"The Other Side of the Coin"

by Harry Welty

I think its fair to say that I Like Frank Wanner. Ten years ago it was Frank that asked me if there was anything he could do to help me when I was terminated from my teaching position. That was the year another teacher was fired and the School District spent seventy thousand dollars to prove his incompetence. (I didn't have the legal ground to defend myself or the stomach for such a fight.) Though the DFT was not eager to defend this teacher that's what the union did. That was Frank's job.

Frank's job is important to me because he's an important person in the Duluth Schools. That's why I have met with him frequently since I was elected. It didn't matter to me that Frank had announced to several hundred teachers on the eve of my swearing in that "Harry Welty will be no friend of teachers!" I knew the truth and that Frank was just doing his job. Nonetheless, my fellow school board members were unnerved by our meetings. Phil Storsteen joked that he was sure Frank and I were the same person because he had never seen us together at the same time.

Over the last year I have watched in dismay as the once cordial relations between staff, administration and School Board have soured. By now everyone has heard about the Superintendent's "thin skin," and "intimidation." But most people haven't heard that Frank Wanner is the other side of the coin. I got another reminder of that last month when Frank turned to me and said through clenched teeth: "Harry, you're going to be a target in the next election!" My Mother always told me that it takes two people to have a fight. Today the Superintendent has been sent to his room without supper while Frank is drinking champagne. Its time to look at the other side of the coin.

No one was more lavish in his praise of Mark Myles than Frank Wanner when the School Board sought input on who to hire as our new Superintendent. As Mark tells it, Frank was on his doorstep immediately after his selection asking for favors for teachers and exemptions from the contract. Since Mark had to deal with a five million dollar deficit he had no inclination to make exceptions and the cordiality began to fade. By the time I took office one year later it had evaporated all together. I began attending the monthly meetings of teachers and administrators and was appalled at the spectacle of Frank and Mark sniping at each other. Frank invariably goaded Mark and Mark did not deal wll with Frank's wit and sarcasm. At the last School Board meeting (the same one at which Frank told me I'd be a target) Frank called Mark a liar during a recess. Mark responded with an expletive. Frank called me up a few days later and chortled over Mark's indiscretion.

Frank was the only teacher who had heard Mark so when a local talk show host began criticizing the Superintendent for swearing, the source for his information seemed obvious. This host has recently claimed that nothing would improve Duluth so much as half a dozen funerals. (Now that the Superintendent is on his way out we're down to five funerals.) A few days later this same host harassed a school board member and quoted contract negotiation figures that had not been made public. Prior to this both teacher and School Board negotiators had agreed not to leak information to the press. For its part the School Board was eager to avoid an old complaint of our teacher's about the School Board's "negotiating in the press." Apparently Frank's job has been made easier with the discovery that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Frank has already assured the teachers through his newsletter that the School Board does not want to treat them fairly. He warned me last Spring that the teachers were ready to strike. I've read many of his newsletters and discovered how often he accuses the Board of bad mouthing teachers so I would not be at all surprised if Frank was right. Frank is reported to have said that the highlight of his teaching career was the strike he led in 1983. Frank would be a good war leader but he should remember the words of Robert E. Lee: "It is good that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it." As for Frank's peacetime leadership... Well Edison seems to have stuck further down his craw than anything else in the school district. Yet I met with Frank over a year and a half ago and told him that the teachers should make a proposal for a charter school. Frank never pursued this idea. I guess he didn't think that was part of his job. On the other hand Frank gleefully told me that he had warned UMD's Education Department that if they ever promoted a charter school he would make certain they would never place a student teacher in Duluth again. That was Frank's job.

Frank called me last October after our former Chairman James Holiday gave a farewell address before departing Duluth. Frank was indignant because Holiday had told us that the Minnesota Federation of Teachers considered Duluth's union to be a dinosaur. Frank was also very curious to know what I knew. I too have talked to MFT leaders and I am confident they would never make that claim publicly and would deny it vociferously if asked.

I'm a former teacher and I remain a teacher with every action I take as a School Board member. I believe it is critical for our teachers and administration to work together. In fact, on a site by site basis there has never been more trust between teachers and their principals. Unfortunately, this has not been true across the District. At the highest levels vanity and ego take center stage. I'm not sure that should be part of the job.