Column: Did party politics dictate board’s appointment?

There’s plenty of room for scrutiny and second guessing when it comes to the recently completed appointment of Lyle Abeln to the Bloomington Board of Education, but only so many hours in a week to write about it.

Thanks to the election of former Boardmember Melissa Halvorson Wiklund to the Minnesota Senate, the board found itself tasked with doing the job of the voters, choosing who sits among them during 2013. While the process was intended to be as pure as the driven snow, the reality is that when you have six people with personal preferences and agendas, the water is going to get a bit murky.

For more than two decades Jim Sorum served on the board. A little over the year ago he voluntarily ended his 21-year tenure. On paper he might seem like a strong candidate to pinch hit for a year, and he was certainly willing to do so.

There were differing philosophical ideals regarding the qualifications the board should seek in choosing Wiklund’s replacement. Some favored an experienced board member with working knowledge of the district, others favored a fresh perspective, perhaps a perspective that included being the parent of a current Bloomington student.

So it came as no surprise that there was a less-than-unanimous verdict last week in Abeln’s appointment. All four candidates up for consideration Jan. 8 had qualifications that were considered desirable by board members. But when it was all over and I was heading for the health club, I was left with one significant question? “What makes Jim Sorum so unappealing?”

Three board members clearly ranked Sorum ahead of the field. It was no secret Maureen Bartolotta, Dick Bergstrom and Arlene Bush favored an experienced board member, and no surprise that one of the most recent retirees was their top choice.

Tim Culver, Mark Hibbs and Nelly Korman favored everyone else, but settled upon Abeln while their counterparts held to their support of Sorum. Culver lobbied heavily for Ric Oliva, a 2011 candidate that didn’t win election to the board. When Culver decided it was time to shift his support, he acquiesced on board experience, and shifted his support to Abeln, another former board member, albeit a board member whose tenure began when Lincoln High School was still open.

While three board members were ready to pedestalize Sorum, the other three deemed him the fourth best choice in a four-horse race. And you could argue he was a distant fourth.

Weeks ago Bergstrom told an anecdote about a recent election that ended in a tie. The seat was awarded by luck of the draw, literally. The candidates drew cards, with the higher card determining who won the election. Bergstrom hoped that it wouldn’t come down to that in determing Bloomington’s next board member.

Yet the board appeared headed toward a stalemate last week. Although it was a bit early too early to declare a stalemate, Bergstrom questioned if board members should be considering the luck of the draw as a means to an end. He couldn’t finish the proposal without Culver interjecting defiantly. I’m sure that objection was based upon a desire to negotiate an agreeable solution, but to me it also suggested that Sorum was so undesirable that he wasn’t going to get a fourth vote uner any circumstance.

Earlier in the process Bergstrom asked, point blank, if there was a reason Sorum was a poor choice. Nobody could provide an answer to that. Instead of answering the question, Hibbs offered to turn the question around. “Why not Lyle?” he asked.

Why was it that Sorum, who had earned the people’s votes several times during the past two decades, was so unworthy of a vote by three members of the board when they were being asked to do the people’s job?

Sorum may not have been the best choice for 2013. Abeln has a bountiful resume that makes him a worthy choice, too. My bewilderment at the end of the night wasn’t why Sorum came up short, it was why the divide on the board over one candidate was so great you could have navigated the Titanic through it.

You can pretend it was simply a matter of philosophical differences about desired qualifications of the appointed board member, but it’s not that simple. The 3-3 stalemate was, according to one call I received last week, an old-fashioned political struggle, and it was hard to disagree with the logic. It may be a nonpartisan office, but the idea that party politics are influencing the free thinking in the boardroom is far from a stretch of the imagination.

Does it matter? Perhaps.

Earlier this week Abeln took his oath of office. One of his first decisions was scheduled to be choosing the board’s chair for 2013. Abeln was appointed to the board one day after the board held an organizational meeting of its six remaining members. One of the agenda topics at that Jan. 7 meeting was choosing the board chair, and the board struggled to reach a consensus on that topic, too. The matter went unresolved last week, however, as there was a 3-3 split in support for Bartolotta and Culver. The lines of support just so happened to mirror the lines of support for Sorum.

Coincidence? Harbinger of things to come?  Time will tell.


Contact Mike Hanks at [email protected]