Groups frustrated by lack of access to Duluth schools superintendentSome city leaders expressed frustration about Foster canceling meetings and being inaccessible to various groups since he started the job on July 1.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
The failure of Duluth schools Superintendent I.V. Foster to obtain a license required to do his job may be his most public problem, but other issues have surfaced in the wake of that revelation this week.
Some leaders of the community and the district expressed frustration to the News Tribune about Foster canceling meetings and being inaccessible to various groups since he started the job on July 1.
Mayor Don Ness said he perceives a lack of interest on Foster’s part regarding community concerns and said he has had difficulty scheduling meetings with him.
“He’s a good person and his heart is in the right place …. (but) we haven’t seen the sort of leadership that the district so desperately needs,” Ness said. “There is a general sense of disappointment in the community about Dr. Foster’s performance these first six months.”
Frank Wanner, 30-year president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that people are frustrated about (Foster) canceling meetings and not showing up,” he said. “He’s kept a pretty low profile. I have had fewer interactions with him than any previous superintendent.”
On Monday, the Duluth School Board placed Foster on paid administrative leave and began an investigation into allegations against him. The board has not disclosed why, except for saying it was a personnel issue.
However, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, Foster, who comes from a superintendent post in Illinois, does not have the license required both by law and his contract to work as a superintendent in Minnesota. The license requirement is the second item in Foster’s contract and reads: “The Superintendent shall furnish, throughout the life of this Contract, a valid and appropriate license to act as Superintendent in the State of Minnesota as provided by applicable state laws, rules and regulations.”
The process to get a license includes an online application and fee, transcripts and verification of completion of a state-approved program.
Foster did not return calls to the News Tribune on Wednesday or Thursday.
Groups would like more of his time
Some community leaders described differences between the way Foster and former Superintendent Keith Dixon communicate with the groups.
Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President David Ross said the contrast between Foster and Dixon is “remarkable,” and that he was working on strengthening the chamber’s relationship with Foster.
“I had, and the chamber had, the kind of relationship with his predecessor where we were in constant contact available to each other by cell phone,” Ross said. “Keith was outstanding in keeping me and the chamber board apprised of what the district was doing and why. Keith was omnipresent throughout the community, attending every gathering remotely related to the school district.”
In comparison, Ross, said, “I have been in contact three times with I.V. since his arrival in July.”
United Way of Greater Duluth President Paula Reed said she’s worked with Foster on achievement gap initiatives.
“The times we were able to get meetings with him we had a good connection,” she said. “Would we like to have more connections and more of his time? Certainly. But he’s got a lot to get his arms around in the community.”
Since the United Way works across the area, she said, she’s heard of other groups’ frustrations. She said it’s been more difficult to reach Foster than it was to reach Dixon, who also appeared more engaged in the community.
“But he was here longer, so it’s hard to make that comparison,” Reed said.
The teacher’s union has tried to establish a relationship with Foster, Wanner said, but it’s been difficult.
“The superintendent has to be the leader in all aspects,” he said, and there are concerns about lack of follow-through with the state Department of Education on matters such as the long-range facilities plan. Work on the achievement gap is important, he said, but teachers and principals were also hard at work on that before Foster’s arrival.
“The constant in the school district as superintendents have come and gone has been the teaching staff and principals,” he said. “I’m afraid the public will lose faith in the school district and we’ll lose support for education. … It doesn’t just affect the superintendent, it affects us all.”
‘He’s doing a good job’
Other community leaders said they’ve had good relationships with Foster, and support how he’s led the district so far.
Duane Byrd is the program director of Youth of Duluth, an afterschool and summer program. Foster has supported the program and visited the students during activities, Byrd said, and has been readily available to meet with Byrd.
“He’s always been helpful with our kids, and shown up for our kids whether white, black, green or brown,” Byrd said. “I think he’s doing a good job.”
That notion is seconded by Claudie Washington, president of the Duluth NAACP and a member of the Education Equity Council for the district. He was part of the interview team in the search for a successor to Dixon, and said it was clear then that Foster was the best candidate.
“Since that time, I have had the opportunity to meet with him several times to discuss his visions for the district,” Washington said. “I believe given the opportunity, we might see the changes in the district that we know are so necessary. I’m concerned whether he has the support to do that. The key players have to be the School Board, and it’s very difficult to achieve goals without their support.”
Pat Kendall, president of the Duluth Parent Teacher Student Association, said Foster has been to every one of her organization’s monthly meetings.
“And he’s given us input on what’s going on with the district,” she said.
What happens next?
Foster applied for a superintendent’s license this week, said Richard Wassen, director of educator licensing for the Minnesota Department of Education.
Foster said this week that he thought somebody else had applied for his license for him, according to Stan Mack, executive director of the Board of School Administrators that is charged with overseeing the state’s school administrators.
However, Mack said that educators typically apply for their own licenses, as they are “personal property issues.”
Mack said Foster had a two-month window to apply for his license after he was selected and before he began work. Out-of-state applicants don’t typically apply for a license for another state until they have the job, he said, because there is a fee involved.
If Foster’s license is approved by the state, it will be held subject to a review by the code of ethics committee of the Board of School Administrators, which will probably take place Jan. 9, Mack said.
The matter needs to be reviewed by the committee because of the “extreme time of practicing without a license,” he said.
The board’s code of ethics states that violations can lead to monitoring of the person in question up to suspension or revocation of a license.
Foster’s contract breach and what that means is up to the School Board and its legal counsel, Mack said.
The breach could be considered grounds for termination by the School Board, Wassen said.
“But it’s a discretionary decision based on their understanding and the individual’s right to make a case about why that happened,” he said.
If Foster’s license is approved and he remains with the district, one School Board member said the relationship between the board and Foster could be strained.
Board member Art Johnston wouldn’t say whether the license issue and the board action were related, but he didn’t see the license issue as a serious violation.
“If reports are accurate, nobody has indicated there was any damage caused by that,” he said. “But there is possible irreparable damage between the board and I.V.”
Johnston, who said he abstained from voting in Monday night’s emergency meeting because he didn’t feel there was enough information, said the board “jumped the gun” in beginning an investigation.
“This could potentially kill someone’s career and we didn’t have information to do that,” he said. “I don’t think the investigation is money wisely spent and it’s not going to solve our problems.”
The Duluth school district needs a fresh start, transparency and a vision based on community priorities to regain trust lost during the Red Plan debate, Ness said, and people were hoping Foster could move things in that direction.
“Instead, a leadership vacuum has resulted in the same old debate,” he said. “The sooner the district can make this commitment to the community, the better.”