My Impression of Eileen Zeitz Huddleson

Eileen Zeitz Huddleson is a shy Spanish Professor with backroom political skills honed in the arena of cutthroat, university politics. She courted powerful union leaders to win the election in 1997 and united the four newly elected board members into a cohesive group. Eileen’s affinity toward the union movement is natural enough. She’s an officer in the UMD faculty union.

She has a powerful intellect and can quickly grasp the implications of paperwork which is passed on to school board members by the administration. She can be inflexible about rules and procedures. From the beginning of her service on the School Board she has not sat at the table with other School Board members during Committee meetings which she is not an official member of. This has to do with an Attorney General’s opinion which said, in effect, that quorums of elected officials could not assemble at their own Committee meetings. The ruling was meant to enhance the open meeting law and prevent elected officials from making decisions behind the public’s back. However, the Committee meetings of the School Board are always announced in the press and open to the public.

Eileen’s example was practiced by other members of her coalition who, notwithstanding their desire to follow the AG’s guidelines, could not resist asking questions from the distant parts of the meeting rooms where they sat. This had the effect of making the older members of the board paranoid. It appeared to the longer serving board members that this obscure legal opinion was being used by Eileen to prevent them from meeting together and taking advantage of their majority.

The most troubling instance of wanting to hew too close to the rules came during the middle stages of our search for a new superintendent. Eileen wanted us to reduce the small number of applicants who applied for the job by about half because some reference materials had not yet been sent to Duluth. Eileen prevailed upon her ally Dorothy Neumann who was the Search Committee Chair to strike half the candidates from consideration. Tim and George were outraged. They believed that Eileen wanted their favorite candidate removed from consideration. As the Chair at the time I was desperate not to let the search process disintegrate. There was no time to start over. It was the worst week of my school board experience.

Paranoia was rampant on both sides. The new members were convinced before they took office that the old board majority would freeze them out of the superintendent search. Ironically, the new board members got the superintendent they wanted even though he was not the choice of four of the old board members.

The very first regular meeting of the Board got off to a an awkward start. Tim Grover and George Balach had put a resolution on the agenda to begin school board meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. Eileen called and asked me to take the item off of the agenda. She explained that as an exchange student in Latin America she had seen too much flag waving abuse by murderous military governments. There was no hope of getting George or Tim to drop the idea. When Brad Bennett, a recent school board member, got wind of Eileen’s reservations he publicly rebuked her. Ironically, Brad had served on the school board for the previous twelve years but had never once said the Pledge at a Board meeting. The last two years of school board meetings have seen many such imbroglios. Eileen and her colleagues easily took offense and the older members of the school board were quick to offer it.

Eileen and her colleagues did show restraint in one very critical way even though it nearly killed them to do so. The teacher’s contract was overdue to be settled. The teachers felt they were due for a big salary increase and expected the new board members to help them get it. A hundred teachers had showed up to watch the new board members being sworn in and gave them a standing ovation. Now these new members were on the other side of the bargaining table. They reluctantly bit their tongues as the majority of the Board directed the negotiators not to offer the teachers more than the district could afford.

I had a personal reason for wanting to talk with Eileen when I approached her to support me for the Chairmanship. We both had daughters who had been classmates since grade school. My daughter Keely reported to me during the election that Rachel Huddleson had commented that their parents were opponents. I’m a strong believer that feuds between individuals should not extend to their families and that in politics, once an election is over, that combatants should put away their weapons and work for the common good.

It was in this frame of mind that I approached Eileen for support to be Chair. I explained to her, if she did not already know it, that no one had worked harder to make sure she wasn’t elected than me. I also told her we were now on the same team and that we needed to work together. I asked her for her support. She had every reason not to support me but she did. All through my feud with the president of the Teacher’s Union and my resignation Eileen never criticized me (at least to my face) and never encouraged me to step down. Of course, once I filed for reelection Eileen worked just as hard to unseat me as I had worked against her. I was not surprised. Eileen had told me that she was sure I wouldn’t be reelected. My challenger harped on my "unprofessionalism." I took that to mean that Eileen disapproved of my unorthodox ways of doing things. Eileen, of course, always followed the rules.

Can we still work cooperatively? We have very different styles, different philosophies and we have been fierce opponents. I think we will cooperate. Like all the people who have preceded us on the Duluth School Board we have the same goal: to make the Duluth schools the best schools that they can be.

Stay tuned.