Posted on Thu, Sep. 04, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Community wants a responsive, fiscally responsible School Board

In March 2001 public meetings were held to address an anticipated $13 million Duluth school district budget shortfall over the next two years.

A recommendation was made to close Birchwood, Chester Park, Lester Park/Rockridge and Piedmont schools. Additionally, a six-period day was recommended and standard grade configurations were presented.

In that planning process certain minimum sizes of schools were recommended. These were 450 for elementary schools, 700 for middle schools and 1,000 for high schools.

Community members were involved in this planning process. The public was not involved in these discussions so a long-range community planning event was held December of that year. It was recommended by the community that three high schools be kept.

People in Duluth have been supportive of the school system when it has been managed in a fiscally responsible way. Approval of excess levy money was made to pay for specialists for music and art in the school; approval was given to upgrade the athletic facilities.

However, the people of Duluth do not and will never support fiscally imprudent actions by the school district. The school district is the only public body that voters can affect by deciding when to spend money. With that ability, the district needs to make sound financial decisions that people can understand.

The current School Board has not made the decisions that have been needed to address the funding shortfalls. Therefore, the current reaction is to close a high school, which will save the most money the quickest.

It is because of the inadequate actions of the School Board, the superintendent and others that this is being considered. Had they closed the five elementary schools in 2001 and gone to a standard grade configuration and a six-period day, what would be the district's budgetary situation?

The School Board had asked the principals to develop different scenarios; I assume this is based on a lack of confidence in the current administration that they went to the principals to develop a plan. The principals did develop plans and solicited various members of the community to be involved in the process.

I was involved in the process and the principals did an excellent job of defining savings and cuts. However, as a member of the steering committee, there was no input from myself or others representing the Chamber of Commerce. This was not reflected in the steering committee reports to the board.

The scenarios presented were from the principals' group and that group alone based upon the meetings I attended. The principals then presented their recommendations in June, with a detailed timeline. In August of this year they were told to accelerate the process to become more in line with the superintendent's recommendation.

When community members have questioned the board, certain members of the board have responded that we shouldn't have excess space. That is true, and I would again ask why the recommendations made in March 2001 weren't followed.

The only thing that has been done is to go from a seven-period day to a six-period day in the high school.

As a business person and community member with children in the Duluth schools, I expect that the district will be fiscally responsible, that when they solicit input from the community, that they will listen to the community because it is ultimately the community who will decide whether there are to be additional funds to enhance the district.

The district administration along with the School Board needs to provide detailed information as to the savings and the impact on students. They have not done that.

It has been reported closing a high school will save a million dollars; I am interested in how that can happen when it is then said that the school will be a middle school in the future?

The district wants to create a unifying high school at an estimated cost of $45 million to be accomplished in the 2008-10 timeline. This would create a huge high school and add a tax burden that most people would not support.

If the district staff and School Board (most of whom will not be on the board when this all occurs if the timeline is followed) believes the community will support a $45 million referendum, why not ask for it now?

They can't ask for it now, because they have been fiscally irresponsible and the public will not accept that the district will change in the future.

If anyone ever takes the time to do the basic math, here are some questions that need to be answered:

If the student population is 11,200 and there should be an average class size of 30, that would correlate to needing 374 teachers. Now we need to have support staff, but do we really need to have an additional 2,226 full- and part-time staff along with more than 1,000 community volunteers?

If the 374 teachers cost the district $75,000 a year (which is high), which equates to about $28 million, how is it the district budget is $79 million for staff and teachers?

The district's budget is$121 million and what is considered mandatory and restricted in the budget is $26.8 million. When you add the required cost for teachers at $28 million plus the mandated items of $26.8 million you come up with $54.8 million. There are additional costs to running a school district, but I am not sure that that cost is $66.2 million.

That is the question that needs to be answered, not which high school to close, but who can lead the district in a fiscally responsible way that keeps the high educational standards that we expect in Duluth.

DAVID JOHN SORENSEN, vice president of Integrated Data Systems, is the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce representative on the Vision 2007 Steering Committee.