Local control of schools: Follow the money

April 8, 2018

Welcome to the Duluth School Board! You just got elected by managing to not make enemies with the DFL political machine or the Duluth New Tribune. So, what should you expect as an elected official in Duluth?


At your first meeting, you will be given a grand welcome and asked to take the oath of office, solemnly swearing to “support the Constitution of the United States and Minnesota.” You will swear to be “morally and legally responsible” for the school district. You will get your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.  


Ok, that last one’s a joke, but you are now an elected official, and you can’t wait to represent your constituents! You learned about local government in high school. You have visions of the famous Norman Rockwell Freedom of Speech painting, with everyone looking proudly at the earnest citizen speaking his mind.


You’ve watched Mr. Smith goes to Washington, where Jimmy Stewart stands up for what’s right and gets cheered by the Boy Scouts. You know David is always victorious over Goliath.

 

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You can’t wait to roll up your sleeves and get to work making Duluth a better place—and you have a lot of skills to bring to the job. Maybe you know parliamentary procedure, or have chaired union meetings. Maybe you are an expert in construction or finance or legal contracts—all of which the school board deals with far more often than they deal with educational theory.


But you discover at your second meeting that no one knows what parliamentary procedure is, nor do they care unless it means they can get their way. You’re dismayed to find that no one has a clue about money or contracts, and most don’t want to know.


Before the district’s $130 million budget is approved, the superintendent gives you a two-page summary. No one asks any questions about it. Unless you do, and then they’ll ask why a board member would have the audacity—and the stupidity—to take up valuable meeting time questioning the wisdom of your betters.


Whenever you speak, everyone else starts checking their smartphones, while the newspaper reporter stares at the ceiling. There is no discussion. Your thoughts are unwanted, and any expertise you have will be ridiculed.


There are six or seven elected board members in every school district in Minnesota. The pressure on them is enormous to conform to the superintendent—who, to be clear, is immediately supervised by the board.


But the Duluth School Board is not a deliberative body; they are only there to give legal cover to the superintendent’s decisions.


There was a move about 15 years ago to reduce school boards to only six members, which would have made our already-impotent board even less able to counter the superintendent’s harebrained ideas.

 
At your third meeting, you look around the room. Front and center is the superintendent, who by Minnesota law is an ex officio, un-elected, and non-voting member of the board. His salary is $173,000.


There are lots of other suits in the room making $130,000+. Teachers and union officials make an average $63,000 per year. What do you make as a school board member? $7,300. Board members are the lowest-paid district employees. Dishwashers earn more. Power follows the money—and it’s not to the school board.


School board members have no staff and no access to the district’s computer system. They don’t even get a mailbox, though they do have emails.


The superintendent must approve any board member so much as speaking to any member of his staff. Data Practices requests are rarely responded to and usually not even acknowledged. Policies and bylaws are ignored; it will take you years to even get copies of them.


Oh, it can’t be that bad, you say. You’re on the board now! You can just place an item on the meeting agenda to at least engender public discussion. Perhaps you even chair the committee where that discussion can happen.  


Wrong again. The superintendent and his staff set the agenda of Duluth School Board meetings. The agenda is set behind locked doors where board members and the public are not allowed in, even just to observe.  


But don’t we have an Open Meeting Law? Yes, but it is so weak that there is no need to even pretend that it is enforced in Minnesota.


As for the rousing discussions you plan to have at committee meetings, the “chair” has no say in what will be discussed. They are just handed the agenda and told to make the meeting go as quickly as possible.  


At your fourth meeting, your friend, who also got elected, tells you he’s going to start voting with the rest of the board because he doesn’t want to be on the losing side any longer. Oh, well. He won’t run again anyway after allegedly being involved in a sex scandal. Apparently, budgets aren’t the only thing he’s ignorant about.


But Duluth isn’t the only government in the world! Doesn’t the State of Minnesota have oversight?


Not really. Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has stated to me: “I have little authority,” “Local school boards retain control,” and “I have no authority to intervene.” She deflects questions by suggesting you “seek the advice of the school district’s legal counsel”—which school board members are explicitly not allowed to do.


Christie Eller at the Attorney General’s Office is “not authorized to provide advice to local officials,” but says to contact the State Auditor or the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA). The Auditor’s legal counsel, Mark Kerr, will tell you that almost anything is “within the discretion of a school board.” And MSBA says to contact your superintendent.
So the circle is unbroken, and it begins and ends with the superintendent.


What is the function of the school board in Duluth? Last campaign, now-Members Sally Trnka and Jill Lofald said, “We need more cheerleaders.”


Morally and legally responsible local control? No way. Not in Duluth.

Art Johnston served on the Duluth School Board representing the Fourth District from 2010 to 2017.

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