Sell Central Now Pt 3, Where the three incumbents stand

I don’t know. That won’t stop me from speculating.

Duluth now has a seven member school board. Four people constitute a majority. As I’ve added up the possible votes for a Central sale to Edison the candidates for the Board are currently 3-1 against a sale. That could change depending on me to a 2-2 vote. Two of the 3 non-candidate sitting members of the 709 Board will have to join the 2 possible new votes to swing a deal. Its fortunate for Edison that the current Superintendent, Bill Gronseth, doesn’t have a vote. He is adamantly opposed to the sale.

So who are the happy Board members who don’t have to run for election and what are the odds that any of them will vote to sell Central?

One is Bill Westholm a former long time principal of Denfeld High School with no fingerprints on bringing Edison into the District but lots of fingerprints on bringing about the Red Plan which put the District into its current perilous financial predicament.

A Second is Mike Miernicki a now retired teacher and former AD (Activities Director) of East High with huge sentimental ties to East High.

A Third is Judy Seliga-Punyko who, while not on the Board to vote to bring in the Red Plan, defeated me in our eastern Duluth district six years ago by advocating that we proceed with the Red Plan while I argued it should be voted on by the public.

On first blush I think only one of them might vote to sell Central. If I’m right Edison might fail to win a sale on a 3-4 vote. That would require a lot of work to change mind of at least one of the current anti-sale candidates for the Board. Either that or start looking for that new site while 709 fumbles to get its sh** together before Edison can eat its shorts without an enrollment cap. How that race plays out I can’t predict but it would give the City a chance to see how raw competition works with all the drama of two scorpions in a bottle.

The District’s negotiation position would be helped a little by the passage of both levies. The levies passage might make it less vulnerable to the calls to sell Central. On the other hand it could further alienate people who would interpret the refusal to sell because of the passed levies as a betrayal. In their mind they may feel that the District is using the newly approved money to avoid making other needed financial decisions.

So what is the likelihood that our three remaining Board members will go along with the sale. I’ll analyze each from the most likely to sell to the least likely.

I’ll start with Judy Punyko-Seliga in the morning. I got grand kids all day and had to play with toy trains and stuff. I will add that while people have been waiting for me to cut to the chase they’ve been offering me eager emails and elbows in the side at church echoing the DNT’s Editors……Sell Central.

Judy in the morning it is.

Judy should be a slam dunk to support selling Central but I wouldn’t count on it. For one reason building the Red Plan was in part motivated by staunching the bleeding that was sending kids to Edison. Selling Central would facilitate further loss and Judy has been adamant for years that we get rid of Central High.

In the middle of my tenure on the Board Judy was an ally of mine. She sent me a ten dollar donation for one of my quixotic legislative campaigns with a note saying she always thought I was a very smart person. I in turn tried to talk her into running for the Board once or twice to help knock off some of my adversaries on the Board.

One year that she demurred she explained she really wanted to sell enough product to be awarded a much coveted Pink Mary Kay car and campaigning would interfere with her sales. She is a go getter and ambitious. She quickly allied herself with the business oriented thinking of Supt Mark Myles whose brainchild it was to hold a competition for Charter Schools the first year I was on the School Board in 1996. That would have put her in the Edison camp back then. In 2001, to my great chagrin, she joined the Chamber of Commerce in opposing a renewal of an operational levy I was pushing. I was flabbergasted by her explanation. She was so mad that we had not closed a high school and specifically Central High that she didn’t think the District deserved to have extra operational money to waste. Ironically closing a high school but not specifically Central had been my chief preoccupation for the last four years I was on the School Board. That said I couldn’t countenance the loss of operational dollars a losing levy would entail. Afterward I wrote columns about the many things we had to start cutting because the levy had failed.

Today Judy is the one who wants the extra dollars a levy would offer. She’s already had to cut like crazy and it will get much worse if the levy fails. And true to form she thinks the Board should be able to make this decision without having to pander to voters. She opposed the Superintendent’s gamble to ask for levies because the District could have imposed them without asking voters.

Judy listens to business interests as she did in 2001 when she supported the Chamber’s anti-levy position. The Chamber hasn’t taken sides yet this year. But the Duluth News has editorialized emphatically that we should sell Central. We’re waiting for the Trib’s stand on the levies. Normally I’d think Judy would want to stand with the Trib but she’s not up for election so the pressure is off her. Everything I know about Judy leaves me blank. I have no idea whether she would sell Central. It could make a big difference if the levies fail. If they pass she may be less likely to. If the levies fail she might do it to avoid making millions more in cuts.

Bill Westholm is probably much less likely to want to sell Central to Edison. He was an administrator in Edison’s early years but he was not so much a part of the Mark Myle’s cabal. He’s temperamentally a cautious man. Some have called him timid. I went to seven Duluth Denfeld graduation ceremonies during which Principal Westholm presided. He identifies with teachers family and tradition. Edison was not approved by teachers, Half of the families view it as competition and its definitely not traditional Duluth schooling. My instincts tell me Bill will have little stomach for infuriating the teachers he used to lead.

On the other hand while Bill had no fingerprints on the coming of Edison his fingerprints are all over the Red Plan. He was Dr. Dixon’s principal subordinate during the birth of the Red Plan. Now as a School Board member he has a special tie to the plans and the unexpected damage they are inflicting on the District. Selling Central is a two-edged sword. It will get us past financial difficulties but it will entrench a malignant growth (to be particularly vivid) not just in Duluth but in a building his Administration stressed was unneeded. Oh what cruel irony. Like Judy I think the future of the levies in November will weigh heavily on Bill.

Finally there is Mike Miernicki. Mike ran for the Board two years ago without taking sides on what was already becoming a less popular Red Plan. That was safe. More even than Bill Westholm, Mike would be likely to blanch at the sale of Central to Edison. He’s very much a part of the Duluth public school teaching community. Edison is an outside threat. It would be galling to help it eat up even more students. And Mike was a very student friendly teacher. East kids called him “Miern” he advised all the student organizations, He was a popular and humane teacher.

Its hard for me to see how Mike can vote to sell Central no matter how the levy fares in November.

On the other hand I can imagine all three of these Board members reach for a compromise short of a sale. That compromise of a lease would give the District a stream of income and eliminate an annual expenditure to maintain a shuttered building. It would postpone a clear fight with Edison and give the District some leverage in the future remove Edison from Central. Compromise be less galling than an outright sale.

What I can’t tell is whether Edison would accept a two or three year lease renewed each year to keep that 2 or 3 year window open. An entity called the Atwater Group would actually buy the property for development keeping Central open and leased to Edison. I don’t know why Atwater would need to own Central outright if the District sold the surrounding property to Atwater. I’m sure Edison proponents will be reading my comments with interest and perhaps horror because if ISD 709 picks up on the idea of Edison in Central will require more thought.

Fine. That’s what I think this proposal needs. A lot more thought by all parties. It would be a shame for the Duluth School Board to be railroaded into a sale as a result of the catastrophes imposed upon it by the Red Plan.

As I look at the future Board I can only count 3 good possibilities for a sale including the reluctant Harry Welty. A lease? Well, that may be an entirely different kettle of fish.

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