A failed teacher may take on a teacher of Principals

David Kirby announced recently that he will run for the School Board again to represent the 2nd School Board District. I once represented the 2nd District. I’d like to do it again especially because the next School Board will be choosing a new School Superintendent. David once told me that before he became a doctor he taught school principals how to be principals.
I rediscovered the story below today and thought it would offer an interesting contrast between us. But first:

I have always gotten along well with the reporters who covered the Duluth School Board. So, I was surprised last year when one of them, Tom Wilkowske, wrote something dismissive of me on Facebook related to my candidacy for the Duluth School Board. I suspect he found my handing him a letter that I sent Frank Wanner, the teacher’s union President, a tad inflammatory. It was. At the time the School Board was locked in a war with the Union which was hell bent on to forcing a teacher’s strike. My letter ended up being a banner headline in the Trib the next day. ( (Here’s more on the Union President’s long history of ridiculing the School Board.)

Or maybe Tom was troubled by my nationally publicized use of a voodoo doll to make a grand exit from my school board chairmanship. It could be many other things that soured Tom on me. My support of Edison – my dispute over the Red Plan – my defense of an ornery fellow school board member, Art Johnston. Maybe it was this.

I am coming closer to breaking my wife’s heart by filing yet again for the School Board this Fall. To prepare the voting public I’m sharing the story Mr. Wilkowske wrote about me after I was elected Chair of the Duluth School Board:


Duluth News Tribune (MN) (Published as Duluth News-Tribune (MN)) – January 25, 1998
· Author/Byline: Tom Wilkowske/News-Tribune staff writer
If failing as a junior high school teacher 10 years ago is among Harry Welty’s greatest disappointments, being elected Duluth SchoolBoard chairman this month may be among his sweetest victories.

It’s only the second political win in his otherwise unblemished record of losses as the classic “outsider” — some would say “crackpot” — candidate for local, state and even national political office.

From the early 1970s, when he lost a one-man race to lead Minnesota’s College Republicans, to 1995, when he was elected to the School Board, Welty has been a man fascinated by but largely unsuccessful in politics.

Personally, Welty says serving as board chairman is a chance to redeem himself for his failings as a teacher and his deep-felt desire to inspire a love for learning in children.

Politically — depending on how he leads the board in the next year — it’s a chance for Welty to prove he’s a man of substance, as well as a free thinker who sculpts wacky snow forms in his front yard and sometimes dons costumes and adopts personas while campaigning.

Welty, for one, thinks he’s up to the challenge.

“I think I can set a tone,” he said during an interview at his Duluth home at 21st Avenue East and Fourth Street, the site of his many eye-catching snow sculptures over the years. Partly because of the weather and partly because of Welty’s new board duties, his front yard contains only lifeless, unshaped snow this winter.

“We have a potentially fractious School Board. I know some people are expecting all hell to break loose,” he said. “I have no doubt we are going to have a very successful School Board this year.”

On the heels of a bitter election last November, Welty chairs a board split 5-4 on one of Duluth’s most contentious issues in recent years: the Edison Project.

Welty is among a slim majority of board members who favor giving the for-profit company a chance to prove that its unique school design can produce better results for Duluth students. But he orchestrated his election to board chairman by appealing to four newly elected board members who wish Edison had never come to town.

Eileen Zeitz Hudelson, one of the newcomers, said she has high hopes for Welty.

“I voted for him because he seemed to think he could bring the two sides together,” she said. “The two sides became polarized during the election, more so than I imagined.”

As teacher, took an `F’

Welty considers it a strength to have been in many Duluth schools over the years and to have known so many teachers and principals — as a parent, volunteer and even employee.

“When I got into college I wanted a political career, but then I discovered I needed a job,” he said.

So for the first 10 years of his adult life, Welty tried to be a good junior high social studies teacher. He says he’s not sure why he was let go from three Northland school districts — first in Proctor, then in Superior and, in 1987, Duluth.

“I’ve been thinking about that for the past 20 years,” Welty said. “I’m thinking of writing a book. I’d call it `The Worst Teacher in the World.’ ”

He certainly has enthusiasm for the subject matter, based on the books on history, government and politics that line his study.

Perhaps he didn’t succeed as a teacher because of the administrative burden and the mechanics of managing the daily academic progress of 120 or more students, he said. “I’m a free spirit in a lot of things. Organization is not one of my strengths.”

Failure as a classroom teacher doesn’t mean he’s unqualified to lead the School Board, Welty said. It may give him a unique perspective on how both difficult and important teaching is.

When Welty began teaching junior high, he was surprised by how many students simply didn’t do reading assignments. Favoring essay tests over multiple choice exams, he also was surprised to see how many students couldn’t write. “Reading and writing is critical in the early ages. You really have to bird-dog them to make sure they get it done,” he said.

As a stay-at-home parent for the past 10 years, he’s had a luxury not enjoyed by most other board members: the flexibility and freedom to volunteer in classes and visit with school staff.

`We will do our best . . .’

Several teachers contacted by the Duluth News-Tribune spoke hopefully, but guardedly, about Welty’s prospects for leadership.

“We have an obligation to work with whomever the School Board chooses as chair. We will do our best to work with Harry,” said Frank Wanner, president of the 1,000-member Duluth Federation of Teachers. “We will do our best to extend all the courtesy and consideration that he extends to us.”

Wanner said he hopes the union’s relationship with the board goes beyond Welty. “We hope to establish a good working relationship with the entire School Board,” he said.

The union has sued the board several times in the past year over Edison, political fliers in schools, and other issues of controversy.

Anne Krafthefer, a teacher at Lincoln Park Elementary School, said Welty volunteered as a reader in her classroom in the past school year.

“Harry’s very positive and cheerful,” she said. “He likes to encourage creative thinking.” He seemed to have a knack for asking questions that made students dig deep and think hard about the book being read, she said.

But aside from Welty’s classroom work, Krafthefer declined to comment about how Welty might lead the board in the coming year.

Bruce Holm, a social studies teacher at Morgan Park Middle School, said Welty volunteered as a chaperone on one of Holm’s field trips to Thunder Bay, Ontario, last spring.

“There’s a lot of good-natured bantering with him,” he said. “I feel like I can rib him about items and still talk seriously with him. He’s willing to listen and give his responses and that’s wonderful.”

On the Edison Project, a sore spot for many Duluth teachers, Holm said Welty seems to take a more neutral position than otherboard members.

“I’ve seen and heard more out of Harry than the idea that Edison is the savior of Duluth public schools,” Holm said. “He’s not one to judge it without seeing it prove itself.”

Has taken tough positions

While Welty often sided with the majority under the old board, he has staked out a few positions by himself.

Welty clashed with colleagues last year over a proposal to alter the teaching contract to allow a more flexible schedule for Lincoln Park middle school teachers.

Backers said it would have allowed the schools to enact middle school-type concepts, such as exploratory subjects and homeroom programs.

Because it would have allowed some teachers to teach fewer minutes each day, most board members felt it could cloud ongoing contract negotiations.

Welty chided the board, arguing that more teachers would have taught longer under the proposal, and saying that the board should reward teacher and school innovation.

“They were attempting to do so many of the things we had said were important,” he said.

Lincoln Park School Principal Ed Marsman said he appreciates that Welty visits many of the district’s schools. “I think he’s very much in tune with what goes on in schools. He does not just come to Lincoln Park.”

Marsman also said he appreciates Welty’s broad perspective on educational issues, even if he doesn’t always agree with his conclusions.

“That’s Harry, he’s his own man,” Marsman said. “He at least takes the time to come to talk to staff and tries to understand where people are coming from.”

Welty doesn’t think he can change things overnight.

“Formally, there’s not a lot of power. But I’m in a position where people are watching me,” Welty said. “I’m the one who has the gavel.”

Leading his first regular board meeting Tuesday night, Welty was a bit nervous and unfamiliar with the minutiae of running a formal meeting and with how much power he has.

Other board members helped Welty keep track of which motions were being voted on. At one point, Welty asked for a motion on a request to take a bathroom break — until it was pointed out that, as chairman, he may call a recess himself.

Then again, the details associated with power are unfamiliar to Welty, who has spent his political career largely on the outside, fighting lost causes with unconventional methods.

He laughs about how, as a young Republican, he ran against Duluth DFL incumbent Mike Jaros in what may have been the most Democratic state house district in the nation — in the thick of post-Watergate backlash against Republicans.

And he jokingly wonders why his self-published book, a semi-autobiographical science fiction dinosaur adventure, didn’t boost his “Perot-Choice” candidacy for the 8th District U.S. House seat in 1992. Maybe it was the funny hat he wore in his campaign photos, or the speech espousing socially liberal views he gave to Northland Republicans.

“We are all who we are,” he said. “I’m a theatrical person and I know how to play my parts. But I know myself.”

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