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Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published Feb 20, 2003

 

Legacy

 

My sister tells me that, according to some teachers sheís met from Duluth , I am a despised and infamous school board member. Iíve tried to argue with her that this just simply can not be the case. How, I ask her, could a school board member who goes to elementary schools to read to children while wearing gorilla slippers be so reviled?

 

Iím in my eighth year on the Duluth School Board and Iíve been thinking about my legacy. If I were a President I would be a lame duck by now. At the same point in his Presidential career Bill Clinton was observed carrying around thick biographies of the great presidents. It was a sure sign that he was reflecting on his legacy. Would historians stay offa his blue stained dress and/or would they remember him for eight years of economic prosperity?

 

Unlike a President I could run for reelection but I donít think I will. Like Clinton, Iíve been thinking about my own legacy. Staff resentment towards the School Board was high when I taught for the district in the 1980ís. Its one of the ills I had hoped I could help put behind us. If my sister is right then Iíve utterly failed to accomplish one of my fondest dreams.

 

Sad to say, I may even be infamous for my failure well beyond the borders of Duluth . Last year my wife visited her extended family in Iowa. They finally worked up the nerve to ask her if what Paul Harvey had reported to his national radio audience was true. Had her husband, Harry, really put a voodoo curse on the Duluth Teachers? Oh no, she assured her family, I had simply put a curse on ďill willĒ in the District. They say that victors get to write history but Iím not so sure. I did manage to get reelected despite the voodoo but you can still find an uncharitable account of the episode posted on the Internet.

 

I had another objective. I wanted to give our teachers more freedom in their classrooms to experiment and work in teams. Unfortunately, I started my school board service just as the highly prescriptive and bureaucratic "Profiles of Learning" was imposed on us by the State. So much for freedom.

 

Itís true that we did set up one middle school in Morgan Park as a pilot program. Morgan Park has gotten three extra teachers for three years. They team teach but the pilot is coming to an end this year. To staff all our other 6-8th grade classes at the same level we would have to spend another 1 million dollars. But enrollment declines mean that we have to make four million dollars in cuts for the next year. So much for the middle schools. And thatís not all. Despite being told all through the last election that K-12 education would be held harmless the Governorís ďunallotmentĒ will trim at least $700,000 from this yearís budget. We are perilously close to the kind of freedom that Janis Joplin sang about when she said it was just another word for nothing left to lose.

 

Finally, I had hoped to leave the Duluth School District with the fiscal stability of a ten percent reserve. So far so good but I donít know how long this legacy will endure. Before I was elected I witnessed several school boards gamble on the generosity of the legislature. Their wagers never paid off and mass layoffs were the end result.

 

Although the ten percent reserve wasnít my idea Iíve come to look on it as our security blanket. Itís been generating a million dollars in interest every year. If it were to be spent down we would have to start borrowing money and paying interest. The difference between the million dollars we currently earn in interest and the million dollars we used to pay in interest is nearly twenty teachers!

 

But the reserve has always been hard to explain. Teachers want it in their paychecks today, future borrowing be damned. Parents and newly elected school board members think of it as a ďrainy dayĒ fund to tap during each yearís annual emergency. An unpopular Superintendent or a school board fearful of the next election could spend it down in a heartbeat to win temporary popularity.

 

Folks who run for the school board are generally crazy about public education. Itís ironic that teachers come to distrust such people. A school board truly lies between a rock and a hard place for just as teachers blame their school boards for stinginess, legislators view them as the least responsible elected bodies - always bargaining too much away. This is what Governor Ventura meant last year when he called public education a ďblack hole.Ē

 

So what have I accomplished in eight years? I put a voodoo curse on teachers while saddling them with the bureaucratic profile of learning and denying them a decent wage settlement. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. I wanted to close a high school too. Now thatís some legacy!

 

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at www.snowbizz.com