What's Right about the Duluth
Folks, I don't want to be coy. Although what follows is written in the third person: "Harry did this," "Harry did that," the fact is Harry wrote it. (I wrote it.) He's (I'm) patting himself (myself) on the back. Harry thinks he's done a great job. (I think I've done a great job!)
Although Harry is a social moderate and sometimes liberal, he has a traditional Republican's concern about being able to pay for what he wants. (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch)
No one knew that the Duluth School District was on the verge of financial collapse in 1989 when Harry first ran, unsuccessfully, for the school board. By 1993 it was apparent that the district was heading into serious debt. Harry was a candidate that year and saw the excess levy referendum as the one hope for salvaging the District's finances. He talked enthusiastically to Bob Mars about supporting the referendum while Bob still had serious reservations about it and eventually Mr. Mars took the lead in building public support for the referendum. Bob Mars saved the day.
Although Harry lost that election Mars was elected to the School Board that year. The Board he served on can take most of the credit for making the tough decisions to reduce school spending. When Harry was finally elected two years later, he eagerly supported the fiscal conservatism which was guiding the Board.
That was then. The following election in 1997 saw a repudiation (at least in some people's minds) of the Board which had brought order to the district's finances. Four new board members, who were viewed as "friends" to the teachers, were elected at a time when the teacher's union leadership was harping on the sacrifices the teachers had endured to help straighten out the debt. Teacher expectations were running very high and the contract talks were already running long. The common wisdom held that with four votes to make the teachers happy there would be incredible pressure on the five remaining old Board members to give the teachers what they wanted and avoid a strike.
Today we are living with a settlement that falls short of the teacher's expectations but which is still far beyond the ability of the District to pay and maintain the existing educational program. It is not clear how this will be resolved but Harry intends to vote for cuts to the program (or possibly school closings) rather than go into debt again.
This is the only prudent policy. The debt first developed because previous board members were not willing to cut educational programs while they served on the school board. Their failure to take action was compounded by chaos in the administration and legislative actions beyond their control. Nonetheless, the programs they saved temporarily were cut back far more than necessary when the cuts were finally made. It is interesting to note that the this year's new candidates who are running for the board, like the four who were elected two years ago to "repudiate" the previous board, all describe themselves as "fiscal conservatives." It is also interesting to note that they also are campaigning on a promise not to make cuts in programs. This is a little like stripping off all your clothes and insisting that you are not naked.
If management stability continues and future contracts are within the district's means then modest cuts will still leave a very healthy educational program. It is even possible that changes in the structure of the school day or organization of classroom time could more than compensate for a small loss of staff. For this to take place it is critical for the new board to concentrate on the issues, other than finances, which are listed below.
Harry found it interesting when the current President of the Teacher's Union referred to the period twenty and more years ago as the golden age of the Duluth Schools. One of the supposedly good things about this past was the harmony which existed between teachers and administration. This view overlooks the teacher's strike in the early 80's.
Harry recognizes that teachers like most people crave stability. After Elliot Moeser resigned and his supporters on the Board left office a succession of superintendents took his place. In five years there were as many superintendents. Its not surprising that the teacher's newsletter over this period of time is extremely critical of each administration to the point of excess. When Harry ran in 93 he tried to be supportive of the embattled Supt. Nolin. When Harry was finally elected in 95 he was supportive of Supt. Myles who was then still popular with teachers despite presiding over a period of deep cuts. As the teachers and the Superintendent grew estranged in part because of Myles' temperament, Mr. Wanner's constant hectoring, and the decision to bring in the Edison Schools Harry continued supporting Mr. Myles while privately recommending a cease fire in the war of words.
The current superintendent Julio Almanza has worked hard to demonstrate his sympathy with teachers while responding to two factions on the school board. Although Mr. Almanza was not his choice for Superintendent, Harry has been very pleased with Almanza's leadership. Harry has impressed on Almanza the importance for his administration's sake of avoiding debt at all costs. If new School Board's do not make sure expenses match revenue then the Almanza administration will be blamed for future shortfalls and will exit prematurely like earlier administrations.
The combination of prudence and generosity of spirit toward our staff will add years to the Almanza administration. Harry hopes to keep Mr. Almanza around for years to come.
This priority first made itself felt in the Myles administration. There was a national panic about education in the 1980's much of it founded on serious concerns and some of it hysterical. This is the current consensus about American Education: middle and upper middle class students coming from good homes and attending good schools do well. The best measure of this may be the college admittance tests which show that a much larger portion of high school students are prepared to attend college than any time in the past. On the other hand, despite some important gains among children in poverty schools still do not seem to provide enough kids on the margins with the tools for a successful life.
Public schools have been over sensitive about their failures because it often seems that they are not given enough credit for their successes. Schools have been pressed by parents, legislators, newspapers, the business community to do a better job and not leave any child behind. It is an impossible task but schools can not allow themselves to give up trying to meet all these expectations.
The Duluth schools have been measuring students more than ever and have placed greater expectations on schools and on teachers to make sure students do not fall behind. Remediation is costly and time consuming and to a degree inevitable. Refining this system is probably the single greatest challenge facing the Duluth Schools.
For the first time the district has been honest about the drop out rate. Early reading tests show that new reading programs are improving our younger students reading abilities. Enriched music programs have sent large numbers of talented students to our high schools where there musical background has enriched their academic skills. Patience and confidence are both required. The Duluth schools are good schools and getting better.
In 1989 the Duluth School Board offered up a 55 million dollar bond referendum for new schools which was soundly defeated as was a smaller 35 million bond two years later. These bonds failed because of intense public skepticism about the maintenance of the Duluth Schools. Because maintenance is an ongoing operational expense it had to compete with educational programming for funding. It lost and the result were schools like Chester Park where Harry's children attended. Traveling the halls in the early 90's with dozens of trash containers catching rainfall was a discouraging experience.
Among the things which took place in the Myles administration was a new emphasis on maintaining older buildings which culminated in a ten year maintenance plan. That plan has been underway for several years now and while there is a desire for some new educational space the existing space is now on a maintenance schedule. It is worth noting that the priority was in the "educational" space. This year the Board decided to let the voters decide whether to raise 6.6 million dollars on several athletic facilities. If this referendum is approved then all of our existing facilities will be in pretty good order.
For a very long time the teaching staff has felt that it has single-handedly kept the District together during times of turmoil. While this is certainly true it is also true that the staff has been encouraged by their union leadership to distrust the administration and School Board.
Schools are a people business. As a former teacher Harry believes it is critical to treat staff like trusted professionals. More than any other school board member Harry has visited schools, classrooms and made himself available to the staff. For the first two years he was on the School Board he met frequently with the President of the Teacher's Union over the objections of other school board members. This came to an end after the Union President threatened to "target" Harry in this year's election. For the fifth time Harry failed to gain the Teacher Union's endorsement.
Harry takes a long view of history. "This too shall pass." As the good news about the District's successes reach the public there will be more confidence in the schools and our teachers will feel better about their teaching. The current Administration's efforts to work with teachers will help heal the divisions of the past. If Harry is right the Duluth Schools have some very good years to look forward to.
While the public has gotten used to the idea that the school board constantly bickers Harry believes this perception is greatly exaggerated. There are very real public policy differences on the Board and these differences are aired publically as they should be.
Harry has generally kept personalities out of debates and stuck to issues. After the 1997 election Harry contacted the newly elected board members and asked for their support for the Chairmanship stressing that the School Board could not succeed if it was divided against itself. Although his tenure in office was short he worked tirelessly to keep both sides focused on Board business.
This was at a time of tremendous potential friction. The seating of new board members , the resignation of a superintendent and finding his replacement as well as prolonged teacher contract talks all had the potential to break the board apart. It didn't happen. The new board members who at first feared that they would be kept out of the search for the new superintendent got their choice as superintendent while the majority of the old board did not.
Sadly, this election reflects the divisions of the Board with candidates challenging the old board members in hopes of creating a new majority. But so what? That is what elections are for. While there really are animosities between members of the Duluth School Board the debates of the past two years revolved mostly on policy not personalities. Harry hopes the School Board keeps practicing the art of agreeing to disagree.
Perhaps the best evidence of public confidence in the School Board can be found in the dearth of candidates for the Board in this election. As recently as the election of 1991 there were over 25 candidates for the School Board. The referendum for athletic facilities does not seem to be generating any controversy and may pass easily. While the issue of Edison and public review of contracts and even taxing to the max are in the air most people in Duluth seem content with the status quo. Harry's believes that the Duluth schools are doing well. There is experimentation in Edison, at the Birchwood Core Knowledge School, and the Chester Park Lab School. Our Magnate schools offer alternatives for elementary parents. For the time being the elementary specialists continue to enrich the elementary experience. We have one of the richest music programs of any public school system in the nation. We are embarking after a discussion of 15 years on a middle school program. The elementary reading program has shown signs of success and we have a good number of graduates testing well in college entrance tests. We are currently solvent although we will be facing some tough decisions shortly, however the administration seems intent to act in a financially prudent manner. Why shouldn't the public be confident?