For a year leading up to last January the School Board had been meeting, unobserved, to hammer out a consensus about our collective priorities. At about the same time that a consensus began to emerge the powers in St. Paul began outlining stingy education budgets for Duluth. Although our meetings had been publicized, as required by law, the press and the public hadn't been paying attention to our "retreats." That all changed when the Tribune's reporter realized we were talking about closing up to five elementary schools. She and her editors wanted to know how such momentous discussions had managed to go unnoticed.
When she began interviewing Board members some of them along with the Superintendent begged the Tribune to postpone the story. Not me. I was delighted that the story was being made public and embarrassed that any of us tried to postpone the story. You would have thought the Trib was about to publish the "Pentagon Papers."
As the Tribune described out "retreats" and the particularly embarrassing absence of witnesses, including one early Sunday morning retreat when we locked the doors of the CAB behind us, several School Board members compounded the problem by criticizing the Trib and by bending over backward to justify our efforts. The Editors of the Tribune were not impressed.
Not surprisingly, a public outcry arose over our plans to close elementary schools. To the School Board's credit we held three public meetings over three successive days and let 1,800 angry parents beat the hell out of us. These meetings had the effect of calming the waters. We had a chance to explain the difficult choices we faced and public, having expressed itself, developed a little sympathy for the Board.
Press relations had become strained however. After a month of dealing with very little sleep and many angry people the Superintendent lost much of his patience with the Trib's reporters. The reporters grew short tempered in return. When things should have started cooling off I unwittingly heated up the ill will again.
The superintendent wanted to give the School Board some breathing room to make the controversial decision to close schools. He wanted to set up a procedure for parental feedback prior to any building closings. He sent us a letter suggesting that we postpone any building closings for one year.
Previously, Chad Thomas, KDLH's reporter had asked me to let him know if anything important was going on. I didn't call him after I received the Superintendent's recommendation because it didn't seem particularly newsworthy. But when I mentioned the letter to Sophia Vahamake, WDIO's reporter, she wanted to report it and I realized she considered it news. I promised to fax the note to her but I told her that I felt honor bound to let Chad in on the news too.
When the story hit the airwaves the editors at the News Tribune were furious. The felt they had been scooped and they thought that Almanza had purposely left them out of the loop. They were wrong, of course, as I was the person who had alerted the television stations. The Trib's big wigs were so mad that they let their reporters know that if it ever happened again someone would be looking for a new job. Under this threat the reporters were determined not to let any new communication between the Superintendent and the Board go unnoticed.
Every day for the next couple weeks the reporters called to ask if any memos had been sent out from the Superintendent's office to the Board. Typically school board members get an information packet from the administration every Saturday which is mailed out on Friday. One of the reporters, now paranoid about what she considered evasions, told me she was planning to sit in the Superintendent's office all Friday so she wouldn't have to wait for it to be delivered over the weekend. (The fact that the Tribune gets the weekly packet at all was one of my accomplishments. I had started the practice of having it sent out to the press during my short tenure as Board Chairman two years earlier)
I requested that the reporter not sit in the office all day because I knew it would aggravate the Superintendent's staff. I assured her that the superintendent hadn't intentionally left the Tribune out of the loop and explained my role in tipping off the television stations. She agreed not to show up at the office until later in the afternoon.
By now the Superintendent was perplexed because some of his Board members were speaking so freely with the press. In his view, every time we talked we just added fuel to the firestorm. At one point he made it clear to the press that he would not have his staff stop their work to fetch information for press inquiries. He even told them the Trib that he knew he'd rue his decision later. His chief concern was to make sure that the press didn't get important information before all the board members gotten it. Board members don't like to be surprised by reading things in the newspaper before they hear about them from the Administration.
Things seemed to have calmed down until the superintendent's contract negotiations came up. Some of the initial wording in his contract regarding health insurance was carelessly written.
The first story about the contract was modest and was placed on the inside pages of the Tribune. Not so the second story which had a banner headline reading: "Almanza's insurance clause could cost $193,000" The story was reasonable enough but the headline made the superintendent sound greedy. I wrote a letter to the editor accusing the Trib of prolonging their feud with Almanza.