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Written and submitted to the Duluth News Tribune on 12-21-2001

Can Duluth sustain three high schools?

The portion in red was omitted by the Tribune when they published the column

Can Duluth sustain three high schools?

I have always imagined myself as the little boy sitting on his fatherís shoulders in the story of the Emperorís New Cloths. Con men have convinced the vain King, the Kingís Court, and all the citizenry, that they have the finest fabric in the world. It is so fine, they say, that only intelligent people can see it. To all others the cloth is invisible. Afraid of admitting to being stupid everyone who is shown the non-existent fabric gushes over its beauty.

The King, fearful for his own reputation, goes so far as to decree that he will exhibit the splendor of his new royal robes for the public in a grand parade down the Kingdomís main thoroughfare. The admiring citizens, who have heard of the magical cloth, throng the parade route and feign admiration for the Kingís robes as the monarch proceeds, stark naked, down the main street. This fraud continues until the King passes the little boy who evidently has never been told of the fabricís magical properties. ďThe King is naked,Ē he shouts. I am that little boy.

In Duluth we have been persuaded that we can keep three high schools, at least for a while. The question is: at what cost? Ten years ago we decided to keep three high schools although it cost us five elementary schools to do this. Last week the School Board determined to close another elementary school, Birchwood, when it bravely authorized over 2 million in cuts to next yearís budget. It is likely to be the first elementary closing of many yet to come.

The problem is that next year might bring us a much larger deficit. Contract negotiations are in progress. Our teachers must accept a very modest settlement for us to stay above water. How modest? Well, if they get what Minnesotaís state employees got after all of Governor Venturaís chest thumping we will face another $2.3 million worth of cuts. But this is not our only concern. The state faces a $2 billion dollar deficit! Although some legislators have said they will protect K-12 education its hard to imagine how. Since the Governorís magical new education finance law K-12 education has grown from 35% to 40% of the stateís budget. Twenty years ago, when the state was in a similar financial pickle, the legislature raided public education to meet its constitutional mandate to keep a balanced budget. If the state decides to save itself again at the expense of K-12 education we could end up another $4 million short.

What I do know is that Duluth is special. Unlike other cities its size we have an extra high school. We have smaller elementary schools. We have a seven period day. We have magnet schools. We have the most generous transportation policy. We offer all day Kindergarten. Unfortunately, the rest of the state has caught on and in a few years the powerful legislators who have been able to win us these special favors will pass from the scene. Something will have to give. We may be able to keep one or more of these extra blessings but not all of them. Which of these should be our highest priority?

At the moment I am a lone, irritating, voice calling for two high schools. Some of my fellow board members are thoroughly put out with me because of my persistence. Iíve promised to shut up for a while if only they let me find out how much it would cost to move sixth graders back into our elementary schools. They have forbidden the Administration from researching this information for me. Having gotten this off my chest I would like to make one final observation.

Duluth has exactly one school building designed to accommodate today's high school students who drive to and from school. It has exactly one high school building with a full range of athletic fields adjacent to it. It has exactly one centrally located high school. It has exactly one high school with room to expand. It has exactly one high school with a Secondary Technical Center located nearby which students can walk to without the need for mid-day bussing. It also happens that this high school is the only high school with a century of tradition behind it.

The king is not completely naked. We could keep three high schools, at least for a few more years. The question is: at what cost? 

Harry Welty
School Board, 2nd District