I had been invited out to dine with old friends. We had gotten home and I was reading a book to my wife, In Tasmania” to help us prepare for our trip next year to Australia. Its an odd history. The first third very funny as it relates the odd coincidences surrounding the author and his connection with the “Father of Tasmania” a man who can hardly be described as anything other than a rascal. I had just ventured into a darker section about the “annihilation” of the original Tasmanian descendents when Jana Hollingsworth called with the news that Dr. Dixon had just announced his retirement. She wanted my thoughts. I joshed around much like the author of my book did as he described the Father of Tasmania. I said nothing flattering.

I asked if anyone was handcuffed and was told that no this had not happened. Loren Martell was permitted to speak and did so without interruption. I asked if Mr. Martell had said anything more inflammatory than I had in describing my thoughts about Dr. Dixon. No, in the reporter’s opinion, he had not. I told her it was just as well I had not spoken at the meeting for I might not have fared as well.

I’m not surprised at the announcement. I had to watch the news to learn it was not effective immediately but would end with Dr. Dixon’s contract after the conclusion of the school year. Standard procedure. Since Dr. Dixon would be a major issue in the election taking place at that time and since he has all but guaranteed that his Red Plan will be completed it makes sense to plan a departure before a potentially hostile school board takes over. He might even apply for another job even though he has achieved the age of retirement. If he does I’m sure the contents of this blog will make any potential employees he would supervise wary of him. Sadly his Faribault detractors were so eager to see the back of him that they zipped their lips when the Duluth School Board came sniffing around to interview the last remaining superintendent candidate available to them. The others all got other jobs or telegraphed their disinterest in Duluth’s superintendency.

I suspect the employee who penned the poisonous critique of Gary Glass and Art Johnston today for the Trib was part of an elaborate plot to pass on the good word concerning Dixon and the Red Plan. One of the emails I received from a witness to the meeting told me that a number of Dixon fans showed up to thank him for his leadership. Apparently most of them bestowed their thanks in the form of a trinity, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Another email from up north commented that it was amazing how the two Superintendents who had done so much for JCI’s bottom line resigned simultaneously after having fattened up the investments of JCI stockholders.

I think Dr. Dixon would have fit in very comfortably with the founders of Tasmania.

Meanwhile back at the schools

35 Students, just 1 teacher

While the School Board chair is handcuffing critics the real work of the Duluth schools gets harder and harder to perform. The same Sunday Trib has what surely ought to be viewed as an expose of the overcrowding of our classrooms. Keeping our student-teacher ratios low was once paramount. Just how bad they’ve gotten can be deduced from these two paragraphs:

A yearly report of Duluth district class sizes shows a handful of elementary and middle school classrooms with as many as 35 students. Some high school classes, including core classes for math, science and English. have students numbering in the upper 30s. One German class has 41 students.

The Cloquet school district, whose latest scores were among the Northland’s highest in the state’s measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, also struggles to keep class sizes low. Some of its elementary-grade classes go as high as 27 kids per class this year, and its middle and high school class3es range from mid-20s to low 30s.

There is very little difference in the funding of these two school systems yet Cloquet has significantly lower student teacher ratios. I have suspected that school operations money has been finding its way into Red Plan construction. This would account for these deplorable ratios. Only an honest audit would uncover this. I’m hopeful that the former State Auditor and possible Governor Elect, Mark Dayton, would order up such an audit. I hope his Lt. Governor wouldn’t object.

If reporter Jana Hollingsworth had to get info from the outspoken Susan Van Druten its a sign that most teachers were paralyzed with fear and preferred to say nothing about their plight. I wonder how many teachers Jana had to go through before she finally realized almost none would talk to her? Most of our teachers feel handcuffed too.

Grover on the tepid defense

Tim “I ain’t saying nuthin” Grover also gets his one cent in defending his heavy handed censorship. Says Tim,

“On numerous occasions this year, Mr. Martell engaged in personal attacks and was asked to leave the podium.”

The District has the evidence, all those DVD’s of Mr. Martell speaking his mind. I think Tim should release them to the public to show how mean and nasty Mr. Martell is. I suspect they would only prove that Mr. Martell is anything but incivil. That’s why the District will almost certainly not make the DVD’s public It never releases any information that might undermine its empty arguments.

In the world of incivility I think vote theft, data suppression, and lying outrank carping about being cheated. Turning off microphones ain’t so hot either.

Martel on the tepid defense

Mr. Martell ably defends himself on the same page.

“Grover claims zero tolerance for personal attacks but seems only to enforce the rule when the alleged attacks are on him. Two meetings ago a woman came up to the podium, pointed at School Board member Art Johnston, called him out by name, and started dressing him down in front of the whole room. Her attack was of a much more personal nature than mine, but Grover did nothing to stop it.”

Mr. Martell who has attended lots of meetings goes on to debunk Chair Grover’s professed latitude “early in the year” by pointing out that ten months ago he shut the microphone off on a woman who was being very civil. Her offense, like Martell’s, was to simply read Tim Grover’s old abandoned campaign promises.

We in the public are treated to Mr. Martell’s words but not a very good picture of him. He himself comments that “Despite the scary-looking picture of me the News Tribune managed to cull from video footage I was not cursing, shouting or making threats.” The Trib kindly reprinted the less than flattering video image of Mr. Martell on this full page free speech extravaganza. Loren’s really a rather handsome fellow but maybe its better for the Trib’s editorial stance to let board member Seliga-Punyko’s fearful hysteria stand. This image could haunt her dreams for years to come.

Tepid defense… Pt. 3

Sheesh! A whole damned page on Sunday dedicated to the School Board handcuffing someone during the time for public comment and its not sufficiently important to put on the Trib’s website. Considering their limp treatment of the subject they may have good reason to hide it away.

Here’s the Trib:

“Its no secret that the man, Loren Martell…has become a roll-of-the-eyes, here-he-comes-again headache for some School Board members.”

Well, that settles it. He’s not civil enough just to shut up an go away after he demonstrated the Board Chair expunges public criticism from the public record and has adopted all together different public policies from the promises he once made as a candidate. In fact this is evidently a mark of courage according to the Trib.

“The turnabout was courageous, to say the least. He set aside his personal feelings for the good of the community and with the best interest of constituents in mind.”

No doubt when Tuesday roles around and he votes to violate another promise not to invoke eminent domain this will be yet another sign of Tim Grover’s courage. The Trib then quotes, invokes really, Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson by tell us that public comment is “…a privilege, not a right.” Thankfully the Trib goes on to elaborate saying “…it is the right thing to do.” There is, however, a caveat “members of the public…should ….remain civil….”

Ah but because of Tim Grover and other Board member’s sensitivity Mr. Martell probably crossed that line by making “trouble and to incite negative publicity?” Funny but that seems to me to be the crux of this. Duluth should be ecstatic about our new schools and the generous school board is sick and tired of carping from the sidelines. How uncivil. And by inciting negative publicity Board Member says with the Trib’s apparent agreement that she’s frightened by the soft spoken yet tenacious Mr. Martell. He has “pushed the Board to the point of alarm, prompting the need for police at School Board meetings” Why the district is even keeping track of his public comments on DVD. Why? For future use in a harassment suit maybe? Ms. Seliga Punyko would probably prefer to be a public official in China where critics of things like mass removal can be quietly put in prison.

Punyko is quoted in the editorial as saying “For teh last 10 months, ever meeting, he has grown more and more agitated. Every meeting he has gotten worse and worse, so much so that we feel threatened.”

Oh let’s role out those DVDs and see why if Mr. Martell has gotten “worse and worse” the Tribune’s editorial began by expressing surprise that Mr. Martell was carted away in cuffs when they wrote: “…the summoning of a police officer to remove Martell was a bit of an eye-popper…” My guess is that if Martell had been worse and worse as described no one’s eyes would have popped.

After this milchtoast criticism of the Board majority’s heavy-handedness the Trib quotes its former Editor, Virgil Swing, not a fan of censorship, and then concludes mildly “Everyone’s opinion is important. A diversity of views often leads to the best solutions. But all views have to be allowed to be heard first.”

Of course, if the views belong to a guy whose stubbornness leads to eye rolling, maybe its not that big a deal if you cuff him. Yeah for the first amendment!

To Censure or not to Censure

An interesting email circulating among School Board members:

Requested Meeting
william c. hanson
This message was sent with High importance.
Sent: Friday, October 22, 2010 10:37 AM
School Board
kathleen a. kaufman
We received a request to schedule a Special Meeting and are reviewing it with our attorneys.
The meeting is not on the schedule for next week. As you know, it is our normal practice when scheduling a special board meeting to poll board members regarding availability. In addition, it is also generally our practice to group board meetings together, for example scheduling a special board meeting on the same night we have a regular committee meeting or a regular school board meeting.

Bill Hanson
CFO/Executive Director of Business Services
ISD 709 – Duluth Public Schools
215 North 1st Ave East
Duluth, MN 55802


October 21, 2010

Independent School District 709
215 N 1st Av. E.
Duluth, MN 55802

The following School Board members request a Special Meeting of the ISD 709 school board on Tuesday October 26 at 6:30 at the regular board meeting room at HOCHS.

The agenda of this meeting will be to censure the presiding Chairperson due to misconduct and dereliction of duty at the October 19, 2010 regular board meeting.

This is under the authority of School Board By-Laws 9070 and 9070.

Art Johnston, 4th District Member

Gary Glass, Member at Large

Tom Kasper, Member at Large

Other Red Ink

In other local school news it appears there has been a 20% (19.5% actually) jump in health care costs for teachers. DFT President Frank Wanner has trotted out the old tried and true “We gave up lots” for this goodie trope. Frank must spend a lot of time listening to former Duluth Police Captain Eli Miletich who is still fuming about the Court’s overruling past insurance giveaways to retired City employees.

What makes this figure stand out is that it happened during an incredible shrinkage of our teaching staff. Since 2007 there has been a seven percent reduction in our teaching staff from 1317 teachers to 1,136 today. Despite so many fewer teacher to insure the insurance costs increased 20%. Simply amazing!

Tim Grover explains that having been involved in previous year’s negotiations he prefers the current system because the process of remaining ignorant of the negotiations is so much less nasty than being a participant. If wearing blinders is an advantage for elected official perhaps we should open elections to cart horses.

I suspect that the insurance giveaways that have caused more teachers to be laid off were offered to keep the silence of senior teachers over the subject of the Red Plan and its continued downward spiral.

The justification, the first of many, to implement the Red Plan was because our schools were said to have too much unused space. With the rapid loss of students its entirely possible that a new Dr. Dixon could make the same argument once the Red Plan is completed. The cost of health care and the willful ignorance of the School Board over teacher benefits will hasten this process.

1.3 + 1.7 = ?, 6.5 + 6.5 = ?

School Board member Ann Wasson does her math a little differently than Art Johnston.

If you get a 1% increase in pay next year and a 2% increase the year after that second year will be a 3% increase over the year before the contract was negotiated. Same for the Health Insurance increase. (6.5 + 6.5 = 13)

You would have to look very hard through Duluth (or anywhere in the US for that matter) to find any workers getting an annual 6.5% increase in health care costs. As I said before such an increase will only lead to layoffs. Board member Wasson has probably paid little attention to the drama in the City of Duluth over the cost of health care. If she had she might realize that what she has given away will only lead to travail. That she gave so much away a year before negotiations had to begin was indeed improvident.

Not only is the Red Plan bonding set to come due but the current Board has a one time gift from the Federal Government of $2 million which will not likely be renewed with the prevailing Tea Partying climate.

Good luck getting a new excess levy passed

Its not only the Red Plan that has cost teacher’s jobs. Its the new teacher contract.

On July 20, the board passed a $63 million teacher-labor contract. Teachers were given 3.1 percent pay raises and 13 percent medical benefit increases. They now have 100 percent of their health premiums paid with zero deductible. Most of their dental is paid, too.

This compares to a 0 percent increase for city workers the past three years and high co-pays.

Despite the District’s cry of insolvency the District managed to conclude a new contract without the help of the School Board that was a lot more generous than the City has been in contracts with City employees.

Voters are likely to remember this the next time the District cries poverty and asks for more local property tax increases.

Our Schools aren’t failing

This is the contention of yesterday’s Trib editorial which tried to give context to the unhappy results of the MCA test results for Duluth’s school children.

No, our schools aren’t failing or lousy, no matter what might be suggested by Adequate Yearly Progress reports. But improvements obviously are needed. An entire community can come together – and can work together – to help all students succeed

As I told a person who emailed me about this the Trib, having backed the Red Plan, now owns the school district’s test results. Those results will forever (twenty years anyway) be linked to the Red Plan’s mortar.

So far the results aren’t encouraging: “Duluth schools fail state standards for yearly progress.”

If this is true all hell should break loose

Over the past four years I’ve read three things about our schools that were shocking.

The third most shocking thing was the jaw dropping cost of the Red Plan at $293 million which including interest will be almost a half a billion dollars.

The second most shocking thing I read just before the cost of the Red Plan was announced was that the School Board could implement the plan without a vote. I was so shocked I made a call to my old buddy Tim Grover to ask him how the District could justify this. Tim’s response…….sort of ……Well the lawyers say we can.

The most shocking thing I’ve ever read about our district was stuck in as a little sidelight in today’s story about the unhappy parents of the District’s Native American students. The story says that they have a dismal 20 percent graduation rate which sure seems low by previous estimates to me. But this isn’t the shocking fact I was referring to.

The story mentions that we have about 450 native students which considering that godawful rate of graduation rate has a significant gravitational pull on the whole grad rate. But this isn’t the shocking fact I was referring to.

The story mentions that our student enrollment is about 8,500 students which, I suspect, is far below any projections of enrollment for our District that any credible source has ever anticipated. But even this isn’t the shocking fact I was referring to.

I can’t even believe the shocking fact. Its so shocking that I suspect it is a misprint. It is this – and someone should do a fact check immediately. According to the story Duluth has a graduation rate of 65 percent! That’s down near the rate for the state of Mississippi. That is unbelievable.

The story reports:

The district has 8,651 students, and 453 of them are American Indian. The 2008 graduation rate for American Indian students was 20.8 percent, compared to an overall graduating rate of 65.8 percent.

I know of no good explanation for this other than the possibility that Jana Hollingsworth, the story’s reporter, inadvertantly cut 20 % of the actual District graduation rate which is listed as 85% on the District’s web page for good news.

From “Katie’s Page… “We are proud”:

“Graduation Rate for Central, Denfeld, and East 93.05% (including alternative sites 85.44%”

Frankly a graduation rate of 85.44% is nothing to write home about. A decade ago the state of Minnesota boasted a 90% graduation rate. Educators like economists fiddle with definitions all the time so its hard to know what compares with what in previous statistics.

A rate of 85 percent could be grounds for firing the Superintendent. A rate of 65 percent, should it prove to be true, is grounds for riding him out in tar and feathers on one of the I beams from one of his many new temples of education.

Eunuchs on the School Board

Today’s reasonable sounding story in the Trib about changes to the Red Plan costing eleven million dollars, which (as the paper noted) won’t change its overall cost, reminded me once again what eunuchs the current school board is.

The changes themselves aren’t surprising but are indicitive of overly optimistic Red Plan cost projections which haven’t been born out as the Red Plan gets more expensive.

There will likely be no new transportation building. The STC will be sold (to save classroom time by ending bussing to it) and the OLD CAB will not get some fix ups. All of these are sort of routine except for the revelation that the Administration had never run them past the School Board. Nope, the majority of the Board is happy as clams staying out of the conversation between the Administration the Community and the State’s Educatioin Department.

Why, it makes one wonder why we even have a school board. Its just a little excessive democracy.

My poor baaack!

After building particularly big snow sculptures I’ll have a very sore back. Twelve hours of sitting on my tush, half of this in too comfy sofas, entering data in my Let Duluth Vote Data base my back is once again pretty sore. Getting this filled out has been of higher priority than blog posts and I have a few more hours to go today before I spend much time here. Every major street in Duluth has a dozen contributors or more. Many streets of just a block or two have one or two. These are the folks who sent in thanks you’s back when it seemed just a matter of time before the Dixon School Board would acknowledge public anger at the theft of their vote.

I was up till three this morning so I was a little slow getting up. No Trib on my doorstep. I put in a call as I did a month ago under the same circumstances to the circulation department. That time it never showed up. They assured me it would come this time.

Maybe someone purloins the trib when stuff shows up in it that I’d be interested in. For instance I got an FYI email sent out with the story on next week’s school board meeting. That’s when bids on the Wheeler Middle School get voted on. Like every other hell bent to leather aspect of Dr. Dixon’s work it seems planned to hurry up and defeat any compromise – like one that could save $50 million and simply use Central High as a middle school.

There may be a good reason for Dixon to hurry. For months a rumor has swirled around that Dixon is planning on announcing his departure soon. If this is true he’d want unbreakable contracts in place to guarantee Duluth couldn’t escape from his breathtaking foot (stomp) print. The rumors began circulating more fiercely when Sarah Horner the old trib reporter covering education got the axe. The rumor was that she had just heard the story of Dixon’s plan to return to Faribault for a new job and when she caught Dixon being less than honest about his plans she began writing more critical pieces. The story I recall asked whether killing the magnet school program and using its million desegregation dollars to help make up operational shortfalls was worth it.

I’ve checked with a couple Trib people and they all assured me that Sarah’s hasty departure to parts unknown below the equator had nothing to do with Dixon pulling strings.

Anyway, today’s story online has a an up beat little log to help Duluthians forget that they were stripped of their voting rights to build Dixon’s folly. Its cute:

I see that Tim Grover mentions that he grew up in the neighborhood and that he hasn’t heard complaints from locals about the new school. Well of course he hasn’t.

Having gotten my letters informing me of a Thursday screening by Duluth labor for its endorsements in the August DFL Senate primary I found the concluding sentence of the story timely:

The board also will approve layoffs of tenured teachers and eliminate positions next week, although the total number of each was unavailable at Monday night’s meeting


Days gone by

A friend sent me this news story from 2003. I stole her subject heading. I can’t post in colors as she did some of the passages from this article so I capitalized them. In light of what happened here post Dixon they are very interesting.

07-28-2003 – Almanza proposes closing two high schools: Denfeld and East
Tom West
Budgeteer News

Duluth Superintendent of Schools Julio Almanza proposed Tuesday closing two of the city’s three high schools. However, except for one incumbent, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the proposal among the candidates running for school board.

Most of the candidates said they would like to see two high schools maintained and one closed.

Almanza proposed after months of study and input that Denfeld High School and Grant and Chester Park elementary schools be closed next summer, and that East High School be closed no later than 2009-10.

The closings have been necessitated by declining enrollment. Almanza proposed the high school closings in order to keep more elementary schools open and to maintain the 6-8 middle school grade configuration.


Stuff in the Trib today

Rather than separate posts I’ll just make quick comments on several of the stories in today’s Trib.

I made the front page headlines and Roger Reinert only made the back pages. My name was singled out along with four other semi-controversial names as candidates who have filed. The others were Tim Little a city councilor who lost a pissing contest with the Trib, Jay Cole a wheeler dealer with no cards and Carinda Horton who the Chamber probably got fired from her KDAL talk show program when she got too vocal in criticizing the Red Plan on air. (Carinda’s husband, Tim, likes to get into public rows too outside the boxing ring where he is better equipped to throw punches)

The message I get from this is that those of us not properly anointed as serious by the Trib will have a little bigger credibility hill to climb. Trib reporter, John Myers mentioned (quite rightly) the fact that I’ve run for office many times before. Ah, but then there’s the counter balancing effect of experience.

Roger was sort of mentioned on the front page. At the top of the front page there was a little graphic of a train with little boxcars filled with passengers. One lonely little boxcar, however, stood empty. You have to go to page A9 to discover that it should have been occupied by Roger Reinert.

Roger has only lost one race for public office. I’ve lost quite a few more than that. (I hope you don’t mind my being coy and not announcing the number) On the other hand I think we have both won two elections. That evens things up a bit. I’ll take today’s paper as giving me a slight edge in day two of our contest.

The County Board approved a half million sale of tax forfeit land to the School District to build the new Wheeler Middle School. Some voices are calling for the District to save the $45 million on the school and simply keep New Central as the middle school.

This reminds me of something a Faribault Chamber official told me in defense of Dixon’s days in that city. Continue reading

The Trenti Law firm?

I understand that the Trenti law firm from the Iron Range represented the District in the scapegoat case. Why not a Duluth firm? What happened to Beth Storaasli who has represented the District for ages in such cases and her firm which is on retainer for the School District?

Maybe the District only wants a firm with a classy web presence.

Maybe no attorney in Duluth wants to represent the District any more.

Maybe this case required a ten-foot pole.

Irony alert

This post will contain some irony. Some folks hate irony some hate puns. Both are examples (often) of humor at either end of a spectrum. Irony tends to reside on the sophisticated end although not always. Puns tend to dawdle at the unsophisticated end of the spectrum although, again, not always.

So I’ve been thinking about Eric Ringsred’s travails with the Norshor Theater a magnificiant and historic building that he has heroically and desparately attempted to save without bankrupting himself. One means of keeping the grand old lady afloat has been to tart it up a bit by setting up a “Gentlemen’s Club” on the premises. Let’s not be coy. That’s a strip club. Tongues have wagged. According to Eric, the City of Duluth hounded Mr. Gradisher, the club’s owner, beyond reason and the Trib piled on in an excess of righteous zeal. Then the Trib got to spill more ink on Mr. Gradisher as he began to unravel until an obituary wrung the last bit of ink from possible from the tawdry tale. Perhaps, I should congratulate the Trib for following at least one story to its logical conclusion.

In this day and age of voluntary sex video submissions to the Internet the idea of a strip club is a little quaint. Sure, you might be able to see a pretty girl naked up close and let your imagination wander but you can slake the thirst for skin and then some on porntube. This is a day and age of breathtaking exhibitionism. Yes, on the Internet you can see people stripped of their cloths doing what comes naturally – having sex with a third party filming it with close ups ad naseum. Then again, perhaps there is something to be said about retaining one’s imagination.

As far as I’m concerned this ain’t nothin. What astounds me are all the people who are so hungry for their fifteen minutes of …… notariaty…… that they will reveal far uglier and degrading things about their lives on Judge Judy, Maury Povitch, and Montel.

But the Trib really got into a lather over Eric’s Strip Club which has had me thinking. The aforementioned Gentleman’s club that has been the target of so much disapprobation is not the only one in Duluth.

In the hub of our tourist district Canal Park lies the Club Saratoga a strip joint of some reknown. Long before I moved to Duluth almost forty years ago my aunt and uncle paid it a few calls back in the 1960’s when they lived in the Twin Cities. Back then it was tres chic to go to strip clubs. This was the era of the bump and grind, Sweet Charity and the movie version of Gypsy Rose Lee’s life which I saw with my parents as a grade school kid.

A few years ago the Club Saratoga, which I don’t think I’ve ever patronized, was the subject of a sunny story in the Trib despite the fact that it still apparently offers the old bump and grind. In addition to the late night flesh peddling it also showcases some really great local jazz on weekend afternoons. The Trib’s story mentioned a number of older church women, including the mother of a local judge, who regularly attend the Saratoga’s jazz sessions. Several belong to my church as does Eric Ringsred.

So, there you have it. One strip club gets kid glove treatment by the Trib while another is tormented to the point that its owner/manager commits suicide. There is so much irony in this that its waaaay beyond the “go figure” response it seems to demand.

All I’m sayin is: What’s up with that?