Saturday, 12, 20, 2002

Good Advice

Dear Political Diary,

I got a call today warning me that my Budgeteer column had drawn return fire. Although my reference to the Green Mill meetings did not mention anybody by name close observers of the Duluth School Board, all 43 of them, would have had no trouble identifying the "recently defeated board member" as Eileen Zeitz Hudelson. 

Although I campaigned vigorously to get Bob Mars elected as a write-in candidate in 1997 I had no idea it would lead to so much bad blood between Eileen and me. Our daughters had been casual friends in school together. Fortunately they are long out of the Duluth School system and going to colleges outside of Duluth. The bad blood between their parents has only gotten worse.

If I am right, and I have little doubt that I am, then Eileen's meetings with her allies on the School board are held to insure that her much cherished long term plan is enacted. (This is the plan that necessitates closing additional elementary schools) Eileen's husband, Richard Hudelson, chivalrously defended his wife. He suggested that the meetings are simply get togethers by old friends. Maybe, but I don't believe it. I suspect she's also working with them to think through her comeback to the school board in the next election.  

The blood feud bean innocently enough. First the superintendent got the School Board together to do some long term planning. Our lsessions were quiet affairs. Maybe too quiet.  By law they had to be open to the public so we publicized them. Then we held them at out of the way locations at times inconvenient to the public. Consequently, we never had any outside observers.  Our most infamous meeting took place in September of 2000 when we met early on a Sunday morning at the CAB. I had to skip church to attend. Because the janitors had the day off and there was no one to monitor the building we locked the doors after a few minutes grace to make sure no interested people were turned away. A vote we took that day has locked us into the elementary closing mode ever since.

Eileen and her allies value "programs" over buildings. They insisted that the previous school board's 1997 excess levy which financed elementary art, music and physical education specialists could not be tampered with. We would have to sacrifice other things, even our budget reserve if necessary, to preserve the elementary specialists. Fortunately, both the budget reserve and the specialists have remained to this day. 

The priorities we decided on at this fateful meeting, led to a winter of discontent and a plan to close five elementary schools. This plan prompted a storm of protest and three back to back meetings in the winter of 2001 attended by 1,800 to 2,000 angry citizens. It was at this point that I began publicly advocating the closing of a high school. I set up a corner of my webpage and called it "Crisis."  For the next several months I kept close track of what was going on in the planning process. 

This was a politically volatile year for Eileen and her three allies. All of them were up for reelection. Two years earlier when I ran for reelection Eileen recruited a candidate to challenge me and prompted a few friends to write unflattering letters-to-the-editor about me. She also helped defeat my friend and Board ally Mary Cameron. I had given considerable thought to getting even but decided against it. 

Instead I asked Eileen to breakfast in 2001 and told her that while I would be helping Mary Cameron to get back on the Board I would not attack Eileen or her allies in the campaign. Eileen was not very gracious about my promise and I'm not sure I can blame her, after all Mary Cameron would be running for one of the at large seats in 2001 which meant a victory would cost either Eileen or Laura Condon their seat . Eileen said some spiteful things to me which almost made me regret making the promise.  

Julio, made the mistake of dabbling in our politics after he heard from Eileen. He called Mary Cameron and told her that several school board members would support her if she ran for the Duluth City Council elections! This is just one of many incidents which suggested a close working relationship between Julio and Eileen. This apparent favoritism has undermined the confidence of some board members in the Superintendent.

I honored my word and organized a positive campaign for Mary with one exception. I took umbrage to Eileen's campaign literature which hinted that the school board Mary had served on had been fractious, and by implication, that this was Mary's fault. In response I wrote two letters-to-the-editor to differentiate Mary from the other incumbents. The first letter went to the Duluth Tribune.   The second letter went to the Budgeteer

One of my letters pointed out that three of the incumbents would automatically be reelected because there were only five candidates for four seats. The task of closing schools was so onerous that even though the public had been outraged by our plan no one stepped forward to run for the school board except Mary Cameron.  This was remarkable. A few years earlier over 20 candidates had run for the school board.

I still, wonder if my promise to Eileen wasn't the worst political mistake of my career. Although Eileen is off the school board she is still apparently using her influence to focus the Board on closing elementary schools. I could easily have recruited candidates to challenge all four incumbents from the hundreds who had attended those winter meetings. All four of the incumbents, all of them Eileen's buddies, could have been swept out of office. 

A few days after the election when the school board met to canvass the election (count and verify its outcome) Bob Mars commented quietly to me that if there had been more challengers other incumbents would have lost. As it was Mary Cameron won handily over both Laura and Eileen.  Eileen was crushed by her defeat. Other board members, particularly Mary Glass-LeBlanc, were thrilled. 

From that day on Eileen has apparently worked to position herself for a return to the School Board. She has become the President of the UMD faculty union which makes her an even closer ally of Alan Netland the head of both AFSCME and the Duluth area AFL-CIO. This almost assures that Eileen will automatically  win a union endorsement.

There have been many Zeitz sightings. She has been named to one school district committee. She has joined the League of Women Voters. She shows up at all union functions and has attended several school district functions. And of course their are her meetings at the Green Mill.

It was at one of the Green Mill meetings that her allies on the Board attempted to prevent the Board from reconsidering the three high school plan. I can easily imagine her reminding them how parliamentary procedure could be employed to prevent reconsideration. 

Richard Hudelson concludes his letter with the curt admonition that I ought to get a life. Its good advice. I'd be willing to recommend it to anyone contemplating a run for the school board.