Red Plan Chronicles

Part 4, The Puck Stops Here

After the failure of the 2001 excess levy referendum the Duluth School Board had only one practical option to avoid program cuts and teacher layoffs - close schools. Since no school board majority could be mustered to close either a high school or elementary schools we endured two years of privation.

When 2003 rolled around we had a new opportunity to reinstate an operational levy for classroom spending. This was the year I planned to retire from the board after eight years. I’d made the best case I could for closing a high school and failed. My only major objective left was passing a levy referendum. Then the Superintendent dropped a puck on the Board. His administration decided to replace East High School ’s Hockey coach.

Coach Mike Randolph was a controversial figure in the fanatical world on the ice. Some people considered him a great motivator. Others considered him psychologically abusive; the kind of guy who strung marginal players along for years only to discard them in their senior year after squeezing them for years to raise money for the hockey program. I had been pleased to have Mike as a two-high school supporter and now I was being asked to relieve Mike of his coaching duties.

Needless to say the coach’s fans demanded an explanation only we couldn’t give them one. The law forbade the Administration from revealing private data. Offering an explanation even to School Board members would subject the District to a lawsuit. Randolph could have excused the Board from the threat of a suit but wouldn’t do it. So, the School board was kept in the dark.

The coach’s fans, led by Bob Brooks, were the first to lobby me. They were loud if not legion. Brooks’ son, a DAHA coach, threatened not to vote for me if I didn’t support Randolph . I wasn’t planning to run again so it wasn’t much of a threat. I sought out the coach’s critics, those who were not too intimidated to tell me their side of the story.  Eventually I decided to support the Superintendent but not before one last angry protest.

When forty of the coach’s fans showed up for a second time to holler at the Board School Board, Chairman Bob Mars wanted to cut them off. The fans had already singled Mars out as an enemy and his brusque treatment made them apoplectic. Although I was going to vote against them I thought they should be given one last chance to make their case so I persuaded Bob and the Board to let them speak their piece. The abuse they heaped on Mars almost made me regret I’d given them a last chance to speak. After the meeting Tom Hustad, whose office manager was Randolph ’s wife, told me how disgusted he was with Mars. Why, he had known and respected Bob for years but it was time for Bob to be put out to pasture.

It was a tempest in a teapot. Forty angry Randolph fans couldn’t begin to compare with the thousand angry elementary school supporters who had besieged the School Board in 2001. Neither could it compare with the Denfeld community that arose in anger later that summer after Julio Almanza off handedly suggested that we could close Denfeld High School . I’ve never known where in the Heck this idea came from because the Board had never seriously considered this option but Western Duluth was outraged.

Hundreds of Denfeld residents met through the summer to save their high school. At one of their meetings all the school board members were asked whether they would ever consider closing Denfeld. Only Bob Mars said yes explaining, quite rightly, that it wouldn’t be fair to exempt any of the high school if we were going to have a fair discussion. It was the honest thing to say and a brave thing for Bob because, unlike me, he was planning to run for reelection.

When the time for filing came I was torn. I knew that a former Board member who I didn’t much like was thinking about running for my seat. I’d asked a number of people to run in my place to make sure my old foe would not replace me. When I couldn’t find someone else I decided to run. Then Tom Hustad, filed for my seat. Ordinarily I would have been pleased as punch but Tom was out to avenge the hockey coach. I have a healthy ego and for a couple days I seriously considered fighting the East Hockey crowd until I realized I would just be punishing myself. I had no desire to saddle myself with four more years on the Board. Other than our disagreement about Randolph , Tom Hustad seemed like a sensible fellow. I told everyone I could that I didn’t want to remain on the Board and that Tom would be a good replacement. The editorial Boards of our local papers strongly hinted that they wanted to endorse me but couldn’t if I didn’t want to be elected. I got my wish. Hustad got elected.

There was just one last thing for me to do. The Denfeld crowd decided that to guarantee Denfeld’s safety all three high schools should be kept open. Nancy Nilson stepped forward to lead them and she presented the School Board with an ultimatum. If we agreed to keep three high schools open until the high school population dropped to 2,800 students, the Denfeld folks would support an excess levy for classroom use. I bit my two-high school lips and knuckled under to the coercion. Money for the classroom trumped closing a high school. The 2003 excess levy passed. Denfeld remained open and west Duluth voted Bob Mars off the Board. A year later a new school board reinstated Mike Randolph. Julio Almanza announced his retirement.

Anyone wishing to insure a public vote on the Red plan can visit letduluthvote.com or call: 390-7768.  More Red Plan Chronicles next week.