Group questions union ties on Duluth School Board
Campaign Bulletin Board10-8-99

Conflicts of Interest

A fund-raising letter for the Mary Mary Mars Committee raises a provocative question: Would spouses of Duluth school teachers or union officials have a conflict of interest if they serve the Duluth School Board?

Duluth businessman Bob Heimbach is chairman of the new fund-raising group, which is campaigning on behalf of at-large candidates Mary Glass LeBlanc, Mary Cameron and Bob Mars.

Signers of the fund-raising group include some well-known names in the Duluth business community - including Nick Patronas, Don Bleau, Lil Stocke and Donn Larson - along with current board member George Balach and Mary Stafford, head of Duluth's Edison Project schools.

While praising Glass LeBlanc, Cameron and Mars for their fiscal restraint and openness to parent-choice options like Edison Project schools, Heimbach's letter also says that since 1997, unions are gaining too much influence on the board.

This year, two at-large candidates - Mike Akervik and Matt Doyle - are married to teachers. And at-large candidate Rosie Loeffler-Kemp's husband, Ken, works for AFSCME, a union that represents School District employees.

Heimbach says he means nothing personal by raising the issue. "But I ask, how could a candidate vote on a contract when the spouse would benefit?" he said. "Even though I have regard for some of the other candidates, even a lot of regard, I have a serious issue with what to me is a conflict of interest."

For the record, Loeffler-Kemp says her husband doesn't negotiate any Duluth School District labor contracts - or, for that matter, any inside the city of Duluth.

"Regardless of my husband's job, I would be running based on my record of school and community involvement," she said. "I'm running because of my commitment to public education and that I will have children in the Duluth Public Schools for the next 14 years."

Akervik said he would abstain from a vote on the teacher's contract, although he may take part in discussions about it.

He doesn't think he'd be missing much, since it's a topic that only comes up once every two years.

"If it's a 4-4 split, I will not vote on it. They'll have to go back to the table. I'm not going to vote on anything that will be benefiting me personally " he said. "That's the way I was brought up."

For his part, Doyle called the conflict-of-interest charge a "desperate campaign tactic I think the electorate is smarter than to worry about that," he said.

Doyle wouldn't sit out any votes as a board member. "The bigger issue is this is going to be a market-driven contract, just like any other employee contract. The challenge is to compensate them as well as we can so we can keep good employees," he said.

Heimbach said for now, the MMM group will be spending money independently, buying ads and doing some mailings.