Chapter 2 The 1997 Election |
Setting the Stage
I dont remember when or where I first met Eric Peterson but I remember the first time he made an impression on me. I was at the Duluth International Airport waiting for a politician's press conference to begin. Eric was coming to crash our party.
For years Ive alternately helped my fellow Republicans and thumbed my nose at them. My questionable GOP purity has not kept me from routinely getting calls to attend press conferences for various Republican poobahs when theyve flown into Duluth. This was such an occasion. Bodies were needed to give the illusion of a large crowd when the television camera's panned the audience. This particular election cycle found Eric working for John Martys gubernatorial campaign. I cant recall which politicos were entertaining the press but when Eric marched up to the room with half a dozen placard carrying college students in tow I smiled and stepped out of their way as a professional courtesy.
Erics group didnt yell and scream or try to force their way into the conference room. They just waved their placards outside the conference room hoping the television crews would film them. They were ignored.
After my election to the school board Eric and I had one brief moment of common cause. Governor Carlson had just called a state-wide, snow-day for all schools. Our AFSCME employees were asking to be paid for this day off even though their contract did not require us to pay them. I sympathized with these employees. The law, as it was written, would have penalized all schools for taking the snow day off and the legislature wanted to avoid this. It passed a law to fund schools for the statewide snowday. That law, however, did not require us to pay employees whose contract made no snowday provisions even though the legislature was giving us the money to pay them. So the teachers and administrators would be paid but not the lowliest workers in the district. Although Tom Paradice of FIGHT (the local anti-tax organization) gave us a tongue lashing for our extravagant generosity I gladly voted to pay the food service workers and educational assistants despite the administrations recommendation not to. This would be about the last time Eric and I would see eye to eye.
The School Board Mary Cameron and I were elected to was mostly putty in Superintendent Myles' hands. For my part I wanted to rehabilitate my reputation and had no desire to rock the boat. I did not want to be considered a "flake." It would take some work. On the very day I was sworn in Bob Mars used that word to describe me. I wanted to build a new image as a sober thoughtful citizen. I did buck the administration on occasion. In addition to the snow day vote I voted against the Superintendents contract because the percentage of his proposed pay increase was greater than any of the bargaining groups had gotten. Still, I joined in 9-0 votes pretty regularly. This voting pattern led to the charge that the School Board was a "rubber stamp" for the administration. In time this notion would spread beyond our staff.
A sizable group of parents had sprung up in 1996 to lobby for the reinstatement of elementary specialists. They were mostly residents of eastern Duluth whose children attended schools like Congdon, Lester Park and Rockridge. They set up a meeting in Spring to argue for specialists in 1996 and were pretty intense. A year of waiting for us to act had not improved their mood.. One of their leaders was Jeanette Lang. I had several conversations with Jeanette who was suspicious that the Superintendent was giving the runaround. The attitude was that specialists were indispensable for a good elementary education and there was no excuse for not hiring them. George Balach and Tim Grover disagreed with this idea. George in particular felt that elementary teachers should be able to teach music, art and phy ed. They did not view specialists as a high educational priority. In fact, it was suggested that a primary motivation for having specialists was to give the elementary teachers additional free time from their students.
This parental discontent was not the only murmur circulating throughout he school system. Among our teachers there was a growing sense that no one on the School Board was their friend. This attitude took root among these parents as well. The unsettled contract, and the plans for Edison were like glowing embers under dry tinder. A good wind was all that was needed to start a fire. That wind was about to spring up.
One of the biggest obstacles to changing (reforming) our schools is the secondary day which has evolved over many years of contract negotiations. It is very expensive. Our current contract language obliges teachers to teach 5 hours a day. There was a time when an hour really was an hour long but classroom periods have been trimmed so that today an "hour" is only about 47 minutes long. As the School District has offered more courses we've added an extra period to the school day. This has meant that teachers have been asked to take on additional classes which are called 1/6th overloads. Overloads give teachers additional income. As our students have grown more ambitious and taken more classes to prepare themselves for college we have had to put more resources into secondary education. While teachers are paid for taking on additional sections it is demanding work. Teachers are teaching more students in the same five hours than they used to because those five hours are really six class periods.
We could make the classes ten minutes longer and increase class sizes and save lots of money. However, our students would have a smaller selection of classes to choose from. Mark Myles viewed changing this as critical for getting hold of the school district's finances. Mark's successor Julio Almanza also sees seven period secondary day as a huge financial burden. Anyone who tries to change this system will have to face students and parents who expect us to continue offering a rich course selection and who will object to being forced to choose between two desired classes
For over a decade there has been a cry to make junior high less regimented and more kid friendly. Unfortunately, our finances have not made it possible to set up middle schools in anything other than name. Changing the school day by use of block scheduling was one way Duluth might be able to set middle schools. Block scheduling, which breaks away from the six or seven period day is one way to do this.
As the parental and teacher unrest was growing a proposal was making its way down the administrative chain of command. The proposal would have changed the middle school day from seven periods to six. This could have led to middle schools and it could have potentially saved lots of money. The School Board was out of the loop on this proposal.
I got the first intimations of disaster when some principals privately called me to let me know this would be very controversial. The principals who talked to me didn't see this as a proposal but as an order. That was the word that began to sweep through the schools from the principals to teachers to students to parents. One of the either/or decisions that students would have to start making was whether to take music or foreign language. No longer could they take both classes.
I went to one meeting at Chester Park where several hundred parents were rallying to plan their response to this proposal. Among the participants were Pati Rolf who had made several appearances at previous school board meetings and Eileen Zeitz Hudelson a Spanish language professor whose children were accomplished musicians. Conspicuous among these parents were the parents who had been lobbying for elementary specialists
It was at this volatile point that the teacher's union chose to strike back at the Superintendent. They circulated a "vote of no confidence" against him. The rubberstamp board, stalled contract negotiations, Edison and now this.....
The teachers overwhelmingly passed their vote of "no confidence" against the superintendent. The teachers were ready to rumble in the upcomming School Board election. The administration's six-hour-day proposal was like tossing a lighted match on this incendiary mix.
I saw an opportunity in all this mayhem. I wanted us to offer an excess levy referendum which I had been lobbying for for over a year. The superintendent had been paying more attention to the anti-tax board members up to this point and had shown little interest. Now that the administration was under fire it seemed an opportune time to win over at least one of the unhappy groups - parents who wanted elementary specialists. The excess levy of 1993 was about to end and we were close to building up our promised ten percent reserve. Why not pass a new excess levy and use the proceeds to pay for specialists?
Before these plans could be made there had to be a reckoning with all the unhappy parents at a school board meeting. At this meeting it was suggested that the Administration's proposal had only been offered for discussion. Ive never known whether to believe this or not. Certainly it could not have been implemented without School Board approval.
This was also the highpoint of teacher dissatisfaction and the DFT Exec Board had a vote of no confidence against the Superintendent. Apparently it passed in the high nineties. I say apparently because the union rarely lets the press see the actual figures for votes. Perhaps this information was withheld because only half the teachers voted. Whatever the reason for hiding the vote totals it was an ominous sign for the superintendent.
I believe in continuity. Perhaps thats my strongest claim to being a conservative. To my way of thinking changing superintendents every year is no better for a school system than sending a juvenile to dozens of different foster parents. In the 1993 election I had made supporting the previous superintendent one of my principal campaign issues. It was no different now. Even though the teachers union disliked Myles I felt he needed to be supported and that running him out of town would just cause more chaos for the district. I had written to the superintendent a personal letter that April suggesting that it was time to make peace with the teachers and offering my help to accomplish this but the Superintendent didn't appreciate my offer.
At this point the Superintendent began looking at the possibility of an excess levy with more interest. By offering it for elementary specialists he could win over one group of disgruntled parents. To win over Brad Bennetts support (Brad had once taunted me for wanting a referendum since he viewed it as a big unnecessary tax) he wanted to use some of its proceeds to fix up Public School Stadium which had long been one of his pet projects. (He'd once angered the custodians by finding volunteers to paint PSS) Additionally the superintendent crafted a proposal which would have allowed us to purchase new computers and new library books.
The proposal would not be made public until early in the new school year because the anti tax sentiment was still oppressive. In the meantime the lines were beginning to be drawn for the school board election itself. There were to be three vacancies which meant that it would be relatively easy for candidates to get elected. Former Chair James Holliday had left town, Brad Bennett was retiring, Bob Mars announced that because of health concerns he too was retiring. This meant that three stalwart defenders of the Myles administration were about to leave. It was going to be open season.
The seminal event of the campaign was the AFLCIO screening of candidates. Since I was not a candidate for the first time in four election cycles I did not attend but I heard about it from several candidates who did attend. All candidates were given a pledge to sign with ten points two of them specifically addressed to the school district and the Edison school. I suspect AFSCME and Eric Peterson had a major hand in drafting the pledges. The pledges were given to all city council candidates and school board candidates. Several refused to sign them. Only those that did sign them were endorsed.
Because I knew that AFSCME was a driving force behind these elections and that of the St. Louis County Board I wrote a letter to the editor chiding them for putting themselves in the way of better education for children. I said they were so much "inertia" hyperlink preventing change. I was later told that EZH was so incensed at my letter that she gave an impassioned speech to the union screening committee saying something to the effect that if signing the pledge meant she was inert she was proud to be part of the unions inertia. Thats a very clumsy account of her speech but thats approximately the story I was told. It was shortly after this that EZHs daughter ruefully told my daughter that their parents were political opponents.
Lawnsigns getting an early start - Eileens letters to the editor
Edison however really did not become an issue with the general public.
As I saw the steamroller building up to take over all three local units of government and particularly the drive of the unions to kill Edison I looked around for some way to salvage the election. The filings were closed and the union candidates all looked the strongest and were getting substantial help. No strong candidates who were obviously supportive of the previous school board were on the ballot for these open seats. My letter for Bevan Schraw
I also found a candidate to help in the Fourth district, Bevan Schraw. Bevan was pitted against Brad Bennetts anointed successor and Dorothy Neumann who eventually won the seat. Bevan had signed the union pledge but I saw in him an independent thinker and an active parent. I was certain he would be a great addition to the board, someone who could help get us past the brutish teacher/administration rivalry.
I called up Bob Mars and asked him to consider running a write in campaign. Bob chided me for supporting Schraw. Bob Mars made it clear he disapproved of my sending out a letter of support for Bevan Schraw as it suggested I was building a dynasty. He said he had been told by his Doctor that his treatments were going well and said hed already given the idea some thought. Bob Mars had never known what to think of me. I had first met Bob in 1976 when I was a republican candidate for the legislature. Bob had given me a contribution even though it was obvious to everybody that I would lose the election. After becoming a joke in political circles Bob had lost interest in me. Although he had said supportive things to people about me in the 1993 election where he had been a candidate for the school board he more or less disavowed me after that years loss. In 1995 he described me to a few close associates as a "flake" and as a result it cost me a few contributions. In fact, that snub had helped strengthen my resolve to win the following year. Bob was still telling people I was a flake as I assumed office in January of 1988.
As I worked on these campaigns I also met with the parents who had been lobbying for elementary specialists. I eventually became the chief fund raiser for the Vote Yes campaign to pass the levy. Fortunately for the parents other school districts had plenty of left over campaign signs which we were allowed to borrow. I was eager to avoid any controversy. The school districts reputation with the older voters in the district was still suspect. We had only recently gotten out of debt and the news paper accounts of school district incompetence were still fresh in many voters memories.
Triss Harwood too much of the ref going to the elem.
The people who ran the campaign were a little disorganized. Fortunately no one raised any objections to the levy and it got only good press. The recent financial prudence of the District and Mark Myles good reputation with the business world helped give the Board credibility. The bond would eventually pass easily and the parents who were involved with it knew I had been a strong supporter.
Jeanette Lang who was more or less the chair of the vote yes crew invited me to the election eve party. I found myself surrounded by a collection of people many of whom were not sympathetic to my candidates. Joan Peterson, who I had criticized when she was running for the election asked me if I realized that the people at the party were going to be rooting for different school board candidates than I was. I told her I was quite aware of that fact.
Bevans campaign sputtered to a premature end when he lost the primary. That left me with Bob Mars campaign. Early on I had hoped that Bob could run during the primary because I hoped he could get on the general election ballot if he won the primary. I found out he could not be a candidate for the primary. That meant we had a big job to inform the public to write his name in.
While no one in Bobs camp had high hopes for his victory his stature in Duluth gave hope he could pull off the impossible. Bob was reluctant to let me play a part in his campaign so I stayed out of it for a long time. As the Fall wore on I decided that Bob needed lawn signs. Lawnsigns are a curse. They take lots of effort both to find locations and to put up but in recent years they have become the norm for all local races in Duluth. I let Bobs chairman know that I would put them up if they were ordered and that they had to be ordered. Eventually in the last weeks of the campaign we ordered 4,000 of them. After a flurry of effort we got them passed out and to my amazement they went out like hotcakes.
Business people Myles supporters Bob Heimbach
Interest was very high, in Bobs campaign despite the fact that the Newspaper gave him short shrift in coverage at first. In ignoring Bobs campaign the paper was hewing to precedent. Write-ins were never treated as equals. When the paper printed the candidates responses to their questions Bob was left out. This was a tremendous disadvantage and a great frustration. In time the paper gave his campaign more attention.
Only one incumbent was running for reelection, Phil Storsteen. Phil represented the First District and had been a loyal supporter of the Superintendent. He had easily won his own seat four years earlier when it was left vacant. In this election he been pretty intimidated by the union opposition he discovered. His union supported opponent Pati Rolf was a cheerfully aggressive candidate who had lots of help from her UMD volleyball team. The joke about Phils campaign among the old board members was that he put up 17 campaign signs and moved them around to different sites every now and then. He raised no money and printed no literature. The last month of the campaign he left town every weekend. Not surprisingly he lost.
Phil was a particular target of the unions because he had also opted to send his children to the Edsion school. Although the Edison was only opening for the first time while the 97 election was going on and the parents didnt know one another I recognized in them a potential group of supporters. I contacted several of them to help put up Mars write in lawnsigns. When the election was over and all the anti-Edison candidates were elected there was much fear and shock because I sought out the new board members to support me for the Chairmanship. I had agreed that we should postpone a vote on whether to allow Edison to be extended to the 9th grade until after their seating. I knew that it would pass on a 5-4 vote in January but the Edison parents didnt know this. There was great concern among them that I had sold my soul to the anti Edison forces. Even my allies on the board, none of whom would vote for my chairmanship, could trust me. Not even Mary Cameron who George Balach cannily nominated to oppose me in the election for Chairmanship. For the short time I was Chairman I would be walking a fine line between two opposing groups. For more information on this you can read about my resignation in Voodoo.
There was no organized retaliation to the unions. I did not help Phil because he thought I was a twit. Later he sent me the Liar Liar Pants on Fire email Mickey Fergusson Barb Ramey didnt campaign
Bob Mars follows his own counsel as much as I do. He had one opportunity to put the union endorsed candidates in a box but he refused to do this.
A second pledge was passed around for candidates to sign and the newcomers refused to sign it at first. That pledge said in effect that the money for the referendum would only go to the purposes advertised, specialists, computers, library books and athletic facilities. The idea behind the pledge was that the levy would not result in a tax increase. Our language turned out to be somewhat imprecise. Although it was clear to me that this meant .. It was interpreted by the 4 to meant than the specialists would not increase taxes
Edison comes up again. vote to extend to 9th Grade. Frank's call about Myles lying
Swearing in, cheers and sermons.
The Superintendents contract and resignation Franks victory
The union success city school county Two years hence getting us all reelected. The four viewed the election as a mandate for them and what they stood for. Maintaining our 5-4 lead.
As the Edison proposal gained popularity Eric wrote a lengthy and eloquent criticism of "for profit" charter schools.