UPDATED: Carlton School Board meeting adjourned for 'lack of decorum'Want to get involved? There will be an informal community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June22, in the small gym at Carlton High School for community members and others to brainstorm.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Again the pendulum swings. Two weeks ago, following a surprise board plan to cut several teachers, community members came to the Carlton School Board meeting calling for board resignations. Ten days ago, most of the 200 audience members at the board’s finance committee meeting were focused on figuring out how they could help save the school district, which was facing a June 15 state deadline to deal with its statutory operating debt (SOD). At Thursday’s board meeting, the theme from the most vocal part of the crowd appeared to revert to placing blame, and calling for board members to resign.
Thursday’s school board meeting started out on task. Two representatives from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) began by explaining to the board and about 30 audience members exactly how state statute defines SOD, what the state requires of schools in SOD and why Carlton is being asked to provide more than the usual plan to get out of debt.
Carlton must submit four detailed plans to the state instead of one, because the district has been in SOD seven of the last eight years and because Carlton hasn’t had an approved SOD plan since 2007.
Janna Duffy, MDE program finance supervisor and a former business manager for the Carlton School district in the 1990s, outlined the basics of SOD and state trends -- fewer schools in SOD -- before discussing exactly what the MDE is requiring of ISD No. 93.
Brand new Superintendent Peter Haapala and board members are required to submit four alternative plans for bringing the district out of SOD by 2010. Plan A must detail how much money a referendum proposed for next November will ask for and what the district will do if the referendum passes. Plan B will detail what actions the district will take if the referendum fails. Plan B-1 will describe district actions (staff reductions, etc.) in case the referendum fails and student numbers go down. And Plan C is supposed to tell the state at what point the district will begin the process of dissolving itself or consolidating with another school district, and specifics where the students would go in that event.
“Districts do come out of statutory operating debt,” Duffy said. “It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of planning, but it can happen.”
The district does have a small amount of breathing room. Haapala received word late Wednesday that the MDE)has agreed to grant the district another extension to submit its SOD plans. The verbal agreement stated that Plans A, B, and B-1 must be approved by MDE no later than Aug. 31, 2010. Plan C must be approved by MDE no later than Dec. 31, 2010. The district must send its plans at least three weeks before the deadline.
Once Duffy finished presenting the SOD facts, MDE’s Audrey Bomstad explained how a district decides to reorganize (Plan C) and what options are available, from partnering with another school district to consolidation to simply dissolving the district.
After Bomstad finished, Board Chair Randy Schmitz opened the meeting to the public, asking that people restrict their questions to the facts presented by Duffy and Bomstad.
Not a chance. The first audience member to stand up was Julianne Emerson, a para-professional in the district, attorney and mother to three children, who wrote an opinion piece in the Duluth News Tribune June 8 calling for the resignation of most of the board as well as Haapala, who officiallyA started his job with the district June 7.
Emerson objected to Schmitz’s request, then peppered the board with questions about past decision making, Haapala’s qualifications, the district’s failure to post enough details about discussions since the June 8 meeting and, above all, the community’s lack of trust in the board.
“What do you want us to do, tweet you every time we talk to someone,” responded Board Member Tim Hagenah. “Be a little realistic.”
After several minutes, Caryl Kunze, a teacher at the district’s elementary school, stood up and pointed out that the direction Emerson and others were taking with their questions wasn’t helpful.
“If you want them to resign, what happens to the SOD plan and the schools,” Kunze said. “As far as the superintendent, who wants to be captain of the Titanic?”
After a few more comments, Schmitz adjourned the meeting due to “a lack of decorum” and because Hagenah had left the meeting and the board no longer had a quorum.
“Resign, just resign,” Emerson said.
Despite being adjourned, the back-and-forth banter didn’t end for some time. Nor did the highly critical tone, with board members taking heat for not doing more previously to get the district out of SOD. While they acknowledged the problem was ongoing, Schmitz said the board had trusted the previous administration and were unaware that the problem was as serious as it is.
“I’ve gotten more information from Pete [Haapala] since he started than I got in five years,” Schmitz said, defending the new superintendent after Emerson called for him to step down because of lack of administrative experience.
“Pretty soon, all you’ll have is administration and no students,” Emerson said. “That’s where it’s headed.”
Eventually, Haapala said in a follow-up call Friday morning, the meeting did get back on track and people started talking about how the district should move forward.
“We’re hoping we can turn some of that energy into positive energy to help the school district survive,” Haapala said, adding that he hopes the board will schedule twice-weekly meetings for the next month to work on the SOD plans with community members. He has placed that request on the School Board’s regular Monday meeting agenda.
There will be an informal community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the small gym at Carlton High School for community members and others to brainstorm. Haapala said the plan is to break into small groups and then have someone from each group report back to the group as a whole.
He is also hoping to have something set up on the school district’s website by Monday where people can access information about the SOD process and e-mail suggestions when they can’t come to meetings.