Could be much worse

Having long believed that there are solid grounds for criticizing the Madison School Board, I am happy to see how well we compare in our conduct and meetings to some school boards.
School board has a truancy problem
Steve Brandt, Star Tribune
State conservation officer Brian Buria was checking a wetland complaint on Deer Lake last summer when he encountered a nude Minneapolis school board member.
“It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I said, ‘Jeepers. You got to be careful about that. You can get yourself in trouble. You could get registered as a sex offender exposing yourself.’ ”
Neighbors say it was just another swim for Audrey Johnson. Bert Robertson, who lives next door, is among the neighbors who say that Johnson has been living at her family’s Itasca County cabin, almost 200 miles from her Minneapolis constituency.
Johnson is one of three members of the seven-person board whose attendance has plummeted this year.
Johnson and Colleen Moriarty, both lame ducks whose terms conclude Dec. 31, have missed six and nine, respectively, out of about 30 public meetings since January, records indicate. Mid-termer Sharon Henry-Blythe has missed seven.
Responding via e-mail from her cabin, Johnson said she has spent substantial time at her cabin for family reasons and acknowledged the skinny-dipping, but she disputed the neighbors’ time estimates for both. She said she keeps in touch with constituents mostly by e-mail but also by phone.
Other board members say the absences are frustrating, one factor in the perception that the board has lost steam this year.
There’s plenty to deal with: falling enrollment, tight money, an achievement gap, reforming middle and high schools. The board sets policy in these areas, hires a superintendent and oversees finances.
“It’s never an easy job, but when I look at what’s on their plate, it’s an awful lot,” said Ann Kaari, a former board chairwoman.
The board adopted a budget in June with only four of seven members present; the numbers were the same on Aug. 22 and Sept. 26, when the board got state testing results. Minutes indicate that the board hasn’t met at full strength since July 11.
“It’s been really frustrating not to have a full board for meetings,” said first-termer Peggy Flanagan. “Frankly, when you run for the board you say you’re going to serve the people of Minneapolis, and people need to honor that commitment to the end of the term.”

Johnson’s neighbor Bert Robinson estimates she spends 90 to 95 percent of her time at Deer Lake. “She’s living up here,” he said.
As for the skinny-dipping, “It’s pretty common. I’ve probably seen it by accident a dozen times,” said Jim Kudluboy, who lives across the lake.
Johnson disputes those estimates.
State law says a vacancy occurs when a school board member ceases to be a resident of the district. Maintaining a home in the district, as Johnson has done, is usually enough to keep residency, according to attorney Cathy McIntyre of the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Chairman Joseph Erickson and Lydia Lee have the board’s best attendance records, missing only one meeting each, followed by Farmer, with two.
Erickson, who is also a lame duck, said he’s frustrated by attendance problems but leaves showing up to the conscience of members. Their gross pay is $13,800 a year. Erickson said he hasn’t delayed any issues due to attendance.
But Flanagan said the board has taken longer to plow through issues such as high-school reform when missing members return and rehash territory that others already have discussed.
Erickson last spring listed three priorities for the board before the terms of four members expire Dec. 31. The board has completed one, taking first steps toward strategic planning that will be mainly carried out by the new board that begins work in January.
Erickson said another priority, student safety, has been discussed mostly by administrators. The board will start to address the third, making middle grades work better, this week.
The lame-duck status of Johnson, Moriarty, Erickson and Judy Farmer prompted the board to delay a search for a superintendent until the new board is seated. The board also didn’t follow through on plans for office hours in the community and formal school visits. It did begin cable-casting its discussion meetings.
Absent members list reasons
The truant board members give a mix of reasons for their absences. Moriarty cited a busy season at the nonprofit agency she heads, an ear infection and surgery. Henry-Blythe listed recent trouble keeping track of board meeting times, a family trip, and out-of-town travel or work conflicts.
Johnson responded from her cabin. She said she was sick for two meetings, and out of town or on vacation for others.
Asked about the board’s pace this year, she wrote in an e-mail: “I feel that we should allow the meatier decisions to be made by the new board.” She said that after seven years on the board, “I have found that the system is very entrenched; politics and the interests of adult players dictate many decisions. The Board of Education has very little authority.”
Johnson expressed interest in chairing the board for 2005, but members chose Erickson. Johnson is an outspoken critic of federal and state education policies.
Johnson has yet to pay more than $29,000 in health-insurance premiums she owes the district. Johnson has said that she can’t afford to pay until she finds a job after her term ends. Meanwhile, her family is without health insurance, she said.
The district said it still plans to collect the money, which accumulated when premiums weren’t fully withheld because of computer issues.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 •