Mike Miernicki and I go back a long way to my brief time as a substitute teacher in the early 1980’s, so I take little pleasure in needling his work as chair of the School Board. I remember Mike fondly as Duluth East’s Activities Director and some friendly chats about what my School Board did in my first incarnation as a school board member. It was an Era of tremendous distrust between teachers and the Board whipped up by the leaders of the DFT. The creation of the Edison charter was a last straw. Mike took the union’s side and though he never rebuked me for Edison’s coming he did let me know that it was one of the things I’d done that he took exception to.
Year’s before in my own forays into teacher’s lounges I had come to realize just how mysterious the School Board’s workings seemed to teachers. Were Superintendents Svengali’s? Did school board members have a clue? Why did they have it out for teachers? These seemed to be the dominant views. I got elected a few years before the Internet and I had always had a yen to explain what elected bodies did up close to take away that mystery. Once I set up my own Website I had a chance to make these mysteries less mysterious. Of course, I was the writer. I had my own agenda and my descriptions of events did not always accord with all other Board members. Some balked at my revealing the sausage making aspect of politics. Superintendent Almanza asked me, for some of my fellow board members, to please desist from writing in my webpage about School Board activities but to no avail. Even now two Board members have told me they would prefer that I stop blogging.
I think the word that describes what teachers think of the School Board is “Machiavellian.” In the biggest blow up concerning Mike Miernicki, in my last year on the old Board, we hashed over what to do with the East Hockey coach. (BTW, in my estimation the result inadvertently led to the Red Plan.) Mike, was a blade of grass in that titanic struggle between elephants. He just wanted to avoid being trampled. It makes me wonder to what extent he took his sense of the power of rampant School Board members to heart once he joined the herd. As the Chair he has felt free to protect his majority from the depredations of Art Johnston and me. I know he thinks he’s looking out for the interests of the District but Art and I got elected last year with the full knowledge and understanding of the people who voted. I think its only fair to say a lot of people, perhaps a majority, want our Red Plan skepticism to be given voice. Our voters would not appreciate Mike’s Miernikivellian attempts to hush us let alone threaten to remove Art with a fishy set of allegations.
Just how far Mike has been willing to step on the rights of the minority became even clearer at our last school board meeting. It’s not enough to count on five to two votes to defeat our motions, we must be denied the opportunity to place issues of concern to us on the agenda. For those who do not have the stomach to watch the three dreary hours of the September Board meeting on Youtube Loren Martell has provided a fine synopsis in the Duluth Reader. He’s patiently transcribed some of the minority’s plaints on agenda setting in his column. Here’s a rather long excerpt:
…Member Welty played matador, by trying to call a point of order: “We had a long discussion about the agenda–”
Chair Miernicki cut him short: “Mr. Welty, I called the question, so the point of order would have to be about calling the question.”
Member Welty countered: “No, the question I have is: how does one go about placing items on the agenda? We were limited from doing this at the last meeting, and I would like to know under what parliamentary rule or under what bylaw the Chairman takes upon himself the sole authority to determine the agenda?”
Mr. Miernicki dismissed the question with a crisp, “Thank you,” then announced: “All in favor of calling the question signify by saying Aye.” The Chair won the vote, 5-2, then tried again to go to a vote on approving the agenda.
Member Johnston has lately taken to sending the Chair audible signals, due to frequent faulty communication through the sense of sight. His light flashing, he rapped on the dais with his knuckles and was finally recognized. He objected to the Chair calling a vote without discussion: “We have to have some discussion on it.”
“Well, no–” The Chair argued, “when I call the question we go right to the motion.”
“You are the Chairperson. You can’t call the question without letting anybody speak. That’s a violation of the rules. You called the question without allowing anybody to even have an opportunity to speak, and that is an improper procedure.”
“No, it’s not.” The Chair disagreed.
“Yes, it is.”
“Ok, all right, go ahead.”
“I appeal the decision of the Chair.”
“Thank you,” The Chair replied genially, as though he’d been complimented. He completely ignored the appeal and recognized member Welty.
“I guess I would ask what an appeal of the Chair leads to–a vote?” Mr. Welty asked. “An appeal of the Chair, I expect that requires a vote.”
“It also requires a discussion.” Member Johnston added.
“All right,” the Chair conceded, “a discussion.”
By now, certainly not likely to be a pleasant one. Mr. Johnston was less than pleased with the Chair’s performance of his duties, which he referred to as a “normal, draconian effort by the Chair” to repress debate.
Johnston elaborated on his point by quoting an expert in parliamentary procedure: “The role of the Chair is not to ramrod the meeting to as quick an end as possible. The Chair should be the Board’s SERVANT; that word is capitalized. The Chair ensures everyone has equal access to all information, all members have equal rights, and the minority has a full opportunity to speak.”
What a lovely departure from reality! Of course, if they were actually treated this way, the minority members would likely just get spoiled. They’d probably start demanding vases of flowers on the dais. They’d probably make their manservant, Chair Miernicki, get all gussied up like that cranky head butler on Downton Abbey.
As it was, member Welty addressed his SERVANT with an audacious tone, repeating a question he’d asked earlier: “Under what authority does the Chair act in such a way to deny the minority (its right) to get an item on the agenda?”
I’ll readily concede that I have resigned myself to being a pain in the neck since I have been left little recourse on the Board to be anything other than that. I can’t apologize in the face of what I regard as highhanded treatment. In private moments I have somewhat more crass ways of describing our treatment.
At the end of the last meeting, Paul Manning, the East High school student who sits by me representing students leaned over and asked why we couldn’t have just talked about our concerns at the end of the meeting under the wagging tail called Comments and Questions. I smiled and congratulated him on being smarter than the majority members who had failed to trot out that excuse for hushing Art and I up from the beginning.
Of course, consigning our questions to the end of the meeting when everyone is hell bent to get home fails to address the minority’s right to place items on the agenda and speak about them during the proper course of the meeting. Still, it would have given the surprisingly autocratic Chair Meirnicki a somewhat more graceful and face saving rationale for shutting us up. It would also have helped him avoid revealing, yet again, his spectacular shortcomings in the parliamentary role he has yet to master.