Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published Oct 14, 2005

Pulling Julio out of a Hat

I used to kid Julio Almanza that I was responsible for all his gray hair as he gracefully aged from a black to a silver mane in the six years he superintended the Duluth Schools. Julio just flashed his cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smile at me. Itís a look our city councilors will have three months to get used to.

After Mayor Bergson pulled his rabbit out of a hat I got an email from a buddy who asked me: ďWell, you worked with him; what do you think of his new job?  Is this a good position for him?Ē   

Iíll start at the beginning. I didnít vote to hire Julio seven years ago but I wasnít disappointed that he took over as our Superintendent. The single most intriguing thing about him was his stint on a major suburban school board. ďHereís a fellow,Ē I thought to myself, ďwho will appreciate the needs of his elected school board members.Ē

Especially at first Julio did a good job keeping school board members happy. It wasnít an easy job as his board was split down the middle into two warring camps. Being new to Duluth Julio had no way of knowing which of the two sides would win control after the next election so he maintained a strict neutrality. That should come as welcome news to our much more amiable City Councilors.

Julio walked the tightrope between these factions for the next six years only to find them replaced in the last election by a division over the firing of a hockey coach. Thatís good preparation to deal with the Kroc Center and the replacement of the Peterson Arena.

While Julioís background is in education he was essentially a manager of the Duluth Schools. He took direct reports from his staff who were the real experts in their fields. His moving to the City is a little like an oil company executive becoming a consumer products company exec. A bigger difference is that while Julio was subject to the whims of the nine School Board members who hired him, he now owes his chief allegiance to a single Mayor. He will still take staff reports from subordinates who are experts in their fields of expertise. Itís unlikely he will be overwhelmed by the cityís budget which is comparable to that of the school district.

Some of Julioís District experiences bode well for the City. When he took over the School District the School Board was preoccupied with fiscal restraint and maintaining a fund balance. Julio never retreated from these twin goals. I would be surprised if he ever counseled any fiscally irresponsible measure for the City.

And, like the City today, when Julio took over the School District there had been a long simmering conflict over contracts and benefits. Julio brought our teacherís contract to a successful if heated settlement just short of a strike. Afterwards, he began a long, patient process of addressing a legacy cost not unlike the disastrous health insurance benefits negotiated by the Fedo Administration. 

An arbitrated settlement in the 1980ís gave Duluth teachers ďseveranceĒ which, by the time I served on the board, required the District to pay retiring teachers more than a full yearís salary in severance. The expense was staggering and growing and threatened the Districtís educational program. While the district was never able to fully solve this huge annual expense Julio managed to mitigate it. Something like this will have to be done about the Cityís health benefits for retired employees.

There is something else about Julio which the Council and Mayor should prepare themselves for. Julio can be stubborn, especially over a point of honor. He was lionized for many years throughout the state for surviving the bucking bronco that has been the Duluth Schools. He had many opportunities to leave Duluth for much higher paying jobs while his reputation was riding high but he turned them down because he didnít want to leave until he was satisfied that he had completed his mission in Duluth. This led him to stick it out for a year with a new less trusting School Board. The plethora of superintendent jobs that had been available for him began to dry up and he ended in a premature retirement. Thatís a real waste of Julioís talents.

So, in answer to my friendís email question I say; sure, for the short run Julioís a good replacement. Kick his tires a bit and take him for a test drive. There will be some speed bumps ahead and if he doesnít work out just tape a letter of dismissal to his door.

Oh, and one word to the Mayorís supporters in western Duluth who still think Julio wanted to close Denfeld High School . No! No! No! Julio didnít want to close any high school, at least not in the short term. Some people think Julioís suggestion to close Denfeld was a clever ruse to pass an excess levy referendum but I donít think so. Sometimes life just takes unexpected turns like, for instance, Julioís turn as the Mayorís new Administrative Assistant.

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