Written and submitted to the Duluth News Tribune on 12-21-2001
The portion in red was omitted by the Tribune when they published the column
Can Duluth sustain three high schools?
I have always imagined myself as the little boy sitting on
his fatherís shoulders in the story of the Emperorís New Cloths. Con men
have convinced the vain King, the Kingís Court, and all the citizenry, that
they have the finest fabric in the world. It is so fine, they say, that only
intelligent people can see it. To all others the cloth is invisible. Afraid of
admitting to being stupid everyone who is shown the non-existent fabric gushes
over its beauty.
The King, fearful for his own reputation, goes so far as to
decree that he will exhibit the splendor of his new royal robes for the public
in a grand parade down the Kingdomís main thoroughfare. The admiring citizens,
who have heard of the magical cloth, throng the parade route and feign
admiration for the Kingís robes as the monarch proceeds, stark naked, down the
main street. This fraud continues until the King passes the little boy who
evidently has never been told of the fabricís magical properties. ďThe King
is naked,Ē he shouts. I am that little boy.
In Duluth we have been persuaded that we can keep three
high schools, at least for a while. The question is: at what cost? Ten years ago
we decided to keep three high schools although it cost us five elementary
schools to do this. Last week the School Board determined to close another
elementary school, Birchwood, when it bravely authorized over 2 million in cuts
to next yearís budget. It is likely to be the first elementary closing of many
yet to come.
The problem is that next year might bring us a much larger
deficit. Contract negotiations are in progress. Our teachers must accept a very
modest settlement for us to stay above water. How modest? Well, if they get what
Minnesotaís state employees got after all of Governor Venturaís chest
thumping we will face another $2.3 million worth of cuts. But this is not our
only concern. The state faces a $2 billion dollar deficit! Although some
legislators have said they will protect K-12 education its hard to imagine how.
Since the Governorís magical new education finance law K-12 education has
grown from 35% to 40% of the stateís budget. Twenty years ago, when the state
was in a similar financial pickle, the legislature raided public education to
meet its constitutional mandate to keep a balanced budget. If the state decides
to save itself again at the expense of K-12 education we could end up another $4
What I do know is that Duluth is special. Unlike other
cities its size we have an extra high school. We have smaller elementary
schools. We have a seven period day. We have magnet schools. We have the most
generous transportation policy. We offer all day Kindergarten. Unfortunately,
the rest of the state has caught on and in a few years the powerful legislators
who have been able to win us these special favors will pass from the scene.
Something will have to give. We may be able to keep one or more of these extra
blessings but not all of them. Which of these should be our highest priority?
At the moment I am a lone, irritating, voice calling for
two high schools. Some of my fellow board members are thoroughly put out with me
because of my persistence. Iíve promised to shut up for a while if only they
let me find out how much it would cost to move sixth graders back into our
elementary schools. They have forbidden the Administration from researching this
information for me. Having gotten this off my chest I would like to make one
Duluth has exactly one school building designed to
accommodate today's high school students who drive to and from school. It has
exactly one high school building with a full range of athletic fields adjacent
to it. It has exactly one centrally located high school. It has exactly one high
school with room to expand. It has exactly one high school with a Secondary
Technical Center located nearby which students can walk to without the need for
mid-day bussing. It also happens that this high school is the only high school
with a century of tradition behind it.
The king is not completely naked. We could keep three high
schools, at least for a few more years. The question is: at what cost?