The Crisis Begins

Some History

We face an unprecedented deficit of 4.8 million dollars next year if we do nothing.  The following year we face a 13 million deficit if we do nothing. This is unprecedented. We do not have the option of doing nothing.  We have too many schools for our students and some must close - next year. The question is which schools do we close.  The News Tribune of March 7th did a good job detailing the plan we've discussed so far.

in 1992 we were a two high school town and the Duluth School Board abruptly voted to close Central High School. The furor was so great that the Board reversed itself a week later. Shortly afterward I sent in a letter to the editor suggesting that if we would not close Central we should close East High School. It was only partly tongue in cheek. As I've thought about it recently I've concluded that the Central Campus is the far superior site for a high school in Duluth. Its centrally located. It has room to expand. Also, because of the immediate proximity of the STC (Secondary Technical Center) to Central there would no longer be a need to bus students back and forth from East to Central.

Because of our unwillingness to close a high school in 1992 we eventually closed 5 elementary schools. I was an unhappy parent and wrote a letter to the editor to that effect. My son was sent from his elementary school to a middle school as a fifth grader. Ironically, it was the best year he's ever had in school.  I like to tell this to other parents who face unwanted change. Sometimes change can be a blessing.

Still, I don't want to close five more elementary schools. It will hurt our city's ability to attract new residents and businesses.  This is of particular concern because of Duluth's dependence on two struggling industries - logging and taconite. Our student numbers may decrease even faster than our current projections as these industries continue to shrink.

While I've long said that two high schools made sense I've not pressed the point recently. The News Tribune even endorsed my reelection in 1999 partly because they said I had backed off from advocating two high schools. Ironically, the Tribune recently complained that the Soft Center should be considered for a tech charter school because it looked like we were going to close a high school. Go figure!

How did we come up with the current plan? It started in 1997 when four new Board members were elected. They all had campaigned for a "long range plan" for the District. This process did not begin until Superintendent Almanza began a series of "board retreats" in 1998 to get our fractious Board members talking to one another.  These retreats were not terribly effective until the Board changed after the 1999 election. 

From 1999 on, the Board demanded data on buildings, school finance, demographics, and a million other topics. Last September, after months of failing to get us to agree, the Administration gave Board members a list of general priorities we had already agreed on and told to the board members to rank them. I wrote about the meeting in the School Board Diary I kept for most of last year.  The priorities we came up with eventually led to the plan that we are now talking about.

For my part, I did not rank uniform school configurations as highly as the group did because I like choice. Not all our Board members , however, want the District to offer parents choices.

More recently, the Board came up with a list of standards based in large part on our priority ranking. These standards were listed in a story by the News Tribune. The plan which closes five elementary schools would do a marvelous job of honoring these standards but neighborhood schools and choice are not among the standards we've adopted.

Is this plan a done deal?

The short answer is an emphatic "NO." However, we have only a few weeks to determine how we will deal with next year and prevent a crippling deficit. The corridor meetings will give us a good sense of what the parents want.

Worst Case Scenario

Its important to remember that our current plan envisions a worst case scenario with a $4.8 million deficit next year if we do nothing. We are already pretty confident that the legislature will improve the Governor's plan by half a million dollars but that still leaves us an unprecedented single year deficit of 4.3 million. 

The only other way to whittle away at that anticipated deficit in a meaningful way is through contract bargaining. The deficit figure includes our School Board's guestimate of how much more we will be paying our employees after the next round of bargaining. Contract talks will begin in earnest in June after the legislature adjourns. We made our guestimate last year long before we were confronted with the Governor's ruinous budget.

Even with a more generous state education budget we will not be able to offer our employees a cost of living increase for the next two years. We can't expect them to let us off the hook, however. There may be a sweetener for both sides. Our teachers have complained for years that young teachers are paid too little. At the same time, the District has had a knife to its throat called "severance."  Twenty years ago in arbitration our teachers were given a severance package that was about twice as generous as any other in the state. Now when a long time employee retires they receive in a lump sum up to one and a half times their annual salary. Because so many baby boom teachers are beginning to retire we have to set aside millions of dollars for this severance. Its starting to kill us and drain money from our educational mission. I think our teachers and the Board are both in a position to help each other.

Severance money comes straight out of our budget each year. It has not had the chance to accumulate value and interest over the years.   What we could do is use our reserves to set up a 403B retirement plan. This would be great for the new teachers who could match the District's contributions each year and see their plan accumulate dividends and interest.  We would need to sacrifice much of our reserve to set this up because our senior teachers stand little to gain from a 403B plan this late in their careers and will not be willing to sacrifice their already guaranteed severance. 

While spending part of our reserve this way would be painful in the short term it would spare us from an unbearable expense in the long term.

Our last two settlements were both higher than the average state teacher contract settlements so I'm hoping a more modest contract with this tremendous boon for our young teachers could be hammered out.

Excess Levy

There is another ingredient which would help the District out immensely over the next few years - an excess levy. The hitch is that it couldn't kick in immediately. If the voters authorized it this year we would not see this revenue until 2003.

In 1993 the state legislature passed an excess levy law. It permitted school districts to hold elections to pass excess levies for operational needs. The state sweetened the pot by matching locally raised levies with state revenue. Duluth voters passed such a referendum that year which raised $1.5 million dollars for each of the next five years locally while the state anted up 3.5 million to match. 

In 1997 Duluth voters passed another such levy to replace the earlier one. The 1993 levy was used to pay off what eventually became a 5 million dollar debt. It was then used to build up our ten million dollar reserve fund (the one I propose to tap for the Severance buy out). The second levy was used to buy hundreds of new computers; replenish our libraries with new books; hire elementary art, music, and phy-ed specialists; and set money aside for the repair of decrepit athletic facilities.

Since then the state has increased the ceiling for levies. Duluth could raise an additional $1.5 million to the current levy. 40 percent of this $1.5 million would be local money 60 per cent would come from the state. If we passed the levy this year it wouldn't be available until 2003 but it would give us a lot more financial stability for the years the levy was in effect. It could be authorized for a ten year period.

My idea

As I've said I envision two high schools each with grades 10-12. Call them Duluth United and Denfeld. I prefer the Central site for the United High School. A new road must be built in the back and other remodeling might be necessary. I never understood why the school with a million dollar view was built with no windows. I'd like them put in. East High could house our students for one year while we remodeled Central.  

Beyond this I only have hazy ideas.  One result of a two-high school plan would be middle schools housing grades 7-9. This would seem to be a departure from our attempt to create kid friendly 6-8 middle schools but it shouldn't be. I taught in junior high and I know that ninth graders would benefit from a more nurturing middle school environment. Elementary schools would generally return to the familiar K-6 configuration. 

With a centrally located High School an eastern middle school at Woodland wouldn't be so objectionable. Or, perhaps,  Chester Park and the School Administration could both go into Woodland and a new junior high could be designated for the central part of town.  

We could try to entice St. Louis County to move its offices from downtown Duluth to the CAB. We could give them a better rate, they could lower taxes and we could use the proceeds to help finance the School District.

Duluth needs housing badly and East High would be a coveted property for this purpose. It could be the next Mount Royal Pines.  This would also mitigate the problems we see in a congested location with unhappy neighbors.

The sixth period day would still take the place of our current seven period day. I've heard lots of complaints that this would make it harder for our ambitious kids to get into college but Edina, Mound and other premium schools have always had a six hour day. No one has ever complained that those schools are cheating their ambitious kids. By the way, Duluth kids would be in school for the same amount of time in a six period day. Their classes would be lengthened from a hasty 47 minutes to a more leisurely 55 minutes. Teachers could get much more done during their class periods.

We would have a year to analyze our elementary needs and make necessary cuts or changes without the pressure we are currently working under. We might discover that our parents would prefer to have choices. Certainly we would not be forcing our plans down their throats.

Our Administration has not had the chance to look at a two-high school plan but I would argue that it would be far less wrenching and that it could save as much money without alienating so many families.