Duluth School Board member Josh Gorham has resigned, citing his disappointment with the district's administration and board leadership.
In an email to the News Tribune Wednesday, Gorham, who has held the At Large seat since January 2018 and served as the board's clerk, said he had become increasingly frustrated with the board's lack of "accountability and sense of urgency" when it came to improving graduation rates and student test scores.
Gorham said he was also stepping down to prioritize his family and his health. His term was set to expire in January 2022.
Several School Board members echoed Gorham's call for the board and district to take graduation rates and student test scores more seriously, including Nora Sandstad, who called on School Board Chairwoman Rosie Loeffler-Kemp to step down from her leadership role.
The School Board will hold a special meeting Monday to discuss filling Gorham's seat.
Citing state law, Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association, told the News Tribune that the School Board can appoint someone to Gorham's seat until the general election in November of next year. Then, a special election will take place, the winner of which will serve the remainder of Gorham's term.
Gorham said he ran for his board seat because he wanted to provide a "vital service" to children in the community.
"The responsibility of the School Board under the guidance of administration and board leadership to its community is to govern efficiently and lead effectively to provide for equitable education, resulting in high student achievement," Gorham said. "Unfortunately, my experience in striving to provide accountability to educational equity has been met with what I perceive as a dismissive, maintain the status-quo approach."
In a news release, Sandstad said she was thankful for Gorham's "selfless service" and his "efforts to raise achievement and expectations for leadership."
But then she called on Loeffler-Kemp to step down from board leadership.
"To that end, I’m calling on Chair Loeffler-Kemp to step aside as board chair. As we move into this crucial superintendent search, we need board leadership that is transparent, forward-looking and inclusive," Sandstad said.
In a statement, Loeffler-Kemp said the board faced "a difficult time" with the superintendent search, boundary study and budget constraints, but did not explicitly address Sandstad's call to step down as chairwoman.
"Our District has more work remaining and we will continue to work towards meeting the needs of all students," Loeffler-Kemp said, citing several achievements and initiatives aimed at equity in education passed during her six years on the board.
She added later, "I will continue to dedicate my time, work and heart — as I have for many years — to supporting efforts to help all of Duluth's students succeed."
Last week, a report released by the Minnesota Department of Education said Duluth Public Schools saw an overall four-year graduation increase of 2.05% from 2018 to 2019. Duluth East High School saw a slight increase in graduation rates from 2018 to 2019, while Denfeld High School saw a decrease of 6.62%.
Duluth’s black student graduation rates in 2019 saw the biggest increase of any student group with an increase of 26.79%.
Board member Sally Trnka, who campaigned with Gorham, echoed his concern with the slow increase.
"I think the numbers speak for themselves," Trnka said. "We're not seeing the increase in numbers, in graduation rates and reading rates, especially amongst our low-income students and students of color, that I think our community demands."
Asked if she agreed with Gorham's frustration with the administration and board leadership's response to those issues, Trnka said, "I would say without pointing any fingers that the numbers speak for themselves, and we need to do better."
Alanna Oswald said she has felt the same frustration Gorham expressed in his letter over board leadership and administrators dismissing efforts to improve those marks.
"I would gather that also, and that I have run into it at times myself," Oswald said.
Oswald noted that since he was clerk, he and Loeffler-Kemp would go to agenda-setting sessions, which were closed to other members.
"I don't really know what happened in those sessions," Oswald said. "I know that they could be contentious at times, depending on what you wanted to get on the agenda."
Board member David Kirby said he "valued (Gorham's) perspective and approach to problems, which were always the result of sincere and deep-seated reflection on his part." Kirby would not comment on Sandstad's call for Loeffler-Kemp to step down as chairwoman.
Board member Jill Lofald said she was aware of Gorham's struggles to balance his role on the board with family, a career and his personal health.
"I am thankful for his service and know that this was not an easy decision," Lofald said.
Lofald did take issue with Gorham's characterization of the district and board officials not doing enough to improve graduation rates and test scores.
"I don't see anyone resting on their laurels and thinking we are doing enough," Lofald said. "We know there is much more work to be done."
In a statement, Superintendent Bill Gronseth thanked Gorham for his service, but urged the board members to remain focused.
"I know how frustrating it can be to find out that there are no easy solutions and that gains come slowly and only after a lot of hard work," Gronseth said. "I encourage our School Board members, who care deeply about public education, to turn their focus back to the important work we’re all doing to help students succeed."