Necroscopy of a meeting, Part 2

John Lundy filled in for Jana Hollingsworth to cover our school board meeting. I hope the Trib will forgive me this once for putting the entire copyrighted story here. I’ve been a generous contributor to the Trib’s ink over the years:

Duluth School Board again rejects negotiating with charter over Central
By John Lundy on May 2, 2016 at 11:18 p.m.

Second verse, same as the first.

After 2½ hours of impassioned pleas from audience members and sometimes testy exchanges among board members during a special meeting, the Duluth School Board on Monday finished at the same place they had five weeks earlier. They voted by a 4-3 margin not to suspend district policies and negotiate for the possible sale of the former Central High School property.

At issue was a $14.2 million offer from Tischer Creek Building Co., the nonprofit that serves building interests for Duluth Public Schools Academy, which would place an Edison charter high school on the site. Current school district policies prohibit selling a school to another K-12 entity.

Board members Harry Welty, Art Johnston and Alanna Oswald, who voted on March 30 to suspend that policy, had called to revisit it, saying that the original decision had been rushed and they had new information to present.

Their argument lost some force when Welty announced he would vote not to move to a closed session as provided for in the agenda. He and Johnston explained that a couple of experts who were going to provide real estate information regarding the sale had withdrawn their offer at the last moment.

That left some of the majority members complaining they’d been told nothing new.

“I don’t think any really new information was given,” board member David Kirby said. “All of the arguments were the same.”

Johnston disagreed, citing as new information his finding that the Central site’s land had been valued at $8 million in 2006, and the land plus existing buildings at $13.7 million.

“This information was not supplied to us a month ago,” Johnston said, also saying the public had weighed in for the sale.

“I’ve never seen such an outcry of letters to the editor and emails to us since the Red Plan days,” he said.

The meeting got off to a rocky start as the two board factions spent 25 minutes wrangling over which version of the agenda to follow, Welty suggesting that board President Annie Harala had offered an alternative agenda in “bad faith” and Johnston accusing Harala of being on a “power trip.”

Peace was restored when Harala agreed to the Welty-Johnston-Oswald agenda and they agreed to remove an agenda item requiring a presentation on the Central High School site from Superintendent Bill Gronseth.

That settled, about an hour was devoted to some 20 community members urging the majority to change their minds or, alternatively, to stick to their decision.

Most of the speakers were in the sell-Central-now camp. Several noted that the district is facing a $3 million deficit and that high school students are facing the loss of the “zero hour” that provides students with an seventh period before the regular school day.

“I think you have a very simple way to balance your budget right now, and that is to sell Central School,” said Lisa Graham, a parent of two East High School students. “You are affecting kids greatly, and it’s happening with the next school year.”

Others expressed concern that if the Edison school is built on the land adjacent to its North Star Academy, it would come at the expense of the Snowflake Nordic ski area that’s used by the Duluth East cross-country ski team.

But that objection shouldn’t be presented to the Duluth School Board, community member Zandra Zwiebel said.

“Snowflake is the problem of the Edison board,” she said.

Zwiebel also complained that, unlike the Duluth School Board, the charter school’s board isn’t elected by the voters of the city, and the city’s voters weren’t allowed to vote on its high school plans.

“I’m not in support of this sale, and frankly I’m not in support of a third school,” Zwiebel said.

Board member Nora Sandstad agreed, suggesting that if people want to express concerns about Snowflake, they should attend the Duluth Public Schools Academy’s May 17 board meeting.

“Do we need a third large public high school? We do not,” Sandstad added. “Feel free to send that message to the Duluth Public Schools Academy.”

From the early phases of the meeting, Welty, Johnston and Oswald seemed resigned to the fact that the outcome wasn’t going to change.

Oswald told the other board members that selling to a charter school isn’t a novel concept and that in some states charter schools are even given the first option to purchase a vacant school building. The board had a fiduciary responsibility to sell Central, she said, but then added: “I’m ready to move on and figure out how to make up for our $3 million deficit.”

The meeting ended with Oswald, Welty and Johnston voting to negotiate with Tischer Creek, and members Harala, Sandstad, Kirby and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp voting against the measure.

About the author