Brad Bennett's Point of View and My reaction

School Board needs resolve to deal with bloated budget  My Reaction - Don't Point fingers in front of the mirror

3-15-2001 News Tribune

by Brad Bennett

Duluth schools have three problems: too many buildings, too many professional staffers, and too much money spent on the last two teacher contracts. Until the board and administration have the backbone to resolve these basic issues and learn from past mistakes, the community will suffer from reactionary, knee-jerk planning.

Duluth's school population has plummeted from 24,000 to 12,000 in the past 30 years. Neighborhood elementary schools have been closed with little regard for our youngest learners, let alone our neighborhoods. Now the board wants to close five more neighborhood schools.

Remember Riverside, Fairmont, Irving, Merritt, Bryant, Ensign, Emerson, Franklin, Barnes, Kenwood, Gnesen, Arnold, Cobb, Washburn, Jefferson, Munger, Park Point and Lakeside? All were elementary school casualties of declining enrollment while we continue to run three exorbitantly expensive high schools.

Duluth's kindergarten has only 800 students. Soon Duluth will have no more than 3,200 grade 9-12 students if our population holds. From that number deduct 13 percent who drop out and 400-600 students who take some of their classes at the Area Learning Center or the Secondary Technical Center and are not on campus. We cannot afford to run three high schools for what is soon to be about 2,500 grade 9-12 students on campus at any given time.

Other Minnesota districts of Duluth's size have one or two high schools. A visit to the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning Web site verifies that. There is not one school district in the state with 10,000 to 15,000 students operating three high schools. In 1992, as a School Board member, I supported keeping three high schools open. Since then our school population has dropped by 2,000 and is still falling. It is time the School Board and administration look at school districts of similar size and realize that two high schools, three middle schools, and eight to nine elementary schools would effectively and efficiently serve 10,400 students. And, it should not require $6.15 million of renovation!

Duluth has far too many licensed professional staff members. The 10 school districts closest to Duluth in size average 15.5 pupils per licensed professional staff. Duluth has 12.5 pupils per licensed professional staff. If Duluth were staffed like other districts its size, there would be 187.5 fewer professional staff members. Multiply 187.5 times $59,000, the average cost including benefits of a professional staff member. Duluth spends $11 million a year more for professional staff than do other school districts its size. No business could remain competitive being 23 percent overstaffed like the school district is when compared to districts of similar size. The district could be similarly overstaffed in nonlicensed employees but that data was not available at the state Web site.

In regard to the last two teacher two-year contracts: According to the News Tribune, the total cost of the 1997-99 contract was $8.3 million, and the total cost of the 1999-2000 contract was $6.4 million. Over the past four years the total cost of the teachers' contract has risen $14.7 million over a 1996-97 base of $50.3 million according to a Nov. 23, 1998, article in the News Tribune. Simple math tells you that teacher costs have risen by 29.2 percent over the four-year period. Other employee costs increased the same. Revenues did not increase near that much over the same period, and inflation was under 10 percent total for those four years.

F.I.G.H.T. said then, and will say now: Those settlements were irresponsible compared to revenues and inflation. The only way the district came close to paying for those settlements was for School Board members to go back on their word and raise tax levies to the maximum, thus increasing property taxes beyond what they should have been. It was absolutely predictable that the district would be in the financial chaos it is now in.

The enemy is us! We have elected School Board members who belong to the same teachers' union as our teachers. We should have expected them to give the farm away. With the exception of member Bob Mars there is no real business experience on the board of our $110 million-a-year business. And it appears that some board members are neither curious enough nor serious enough to do their homework on staffing or school closing issues. We will have an opportunity to change four of them in the next election.

Bennett is director of F.I.G.H.T., Fight Inefficient Government and High Taxes, in Duluth and a former member of the Duluth School Board.



by Harry  Welty

I have just read Brad Bennettís commentary on the Duluth School District and his call to replace school board members in the fall election. I'd like to remind Brad that things are a little different than when he served on the Duluth School Board.

Gone are the days when small acts of malfeasance were swept under the rug. Gone are the days when a carless Board member would be loaned a district vehicle for months on end. Gone are the days when a cash strapped District would report phantom students to the state to receive undeserved state revenue. Gone are the days when a canned Finance Director could be dismissed from his job but collect a 100,000 golden parachute on his way out. Gone are the days when the district would receive nearly a million extra dollars in state aid simply because its State Senator was the powerful Chairman of the Budget Committee.

Yes, our teachers have, after the lean years when the District was five million dollars in debt, gotten two settlements that were better than the state average. But Mr. Bennett should give the current school board credit for winning the ability to bid out insurance by holding firm almost to the point of a strike. This is something that was never accomplished in the twelve long years Member Bennett served on the Board. It became possible after Bradís departure, along with some very public truculence towards the teacherís union. It is even possible that another long ignored issue, severance, may soon be solved by this less militant Board.

I heartily agree with Member Bennett when he calls for two high schools. This is something he himself admitted he was too timid to support when it first was proposed a decade ago. It remains to be seen whether the current Board follows Mr. Bennett's skittish example.

I know that Member Bennett served during difficult times but he never faced the challenge we've had to confront. We must deal with a popular Governor who wants to radically alter school finance which strips the district of its ability to plan for inflation. The Ventura Budget increases our spending for next year by 0 percent and just 1 percent the following year. 

Member Bennettís reaction to this is to scold the Board for levying local taxes to the maximum allowed by law. What member Bennett fails to acknowledge is that almost every other School District in the State levies to the max as well. It seems harsh to single the Duluth School Board out for criticism on this account. Perhaps, like Governor Ventura, Mr. Bennett should cast the blame on every school board in the state.

Mr. Bennett is the Director of an organization dedicated to fiscal prudence. For that reason he should commend the current School Board for looking at reorganization plans which will result in a balanced budget. For some of our Board members this fiscal attitude is a remarkable conversion. I think Mr. Bennett ought to give these board members a little credit.

Obviously the Duluth School District has a big job in trimming its expenses. If there is a bright side to this its that the planning process which has burst into public view now involves the whole community. It also means that absolutely everything is on the table, even a high school closure. 

Duluth has had it very good indeed for a long time. We have more schools. We have a greater variety of schools. We have smaller classrooms. We offer a richer high school curriculum. We pick kids up on busses closer to their homes. This year, however, will put an end to some of these riches and Duluth will fall closer in line to other Minnesota School Districts. This is not so awful however. After all, Minnesota still has one of the best public education systems in the United States. Duluth's schools will be no exception.