3-27-2001

Board shouldn't put off a move to two high schools

Point of View by George Balach

Some pertinent facts. Because of declining enrollment (which we have known about for 20 years), the Duluth School District has 25 percent more buildings than necessary to house 12,000 students.

If nothing is done, in five years the district will have 50 percent more building capacity than necessary to house 10,000 students.

The district has 24 percent more professional staff than other districts its size -- examples include Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Mounds View and North St. Paul. The excess levy added 27 music, art and physical education specialists but this still doesn't account for the discrepancy.

The cost of the teachers' contract has risen 29 percent ($14.7 million) over the past four years,[JU]outpacing inflation and, more importantly, revenues.

Blaming Gov. Jesse Ventura doesn't solve the problem and does not absolve the district administration and board from responsibility for it. They inherited a district in arguably the best financial condition in years and, by avoiding difficult decisions, have created a largely avoidable financial quagmire.

No business would survive with too many buildings, too much staff and salary and benefit increases that outstripped revenues. The shareholders would have every right to demand the replacement of the board of directors responsible for the situation.

Regarding buildings. The sooner the district moves to two high schools the better off it will be financially and educationally. No school district of Duluth's size in the state operates three high schools because it is simply not affordable.

Next year Duluth will have 2,956 grade 10-12 students that could be accommodated nicely in Duluth East and Denfeld. Two three-year high schools of 1,478 students would be ideal.

Next year Duluth will have 3,674 grade 6-9 students, who could be nicely educated in four middle schools -- Morgan Park, Central, Woodland and Ordean. If enrollment continues to drop ( a likely scenario) ninth-graders could move up to the high schools, and one middle school (Ordean) could be converted to an elementary.

Next year Duluth will have 5,030 K-5 students, enough for nine to 10 elementary schools, allowing for the closure of Birch-[JU]wood, Piedmont, Chester Park and Lester Park.

Birchwood students would attend Lowell (and can keep the Core Knowledge as a school within a school). Piedmont students would go to Lincoln ($4 million in improvements have been done). Chester Park students would go mostly to Grant. Lester Park students would go to Congdon and Lakewood. If populations continued downward another middle school could be converted and additional elementary schools closed.

With this plan, you transition into the two high schools, three middle schools, and eight to nine elementary schools, which is where we will likely end up. Virtually no new construction would be required. It makes far more sense to start with two high schools right now and not spend additional scarce capital dollars[JU]on building (of all things) additions onto schools.

Arguments that four-year high schools better accommodate the state's new Graduation Rule have no basis in fact. Let's be honest, grade level reconfiguration never had to do with education, it had to do with filling school buildings from the top down.

When high schools lost population, up went the ninth-graders. When the junior highs lost population, up went the fifth- and sixth- graders.

In summary, the Duluth school district should have a professional staff it can afford and be sure those professionals are in an organization that allows them to be most effective. It should go to a six-period day because it can't afford as many electives as it now offers and would have no negative effect on students.[JU]Edina and other top school districts in the state have six-period days; quality is a nonissue.

The School Board cannot continue to increase wages and benefits more than revenues!

The board should not put off moving to a two high school plan -- it makes the most sense now and in the future. Coincidentally, it saves the most money.

Incidentally, current board members Mike Akervik, Pati Rolf, Dorothy Neumann and Laura Condon refused to consider this approach in a recent School Board vote. So much for looking at all the ideas and options.

Balach, a Duluth dentist, is a former Duluth School Board member.

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