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Who do the Voodoo? I do!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sprinkled throughout this story are links to newspaper stories, letters, etc. for background reading. I'm still trying to find some of the documents I want to hyperlink. Documents in red are not yet loaded into this page. Those that are underlined are linked.

The Events immediately leading to Harry's Voodoo Resignation

For four months I was the unlikely chair of the Duluth School Board. I had spent the previous Summer trying to prevent four candidates from being elected to the Board. After their election I met with several of these same candidates and admitted that I had worked against their campaigns but asked them to vote for me anyway for the Chair of the Board. I told them that my primary intention was to keep the School Board effective, harmonious, and focused on making the Duluth Schools the best they could possibly be.  I was elected chair on a 5 to 4 vote. I was the only old member of the Board to vote for me. All the new members voted for me.

We faced several immediate issues:

  1.     The old Superintendent had alienated virtually the entire faculty and announced his retirement a few weeks before the new members were sworn in. This meant the new board would be selecting a new Superintendent.
  2.      The teacher's contract was long overdue for settlement and the teachers had been waiting for the new "friendlier" Board to be seated to negotiate a more favorable contract.
  3.     The "for profit" Edison charter school had been permitted to set up shop in Duluth by the previous School Board and the leadership of the Teacher's Union wanted to undermine it. The new Board members had all signed a union pledge opposing the school in principle.
  4.     We also faced a particularly nasty fight over whether the School Board should say the "Pledge of Allegiance" at the beginning of its meetings courtesy of an exboard member who wanted to publicly embarrass one of the new members.

For four months I tried to accommodate the new Board members and stay allied with the old members who had not supported me for the chairmanship. I was not fully trusted by the other senior board members because I had used anti-Edison board members to become Chair of the Board. The parents of Edison students were nervous about me too.

I used the occasion of my selection as Chair to face up to the bullying of the President of the Teacher's Union. At a School Board meeting two months before I was elected Chair he had called the old Superintendent a "liar" and had turned to me and privately told me that I was a "target" in the next election. I had been the only school board member who had tried working with him and I was non-pulsed. At first I tried to deal with this threat by writing a light hearted column about it in a local advertiser which had offered to let me write one. When the advertiser ran out of room for my column and after the superintendent announced his intention to resign it occurred to me that this was the beginning of a great triumph for the union President.  Bullying was about to be rewarded. As I was apparently next on his list I decided to throw the gauntlet down.

I wrote a letter to him and all the members of the union executive board telling the President what I thought of his bullying tactics. I said I intended to work with the union but that since he had already targeted me I would be suspicious that he might use joint meetings as opportunities to sabotage me. I included a new and much more serious guest column which I said I was thinking of submitting for publication.

Very few people were happy that I had written this letter. The old Board members felt it was a waste of time to spar with the union. The new board members did not want any part of my fight. I presume the union executive board was not happy although only one member of the Exec Board ever complained to me. 

Although the contract negotiations continued to simmer other things diverted the School Board's attention over the next few months, especially the search for a new superintendent. There was considerable jockeying for control of the process. The four new members had suspected that they would be frozen out of the selection process by the majority. That didn't happen. In fact, the new board members were allowed remarkable influence in designing the selection process and ultimately got the candidate they wanted much to the shock and chagrin of the old board members.  Also the new members, having been elected as critics of the system, demanded lots of information from the administration about the workings of the schools. The four months I served as Chair saw more special committee hearings  than had been held in the previous two years. It was exhausting.

Underlying this frenetic activity was the tension caused by the unsettled contract. For over a year the President of the union had informed his members that the School Board was negotiating in bad faith.  The new Board members were desperate to settle but grudgingly went along with the majority hoping for an eventual resolution. The teachers were counting on the new board members to get the contract settled. It would only take one old board member to crumble under the pressure and join the new members in accepting a destructive settlement.

In January, when the new members were sworn, in about 100 teachers showed up to cheer for them. Several ungracious speeches given by departing board members put the audience and the new board members in a surly mood. In February about 150 teachers showed up to demand a settlement and fair wages. March was quiet but April was going to be interesting.

The Union was turning up the pressure. It had begun a letter writing campaign and I had had my hands full responding to the propaganda Mr. Wanner (Blue Sheet) had given his troops. A letter writing campaign had been organized and directed at me to soften me up. I wrote back to over twenty teachers and told them my side, the School Board's side, of the story. To make sure that my message got through I sent copies of these letters to the union president.

Then I made a mistake. One teacher wrote to me demanding a fair settlement. I wrote back and said we were working on a 9 percent salary increase over two years. I was wrong. We were offering a 9 percent increase including both salary and benefits, something called the "total package." On March 13th the union President pounced and wrote a scathing column in which he suggested our hired negotiator was not putting the 9 percent offer on the table. His column concluded with a letter he sent to me.

I had been warned that it was dangerous to correspond with the teachers but I believed it was more dangerous not to write back to them. I believe that when someone writes to an elected official brushing them off is the worst response. Now it was apparent that a brush off might have been the lesser of two evils. Still, I was unbowed. In response to a guest column Frank wrote for the newspaper I wrote another letter I wrote another letter to him testier than the first, with a new proposed column to offer the newspapers.

My letter to Frank praised the teachers at our Lincoln Middle School. I commented that they had worked hard and done all the things that we as school leaders had asked of them (because of their pride in the profession and determination to make the school better) and had done it all without waiting to be paid more to do it. Shortly after I sent Frank this letter I got an angry letter signed by all the teachers at Lincoln telling me that they didn't appreciate me using them to prove that teachers would work harder without more pay. Since my message to Frank had been distorted I quickly sent them a letter explaining my position. I even told the Lincoln staff that things were getting too heated and that I would be writing to their President to try to settle things down. 

At this point I got a call from Mary Thompson, an education reporter for the local paper. She was almost apologetic but said she had gotten wind of the letters I had been sending and the feud that Frank and I were carrying on. She interviewed me and told me she had never seen teachers so mad. I let her see the correspondence I had sent and she warned me that the story would be published on the weekend. She told me that she thought Frank was particularly unhappy to have a story written about our feud. I wasn't surprised. I thought it would tar him as much if not more than me. I sent Frank my letter suggesting an armistice but it was too late. Frank began a much more ambitious letter writing campaign to intimidate me.

The story was front page news and my hardest hitting quotes were there in the paper for all to see. While many people have shaken their head in disbelief with my sending the letters no one has ever disagreed with me about anything I wrote. I've never regretted sending it.

In the next few weeks I received 300 postcards from teachers. This time behind closed doors the entire School Board made it clear that if I wanted to remain Chairman I must not send any more letters.

I was determined to reply to these letters but could not do so in good conscience as long as I remained Chair of the Board. It seemed to me that the Board was relatively stable at the moment; the superintendent search was underway; the Board was still hanging tough on the negotiations; the new board members had gotten their get their feet wet. It was time for me to step down. I discussed the matter with  fellow board member Tim Grover and the outgoing superintendent.  I placed the election of officers on the April agenda, without calling attention to it, hoping no one would notice.

The weekend before the meeting I got an excited phone call from Tom Wilkowske, the newspaper's other education reporter. He had gone though the agenda very carefully that weekend because he had just started receiving the "weekly packet" sent to board members. He had been lobbying to get the weekly mailings for almost a year. Our Superintendent, who had a frosty relationship with the press, had dragged his heels about doing this but had finally put the reporter on the mailing list at Tim Grover's and my insistence.

Tom had read the amended agenda and put two and two together. I was coy but didn't deny thinking about stepping down. There was a story in the next day's paper followed by an Editorial which urged me to step down. I hate taking good advice and began to have second thoughts about doing so. However, when I read the editorial say that my letters to teachers had divulged sensitive negotiation information thereby compromising negotiations I figured I had no choice but to step down. That was too damning a charge for me to ignore. I suspect that our Superintendent had passed that information along to the editors. If so, its likely he put a good word in for me because they added that I had been a valuable member of the school board, or some such thing, and might once again be a suitable Chair.

After the front page coverage of the feud, Frank's inflammatory newsletters, the 300 post cards, it was apparent that the April meeting would see even more angry teachers. About 300 showed up most wearing their red shirts. If I was going to resign I wanted to send the right message to the teachers, one that was conciliatory but which talked openly about the unhealthy climate in the District. Being a whimsical character who detests preachiness I wanted to lighten up my message somehow. There are few things so deadly as people who get too caught up in their own seriousness. I thought I had a great idea about how to do this.

I had just been to the National School Board's convention in New Orleans a few weeks earlier and had picked up a "voodoo doll" as a trinket for my wife. The doll came with two pins, one black and one white. The instructions said that the black pin was for casting evil spells and the white pin was for casting  good spells. I cast a spell with the black pin.

With all the media present and  300 teachers in the audience the April board meeting was a big deal. The acoustics were not good.  Our board room is not set up for people in the back to hear the proceedings so we set up some closed circuit televisions in the back to make our proceedings audible. After some preliminaries I took center stage. I read a statement I read a statement which began with an apology to one of the new School Board members for something unrelated to the teachers.

Then I spoke about the long standing mistrust between just about everybody in the district. I explained that I had secretly planned for years to try to help heal these differences and acknowledged that I had apparently accomplished the opposite. I said I did not want to become an obstacle to achieving this goal. I explained that I would step down from the chairmanship in hopes of restoring good faith. Then I took out my wife's voodoo doll and explained that I would attempt to exorcise the school system of "ill will." The superintendent sitting beside me tensed uncomfortably at this unanticipated ceremony.  I grimaced as I plunged the pin deep into the doll.  Afterwards, I told the audience that I didn't know about anybody else but I was already feeling better.
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The next morning I was on the cover of the newspaper. The photographer had taken a picture of me looking particularly grim. He probably snapped it when I was sadly mentioning the paranoia in the district. I enjoyed the story. I hadn't been nervous at all, unlike the first meeting I chaired, when I had been so nervous that
I almost lost the trust of the new board members.

That morning, right after 8 o'clock, my wife called me from work. She had heard that my resignation had been mentioned on Paul Harvey's national radio newscast. Paul had mentioned the 300 angry teachers in the audience and went on to tell his national audience that I had used my voodoo doll to put a curse on them before resigning my chairmanship. I thought that was pretty funny. I didn't even know that Paul Harvey was still alive. From his description of events I still wondered if he wasn't reporting from the grave.

When I walked into the Administration building later that morning our new Public Relations officer rushed up to me to ask if I'd heard the news. She then proceeded to spoil the fun by reassuring me that she had faxed Harvey's offices to give them the real story or perhaps, "the rest of the story."

Free of my responsibility as chair I looked up the mailing addresses of 150 of the 300 teachers who had written me and sent them a letter which explained my side of the negotiations story. I had no regrets. The Chairmanship wasn't worth hiding my thoughts behind officious, stony silence.

I thoroughly enjoyed being the Chairman but it was stressful. I lost ten pounds in those four months. One night in March I woke up in pain and couldn't sleep.  I thought it was gas but when I got up to take a midnight walk it occurred to me that if I had a heart attack I wouldn't be found until morning. I got in my car and drove to the emergency room. It was gas. What an apt metaphor.

*    *    *

This voodoo stuff continues to trail after me and my wife. 

I received this email in the summer of 2002.