Red Plan Chronicles

Part 6, Drawing from the Discard Pile

The new school board elected in 2004 was committed to rescuing a de-iced hockey coach. Unlike Keith Dixon, who made it clear to Faribault that he would stick out the three years of his contract, Duluth’s superintendent, Julio Almanza, insisted that his new contract be for a single year. He would see if there was any possibility of reconciliation. If not, he would help provide a smooth transition for his successor.

Some members of the new school Board made it clear they weren’t interested in working with Almanza.  PTSA President, Rosie Loeffler Kemp, was distressed to hear newly elected board member Tom Hustad criticize Almanza at PTA meetings around the district. The rehiring of Coach Randolph made it clear how the new Board felt.

Whereas the superintendent search that led to Almanza’s hiring had been a low budget, in-house, affair the search for his replacement was conducted by pricey headhunters. It was the beginning of a trend to turn to consultants to solve the District’s needs. Resumes were reviewed, selected or discarded. The hiring list would be a short one, just three candidates; two fewer than the Board that hired Almanza had interviewed.

One of the three dropped out unexpectedly leaving the Board with a paltry two candidates. After some wrangling, the Board decided to pick a name from the discard pile to bolster the interviews. Thus Keith Dixon became a candidate. It was a good thing too. After the interviews another candidate dropped out. Once again the Board had two candidates to choose from, Dr. Dixon and the superintendent of a Twin City suburb.

As I read between the lines of the News Tribune’s coverage at the time it seemed obvious that the suburban superintendent wasn’t very serious about coming to Duluth . His current job paid him more money than I could imagine Duluth being willing to exceed. Besides that, the description of him in news stories suggested an ambitious fellow who was looking for bigger and better things than the infamously difficult Duluth post with its declining student populations and constant financial difficulties. He looked even less interested when he didn’t bother to bring his wife up during his interview. Finally, he gave the Board an ultimatum. He would only take the job if it was offered unanimously by all Board members. The only kind of candidate who would make such a demand was one who didn’t really want the job.

The Board had only two options, hire Dixon or start the year-long job search all over again. The new Chairman, Tom Hustad, probably had little stomach for starting over again from scratch. Needing a replacement for Julio he certainly couldn’t have welcomed hearing that Dixon 's approval rating in Faribault was a meager 34%. Although it couldn’t have been easy to miss hearing that Faribault ’s new School Board had been elected on the promise to get rid of Dixon , somehow Hustad managed it. Perhaps the old board members who still loved Dixon warned Tom that he should take care who he talked to.

As Duluth ’s Chairman Hustad had a special responsibility for investigating the new superintendent and he really couldn’t avoid calling his opposite in Fairbault. This could have been awkward because Sue Nelson had been elected to remove Dixon . Tom dutifully called her. He had, he told her, just three questions for her. First, Tom wanted to know how long Sue had served on the Board. The answer was five months. Tom, who was a veteran of a little over a year, told her, “then you really don’t know anything.” Next Tom asked Sue if Dixon was familiar with the Governor’s teacher merit pay proposal, “Q Comp.” Sue said he was. Finally, Tom asked whether Keith Dixon had treated her kindly. Sue, who had no more use for Dixon than Tom had had for Julio, told him that Dixon had acted professionally. That was all Tom needed to know. He could now safely report to his fellow school board members that he had heard only good things about Dr. Dixon.

Certainly there was no hint of any dissatisfaction in the Duluth News Tribune’s coverage of Dixon ’s Faribault days. Portia Johnson, one of the Duluthians who visited Faribault as part of the superintendent search reported to the Trib that Faribault ’s custodians had all praised Dixon ’s leadership.

There is one more possibly apocryphal story that is circulating in Faribault . It says that the local business community was so eager to see Dixon ’s back that they formed an organization to market him. Perhaps, faced with three more years on Dixon ’s contract, a great many of his critics held their tongues when Duluth came to visit.

Keith Dixon is a very charming fellow. At their January meeting this year the school board sang him “Happy Birthday.”  Most of them.

More Red Plan Chronicles in two weeks. Meanwhile, anyone wishing to insure a public vote on a new building plan can visit: letduluthvote.com or call: 390-7768.