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Chapter 3

Union Power Grab

Not being a fly on the wall I had no way of monitoring the people who were coalescing to take over the school board. I knew what their aim was. Frank Wanner had told me that I was a target in the next election but that threat had been made almost two years earlier and Frank was more of a pamphleteer than an organizer. I assumed they were interested in another sweep but I could only guess at their plans. Of course, at school board meetings I was able to see who the four new board members cozied up to but I wasn’t privy to their conversations.

I got an indirect confirmation of the long standing nature of the takeover plans from a surprising source late in the election when I bumped into Eric Ringsred who was picking up a child at the Edison School. I was surprised to discover that Eric was an Edison parent. He had served on the School Board some years earlier and earned considerable enmity by opposing the 1989 bond referendum. That referendum would have raised 55 million dollars to replace many of the district’s older schools. Eric was an active preservationist who opposed tearing down old buildings without good reason. For the previous year he had waged a lonely battle to save buildings in the old downtown which were slated to be torn down to make way for the "Soft Center." The Soft Center was a heavily subsidized but popular project to bring new computer businesses to Duluth. Ringsred was now waging a quixotic campaign for the City Council. (Its ironic that I of all people would characterize Eric’s campaign as quixotic since I have the contemporary record for fruitless campaigns, but that’s how most observers viewed his efforts.)

Eric had helped me in my previous school board campaigns and wished me well. We discussed the pivotal role Edison was playing in the school board campaign and Eric offered to let me put a Mary Mary Mars lawnsign in his yard. He told me that he and a group of anti-city administration people had been looking for a challenger to the Mayor back in January. His group had contacted Eric Peterson, whose union had been feuding with Mayor Doty and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the Chair of the citywide PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Assn.), and a long-time environmental activist. Ringsred’s group was counting on them to help them find a challenger to Doty. They got word that AFSCME was planning to skip the city races and put all its efforts into the school board election. I wasn’t surprised. Mayor Doty had already told me he had met with Al Netland, AFSCME’s President, and asked if they couldn’t set aside their differences. Since the Building trade unions would have resisted AFSCME had it tried give the union endorsement to anyone other than the Mayor I wasn't surprised that Netland took advantage of a good face saving opportunity.

Thwarting the Mandate

The 1997 election had convinced Eileen Zeitz Huddleson that she had a mandate to stop Edison. I was determined to prove otherwise by reelecting five candidates who would side with the existing majority. I had talked with Tim Grover, Mary Gass-LeBlanc and Mary Cameron about running a joint campaign. A coalition would have been unusual because most school board candidates campaign independently from one another. Since George Balach wasn’t going to run for reelection I hoped that Bob Mars would be our fifth candidate. I imagined the five of us pictured together on a billboard as a team. The only reason Balach had run four years before was because Mark Myles had asked him to. Now that Edison was in place and Myles was gone George had no desire to stick around.

Although I expected AFSCME to lead the charge to defeat us I hoped that the four new board members would remain neutral. To that end, I looked forward to a school board retreat set up by Supt. Almanza. It would be an opportunity for board members to discuss their philosophies and create a more cooperative atmosphere. As early as January I made an appointment for lunch with Eileen Zeitz Huddleson to talk about the need for cooperation on the board. When I told her of my intention to run for re-election, she had told me she didn’t think I would win. It wasn’t an obviously hostile observation but I couldn’t help but wonder if it signaled her disapproval of me. If so, it would mean I would have to be cautious around her. As I had no doubt about my re-electibility I felt her prediction was politically na´ve. I suspected that she was too cloistered at UMD with like-minded people. I knew my incumbency would give me an advantage and that I had ample time to reestablish my credibility after my voodoo resignation. As for the public’s attitude, I thought that Bob Mars’ strong write-in performance in 1997 demonstrated that the majority of the School Board was not that out of touch with the electorate.

Edison’s Move to Washburn

If there had been any hope of reconciling the two factions of the board they were utterly dashed when Edison came to the Board and asked us to let them move into the Washburn School. Because of its popularity Edison needed more room.

Edison had two problems. Kenwood was overcrowded and the parking was a nightmare. The neighbors were upset with the traffic congestion as cars picked up and dropped off children. Tension mounted and there were angry words, and unpleasant gestures between neighbors and parents. Egged on by Edison’s opponents the neighbors demanded that the city put up no parking signs. When the city complied they installed so many signs around Edison that the school looked as though it were under quarantine. It was easy to imagine some Duluth AFSCME worker going overboard to isolate the "for profit" contamination.

Edison was even more concerned about the "Junior Academy" site. They had retrofitted the first floor of the Central Administration building but found the site confining. There was no green space around the CAB and the students were bussed to the YMCA for swimming and other physical education activities. Their parents and administrators were even more alarmed about security. Every month brought new headlines about sexual predators being moved into the neighborhood from prison. There were four unmonitored entrances to the building. Edison wanted to get out of the downtown.

Five years earlier Washburn Elementary School had been closed because it had been deemed unsafe and because we had too many buildings. As a result, the 709 schools had turned Woodland and Ordean Junior Highs into "middle schools" with grades 5-8. This change had occurred when my son was in 4th grade at Chester Park. He had moved with his 5th grade to the Junior High. At the time I wrote an indignant letter to the editor about this (albeit to criticize another candidate in the 93 school board race) It was not surprising that reopening a school that had been described as "unsafe" would rankle parents who had seen the school shut down. It didn’t help that there were fears that a Washburn Edison would draw more students away from the Duluth Schools especially with Edison’s plans to open another small elementary school in West Duluth.

There was one obstacle to Edison’s moving into the Washburn School – a restrictive covenant that the previous board had inserted into the contract with the building’s new owner, the Duluth Bible Church. The provision prevented the church from selling Washburn to anyone that would reopen the building as a school. If Edison was to purchase or lease the building the School Board would have to cancel this restriction. It was clear that such a vote would be 5 to 4.

There were a lot of machinations surrounding this vote. At one meeting we were presented with a petition by neighbors to keep Washburn as a church. Because both Kenwood and Washburn were in my district I went to the neighborhood and knocked on the doors of all but three of the houses which faced the school. I only found one opponent of the school and she was against Edison not against Washburn’s reopening. I sent my findings to Edison and asked them to talk with neighbors about miscellaneous concerns.

On the eve of our vote to remove the covenant the four Edison opponents on the board began inundating Mary Stafford (Edison's Director) with demands for information about Edison. Much of the information did not relate specifically to the move but could and would be used to criticize Edison about its student testing and employment practices. She gave them everything they demanded. They lobbied the Superintendent who had his own reservations about the continued growth of Edison. They wanted caps put on the enrollment. The night before the vote Pati Rolf came to my house to lobby me. I was working in the basement and my children told me that a woman, who was unwilling to come in, was waiting outside to talk to me. Puzzled I went to the door and saw Pati sitting on my front steps with her back to the door.

I sat down beside Pati who seemed fatigued and anxious. She begged me to help her craft some kind of compromise. She suggested that minor tinkering with Edison's request would result in a unanimous vote for the permission Edison was seeking. I wasn’t able to follow Pati’s reasoning and didn’t understand the compromise she explained to me. It seemed obvious she was in a state of personal turmoil. We talked for a while and I told her I would raise her concerns to other members of the Board who were on my side. I called Tim Grover but in short order Tim pointed out what I already knew. I had no idea what Pati wanted us to do that could satisfy both sides.

The next day the Board met. There was a large audience of Edison parents and anti-Edison people. Most of the people who gave three minutes of testimony were anti-Edison. This took about an hour and a half, as did our discussion afterwards. If I had ever hoped to work out some kind of reproachment with EZH my comments this evening scuttled it.

With so many Edison parents at the meeting both EZH and Laura Condon were solicitous. They talked about a compromise solution but what they wanted was unacceptable to Edison, as it would have limited Edison’s growth far into the future. After Eileen gave a lengthy speech explaining that she really wanted to vote for a compromise that would be good for Edison I gently rebutted her. I pointed out that she had singed a pledge to prevent Edison and commented that her comments seemed "disingenuous" and "insincere." After the meeting Eileen pointedly let me know that she was indignant that I characterized her as "insincere." I had the feeling that this meeting hgave Eileen the justification she needed to write me off. It did not bode well for the election. I kept this thought in mind as we headed for the May Board Retreat.

The Retreat

The open meeting law posed one problem for the retreat. The retreat was intended to be a place where we were could be open and honest with one another. Minnesota law, however, prevents a quorum of elected officials from having meetings that aren’t open to the public. But if the press or any audience was present it could stifle our open and honest dialogue. Six years earlier such a retreat had caused a minor furor when the League of Women Voters called the Board on the carpet for holding it. We announced our meeting but fortunately, the press declined to attend. Neither did any member of the public.

The retreat did not change anybody’s mind or attitude. If anything it reinforced our prejudices. Tim and George found the proceedings silly and their disinterest was obvious. George especially would have preferred to go golfing. No one was uncivil and we did come up with a long laundry lists of things that we felt the District should do. Nonetheless, the retreat had fallen short of its lofty goals. It did produce an agreement not to personalize our debates and the next few Board meetings seemed to be more placid as a result.

My plans disintegrate

I got a disappointing surprise in June when Tim announced that he was going to retire. A fellow named Gary Krause had already announced that he was filing for Tim’s Third District seat. I presumed that since Gary was a member of the Electrical Workers Union he was part of the long expected union takeover attempt.

Tim’s retirement took the wind out of my sails. I could only hope for someone else to file for the 3rd district seat. When a Louise Holmes filed it seemed that she might be a friendly candidate. Unfortunately, Holmes was a phantom. She had paid the two-dollar filing fee and written a brief treatise about what public education needed then left town. She had been a transient living in a downtown motel. The Superintendent and the newspaper tried to locate her. She was evidently an African American because a few people in the minority community had met her. Once her status was disclosed it was too late to find another candidate to file. Gary Krause was going to be elected.

After I realized that the majority would change I lost heart. Although I had been raring to go I knew that the majority and minority would trade places. Even Bob Mars’ filing, although it buoyed my hopes of preventing a complete rout, could not alter the minority status that awaited us.

This was the political reality: We couldn’t retain our majority. Once again my allies would run disconnected, independent campaigns. Mary Cameron was especially vulnerable. She had applied for a Bush Fellowship and been accepted. Her studies would take her out of Duluth for a year but she had been awarded a stipend to fly back for meetings. Still, someone could make hay out of her temporary absence. Eileen had been asking Mary a lot of questions about the fellowship. Her interest seemed calculated. I knew that EZH had complained that she couldn’t talk to Mary, which I took to mean that she expected Mary to agree with her. Gary Krause had also inquired about Mary’s fellowship while he campaigned door to door at Mary’s parent’s home. Things looked grim. I decided I would just have to campaign for myself and for Mary Cameron and hope for the best.

This time the unions did not ask candidates to sign a pledge. They had been criticized for the pledge in 97 and it would be unnecessary in this election. Because Tim Grover was retiring they were assured of taking the majority on the School Board. They would also exert more control over the City Council and they had an AFSCME member sitting on the County Board. Their candidates would be well funded and well organized.

The endorsements went as planned. Even the Democratic Party cooperated. Pati Rolf, EZH and Laura Condon showed up at the DFL convention to campaign against Mary’s endorsement. She had supported Edison and that wasn’t politically correct. It made not a whit of difference that Mary had done so because of the terrible legacy of minority failure in the Duluth Schools. Only anointed (anti-Edison candidates) got all of these endorsements. Although I’m an erstwhile Republican Mary’s treatment by the DFL so angered me that I wrote a stinging rebuke to the DFL in a letter-to-the-editor.

Two years earlier Al Netland had visited Mary Cameron and told her that everybody was disappointed with her as a school board member because she had changed. He was giving Mary ample warning. It just so happened that Al’s approach was the wrong approach to take with Mary.