4-1-2001 DNT Editorial

Our View

Consider all budget options

Duluth Schools Superintendent Julio Almanza made one thing clear at the School Board's special meeting Wednesday: He sees giving up elementary magnet schools as a solution to the district's budget woes to maintain art, music and physical education specialists and smaller class sizes across the district.

School Board members, by accepting certain assumptions, make that solution likely.

Board members, going into the budget-cutting process, have set certain guiding principles that eliminate certain budget-cutting options from the outset: A K-5, 6-8, 9-12 grade configuration; a three-high school system; a balanced feeder system to the three high schools; lower class sizes; specialists in music, art and physical education.

As Business Services Director Greg Hein points out, the assumption of lower class sizes alone takes half of the budget off the table for cuts. The assumption of a grade 6-8 middle school configuration actually adds costs, Hein notes, because the district would be adding new programs at a time it's trying to make cuts.

At a normal time with stable enrollments and stable budgets, during a normal long-range planning process, such assumptions might be laudable.

But at a time when the district is likely to see substantial cuts in absolute dollars from the state, rigid adherence to these assumptions lends a surreal air to the short-term budget process. The school district can't afford to foreclose any budget-cutting options.

Given declining enrollments, would the public rather cut some teaching staff -- even increase the size of some classes -- to get past the short-term budget crisis? Or would the public rather accelerate -- at the speed of light -- the district's long-range facilities planning process to eliminate Duluth's elementary magnet schools: Lowell, Nettleton and Grant, and Birchwood with its Core Knowledge program? District officials have recently been referring to Birchwood as a magnet, although it was not among the original three designated as such.

By eliminating the magnets, the 730 students who currently opt to attend them presumably would return to their community schools, saving the district $400,000 in transportation costs.

Magnet schools have been a unique strength of the Duluth School District, offering specialized programs around language, math, music and Core Knowledge. They give parents and students choices that fit their interests, needs and talents. Statewide, enrollment appears to be more stable in magnet schools than in non-magnet programs, partly because students and their families make an active choice to participate. Attendance of magnet students is higher, and academic performance is stronger. These schools also have been successful in attracting students from all racial and socioeconomic groups.

As a school district that values choice for students and families -- providing community, magnet and charter schools to meet student and family needs -- we ought to think twice about scuttling magnet schools.

As some school members have hinted, we need to look districtwide for cuts.

A start would be for the superintendent and School Board to put out basic staffing and class enrollment numbers. Given K-2 enrollments and an average class size of 19 children, for example, how many teachers do we need? How many support staff? Given grade 3-8 enrollments and an average class size of 25 students, how many teachers do we need? How many support staff? Given grade 9-12 enrollments and an average class size of 26 students, how many teachers do we need? How many support staff?

Without this most basic information, how can the School Board possibly make rational budget decisions? Board member Mike Akervik raised this issue Wednesday, saying, "Let's see numbers in each class.''

The current budget crisis requires that the school district look at the whole pie. No options for savings should be assumed out of existence.