Not Eudora By Harry Welty
Published Feb 19, 2004
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
A tribute to Dorothy Neumann
Dorothy Neumann, late of the Duluth School Board, died unexpectedly on Monday. The School District will miss her. A Denfeld graduate, PTA leader, District employee, and Board Member, Dorothy was devoted to the Duluth Schools. Unlike so many others in politics Dorothy didn’t take political disagreements personally. I learned this the first day she served on the Board.
Elections usually result in incremental changes to an elected body. Dorothy’s 1997 election, however, was fueled by the rage of the teacher’s union. It resulted in the election of four new board members who were just one vote shy of a majority.
The previous Superintendent, with the concurrence of a unanimous school board, had brought the Edison Schools to Duluth . This controversial decision followed two years of unpopular fiscal stinginess made necessary by the District’s “statutory operating debt” (bankruptcy). Throw in the School Administration’s abrasive and dismissive reaction to teacher concerns and it’s not hard to see why the Duluth Federation of Teachers went all out to change the school board. The DFT was lucky because three of four board members chose not to run for reelection. The fourth incumbent, faced with an energetic opponent and hostile teachers, simply curled into a fetal ball and lost the election.
Sensing impending disaster I encouraged Bob Mars, one of the retiring board members, to reconsider his decision. Because the filing deadline had passed Bob’s supporters had to organize a notoriously difficult write-in campaign. Although Bob got a heckuva lot of votes he came up short.
The remaining school board members viewed the four newcomers as a threat. Their suspicion was reciprocated by the new Board members. I saw an opportunity and offered myself as a candidate for Chairman to the new Board members. My pitch was simple. I promised to be fair and work for as much harmony as the strained circumstances would permit. Since I was the only incumbent board member to approach the newcomers I was a shoo-in. My vote plus four others guaranteed my election.
Although I wasn’t surprised that my old allies took a dim view of my ambition I was sorry to discover that they thought I was about to sell out Edison for the Chairmanship. That wasn’t going to happen. I did, however, make the only political deal of my eight years on the Board. The new Board members asked me to vote for Dorothy Neumann for School Board Treasurer. This was a largely symbolic gesture since the only significant power any board member wields is that of their single vote. I readily agreed.
Nearly two hundred teachers showed up to watch the new board members sworn in. After they were seated our next order of business was to elect a Chairman. The newly elected board members voted for me. My old allies voted against me. I won.
I was so nervous and excited about acting the part of a competent chairman that when both Dorothy and George Balach were nominated for Treasurer I spaced it. As I took my ballot for Treasurer I acted instinctively to show my old allies that I hadn’t really abandoned them. I voted for George. It was only after I handed my ballot in to be counted that I realized what I had done – or more importantly what I hadn’t done. I watched helplessly as the Business Director counted the ballots. I had betrayed my promise to the new board members. Once the election results were announced they would discover that they had just elected a duplicitous liar. When George’s win was announced I saw one of the new board members blanch in shock.
I had to endure another excruciating ten minutes of routine business before adjournment. All I could think of was how I could salvage my credibility. Just as I knew I would get five votes for the Chairmanship the new Board members all knew they had five votes to get Dorothy elected. They had fulfilled their part of the bargain. I hadn’t.
The moment the meeting ended I rushed over to Dorothy and apologized like there was no tomorrow. All I could do was tell her that I was an idiot because it was true.
Dorothy waved off my apology. “I always say,” the upbeat Neumann told me, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
We live in a polarized age where common purpose and civility are rare virtues. Dorothy had every reason to hold a grudge against me but she was ruled by better angels. We continued to disagree for most of the next six years. Even so, Dorothy kept giving me home baked brownies and jalapeno jelly rather than a piece of her mind.
When I was defeated last fall Dorothy told me in all sincerity that she had been rooting for me and was sorry to see me go. Now it’s my turn. I’ll miss you Dorothy.
Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com