The snowy school board meeting last Tuesday

I’ll be working on this after playing with my grandsons and packing for a school break trip. We’re going someplace warm.

Now it’s good enough:

Retired Chair Mike Miernicki has sent out what appears to be an apology for his deportment at our Tuesday meeting. It was a long meeting.

It began with the regularly scheduled Education Committee which could easily have taken a couple hours by itself. However, Chair Seliga-Punyko evidently decided this was just the time to hold a Committee of the Whole to discuss next year’s budget. That might have been a safe move before I joined Art on the School Board but, like Art, I too ask lots of budget questions and our District has lots of financial problems that need explaining.

The Education meeting took closer to two hours. We had three long power point presentations in a row. Actually, even at two hours our Education meetings are much shorter than they were in the old days when I first served on the School Board. The Dixon Administration may have gotten our administrators used to keeping Board members blissfully unaware.

I had told Claudia, who was cooking a lamb stew, that I thought I would be home by seven. She skeptically suggested it would be nine o’clock. Split the difference and you will see why I had to reheat my stew when I got home.

Snow had begun falling by the time I was pulling up to Old Central. A predicted three-inch snowfall was now projected to become a six-inch dump. As the Budget meeting got later into the night Mike and Judy began to fuss that our meeting was too long especially when Art asked questions. They warned that we would face difficult driving conditions if we didn’t get moving. Mike had another reason to be anxious.

Readers of the Trib must have seen the supportive story about Bill Westholm last weekend. I explained his quarter century long battle with multiple sclerosis. It’s been getting tougher. After our January School Board meeting Art and I found Mike standing over Bill on Old Central’s first floor. Bill’s legs had given way. We helped find a chair with wheels and pushed the good natured Westholm to a side door where Mike pulled up his car to get Bill inside. Mike sent us both a thank you email for helping him a while back. That was a surreal considering what Bill and Mike have planned for Art.

So, as the snow raged and time ground on Mike began pulling long faces with every question Art and I asked about District finances. He exhaled audibly several times and put his hands to his head as he is often pictured doing in News Tribune photos. Finally, having endured enough Mike complained that he had worked all day and hadn’t eaten anything since a bowl of cereal that morning. He mentioned the snowy driving and I’m sure he had Bill in mind since he would be driving his good friend home. That would have delayed his supper even longer.

I come prepared to ask questions and plan on spending as much time as it takes to satisfy myself that I have done the public’s duty. The brief meetings of the Dixon Era were not my style and our finances are critical. I had a lot of questions for Mr. Hanson. At last year’s first budget meeting I discovered that our spread sheets showed us being in Statutory Operating Debt. I still suspect that was true and that only some technical feints spared us having to wear that label.

The message of the meeting was that things were good. The Central Sale allowed us to put most of that money in our Budget Reserve and I learned that only about a million and a half of it would be spent immediately. Of course, at that rate it will be gone long before the Red Plan is paid off. But the era of drawing operational money away, something like twenty-six million so far, and using it to pay off Red Plan debt is over now.

This good news is not, however, Nirvana. We will not be adding significantly to our teaching corps and we still have very big classes. It was obvious to me if not to others that there would be no surplus available for a seven-period day which would require over $800,000 of additional spending each school year. We were being held in the status quo’s state of suspension.

At some point in the meeting I mentioned the Edison push to build a high school and pointed out that losing another 600 students over four years would be very tough on ISD 709. Each secondary student we lost would be a loss of about $7,000 from the state.

I told the Board that building the high school would put Edison in a tight financial situation and at some risk. I said I hoped we would consider meeting with Edison to see if we could establish a more amicable relationship with them and perhaps dissuade them from pulling so many more students out of our system.

I then suggested that we could pitch this idea at the Quality Steering Committee which Rosie Loeffler-Kemp has been reappointed to. Its composed of teachers and administrators and is tasked to think through such problems. I even said that I’d like to attend the meeting myself.

No, I couldn’t attend the meeting, Chair Seliga-Punyko told me. Rosie was her appointee so I couldn’t go. I didn’t argue but Judy had no right to prevent me from attending.

On the Board I served on long before this one, any Board member could attend any meeting whether appointed by the Chair or not. Thanks to Dixon the times have changed. It didn’t even matter that these were all pretty much public meetings. I saved my complaints for the blog. And if anyone wants to tell on me to the majority they can report I have no interest in attending until the Dixon Era is finally put to rest.

Next Superintendent Gronseth set me straight explaining that only 40% of Edison’s ninth graders went on to ISD 709 schools. Sixty percent he claimed went to Marshall or the Harbor City International High school downtown. That came as a surprise to me and suggested that it would be Marshall that had the most to lose if Edison built a high school. I’d like to see the Superintendent’s research on this.

Art Johnston defended my concern. He said that 40 percent of 600 was still 250 kids. At $7,000 a head that’s quite a chunk of change even if it’s not all 600 students. But no one was interested in following up. Both Mike and Judy were eager to end the meeting. Mike complained about his appetite and the weather and Judy kept interrupting Art Johnston to speed up the meeting. I imagine she’s especially testy because she expected Art to have been removed in January and there is no sign that the magic hearing is anywhere close to dislodging her nemesis.

I’m still puzzling over the Superintendent’s dismissive attitude. I’m also puzzling over the numbers he gave me. Marshall has just under 500 students. Edison has 150 kids per grade. It’s hard to believe that half of Edison’s students move on to an expensive private school.

Even if this is true we have problems. Bill Hanson explained that so far this year we’ve lost 187 students since the beginning of the year. Bill is convinced that these kids have left town. Once again I’d like to see the research.

I mentioned earlier that Jana Hollingsworth was at the Edison meeting that night and missed our very pregnant meeting. As a result, Jana had to interview Bill Hanson the next day without having to endure our questions like the school board did. Her story about our finances sounded almost cheerful. I’m sure Bill was delighted not to have rain on your parade school board members around as he passed along the good financial news to the Tribune.

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