2nd District board candidates disagree on budget and cuts

David Siders
Budgeteer News

Duluth School Board Member Harry Welty and political newcomer Pauline Nuhring will face off in the 2nd District this fall with competing budget outlooks for the Duluth School District and sharply different approaches to board leadership and style.

Known for his sometimes whimsical board meeting demeanor, Welty is clear that good humor can bring a board seeped in controversy closer to agreement. He’s making that kind of congeniality between board members, teachers and parents, which was mostly lacking, he said, in the school district’s teacher contract negotiations last year, his first campaign priority.

“Anybody who does not see beyond that humor to my very serious passion and dedication is obviously bedazzled by what I have to say,” Welty said.

While Nuhring said having a light heart is no big deal, being professional and respectful of colleagues is, she said, and she said she can provide more stability on the board than can Welty.

“In a professional setting of nine people discussing issues that have an impact on thousands of kids, it’s not the place for voodoo dolls,” said Nuhring, referring to a doll Welty used when stepping down as board chairman to curse publicly, if satirically, the animosity between board members and teacher union officials.

Financing the increased teacher costs is at the forefront of Welty and Nuhring’s budgeting disagreements. Paying teachers’ increased salaries requires the board to take funds from its reserve monies, Welty said, and that means the budget will probably have to be cut somewhere, he said.

“We don’t have the annual revenue to sustain the contract we’ve given them,” said Welty, who, like Nuhring, is a former teacher. “If we keep taking a bite out of our reserve, we’ll lose interest on that reserve, and eventually that money will be gone and we’ll spiral downward. The natural consequence of not making cuts is to make much deeper cuts than necessary when you come to the end of the rope.”

Opposed to Welty’s financing outlook, Nuhring said dipping into the reserve fund is better than making budget cuts, and said she would always vote not to cut programs as long as the board still has reserves.

One thing Nuhring does want cut is the Edison Schools project, something Welty supports. Nuhring said Edison students’ test results have not been as good as those of students in the public schools, and said she would vote not to renew Edison’s charter this year.

“I’m concerned about how charter schools drain resources from our district in terms of students, finances and teachers,” Nuhring said. “Edison is muddying the boundary between public and private schools.”

Welty said those standardized tests don’t show how well the Edison schools are doing, and said the positive feedback from parents and students in those schools and a commitment to the board’s previous decision to support the project should keep it going.

Out of the Edison debate has come a more fundamental disagreement between the two candidates about how students’ performance should be evaluated. Nuhring, whose position on Edison stems largely from test score comparisons between Edison and public schools, said standardized tests should be used by board members to determine where curriculum and other changes should be made.

Welty, on the other hand, said those tests are imprecise and said members looking at those scores could make nothing but a subjective guess as to which schools are better performing.

Nuhring said she wants the board to discuss more long-term plans for the school district to prevent problems like the dilapidated Public Schools Stadium — both she and Welty want the board to ask voters this fall to finance renovating that facility — from becoming urgent. She said the board needs to plan ahead for declining population and school enrollment and wants the board to address neighborhood relations around East High.

An initiative Welty wants prioritized is working social services into the schools.

“Our school personnel don’t always know when a child is having stress at home, and county officials don’t know when a child is having trouble in school,” Welty said. “A child needs more than a social studies teacher. Meshing these two things could help a lot of kids.”

The district runs from 60th Ave. East to 40th Ave. East and includes about half of the Woodland neighborhood and a portion of the Duluth Heights. area.