The Duluth School Board oversees a $135 million annual budget—larger than that of the City of Duluth. In Minnesota, K-12 education is the largest chunk of the state budget, at $10 billion a year. We’re not talking about chump change here.
With such real money, one would expect a commensurate economic acumen, but a common theme among Minnesota school boards is that they are not financiers, but cheerleaders.
In the last local school board election, Sally Trnka and Jill Lofald’s repeated slogan was that the Duluth Schools needed cheerleaders.
This isn’t just in backwaters like Duluth; it appears in official statements from the statewide Minnesota School Board Associations (MSBA). For example, MSBA’s associate director Gail Gilman stated at a Duluth School Board retreat (What are they retreating from, anyway? Responsibility?): “You need to be a cheerleader for your school district. If you can’t be a cheerleader, who else will?”
You may have noticed that every two years there are school board elections on the ballot, along with the president, U.S. senators, judges, and state representatives. Nowhere are cheerleaders on the ballot.
But even for school board members who don’t want to be cheerleaders, it is a hard gig. Unlike most elected officials, school board members have no staff and no resources to do their job. Though a function of the school board is to hire and fire the superintendent, the board’s only access to information is through the superintendent—a highly-paid, smooth-talking keeper-of-the-keys to all information needed to run the schools. You can bet that our Wizard of Oz will give everything a rosy tint.
But all is not lost. Some time after Mark Twain gave his infamous quote: “God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards,” governments that were dishing out all this money realized their school boards needed help.
Minnesota acted by passing law Minn. Stat. 123B.09, mandating all school board members “shall receive training in school finance and management developed in consultation with the Minnesota School Boards Association.”
Thus head cheerleader MSBA was born. Their motto changes with the latest trends in corporate bureaucracy. Lately it’s been: “Where School Boards Learn to Lead.” The Duluth School District pays MSBA $13,000 a year to “learn to lead,” plus another $6,000 in fees-for-service.
The biggest MSBA bash is their annual three-day Leadership Conference at the Minneapolis Conference Center every January. The first thing you see when you get there are large, Kafka-esque corporate banners over every door, from outstanding companies like Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI) and construction outfits like Kraus-Anderson. School board members used to receive free passes to the conference, to be wined and dined every night by architectural and engineering companies like ARI, Wold, and ATS&R.
That blatant bribery was finally stopped when Minnesota passed a law in 2014 that said school board members cannot receive any gifts over $10.
So, what happens at these MSBA conferences? There are workshops and roundtables—about education or finance, one might think. And some are about education, but about a quarter of the workshops are put on by lawyers. There are usually zero workshops on finance or building maintenance.
There are always some workshops on how to deal with “difficult” school board members, and some about how to hoodwink the public into passing operating levies or building referendums.
Even worse is the MSBA website. Splashed all over every page is advertising from such groups as the Council of School Attorneys and JCI spin-offs like Amersco and NEXUS, National Insurance Services, and, of course, Kraus-Anderson.
MSBA is a private non-profit organization. According to its 2017 990 tax forms, they have $4.3 million in revenue. Executive Director Kurt Schneidawind makes $143,636. Their second highest paid employee is Grace Keliher, a lobbyist who makes $109,252. Before being MSBA’s lobbyist, Keliher was a state legislator who was defeated after a scandal involving alleged vandalism of her opponent’s campaign signs.
Gary Lee is the MSBA Deputy Executive Director. He makes $110,944. When asked about their operations, revenue sources, relationship to superintendents, etc., Lee says, “We are a private non-profit, so we keep most of that close.” He promised to answer my questions via email, but I never heard from him.
Closely connected to MSBA is the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA), which is a superintendent trade association. MSBA and MASA work together to write policies and hire superintendents. MASA Executive Director Gary Amorosco brings in a cool $199,326.
This incestuous relationship is an obvious reason why, whenever any school board member asks any MSBA staff a question, they say to go talk to your superintendent. Emails from MSBA aren’t sent to school board members, but rather to the superintendent. It is up to the superintendent whether or not to pass the information on to the board.
School boards in Minnesota have no independent sources of information and usually little expertise. In a representative democracy, inexperience is not unusual nor a detriment to elected government—if there are sources of honest information, transparency, and an effort to share decision-making with other people.
But that is not how schools boards are managed in Minnesota. Our school districts are supposed o have “local control,” which is fine and dandy, but not when the system is rigged against elected board members, and “for the children” becomes an empty cry for money and the status quo.
Art Johnston served on the Duluth School Board representing the Fourth District from 2010 to 2017.