The future of the Duluth School District

(a column written for Twin Ports People)

Poor Jenny. The earnest reporter for one of our high school newspapers called me to ask what I thought the consequences of the excess levy's failure would be. I chuckled grimly, as one is want to do when things are desperate, and told her the truth. I told her that the seven-period day is history. I told her that this could reduce our music offerings significantly and if we close a high school the music program would be further diminished. I told her that elementary specialists may be cut and that more families will likely have to drive their children to school as we cut back on transportation.  The child-centered middle school may never get beyond the single pilot project at Morgan Park. More school buildings may be forced to close their doors than would have been necessary had the levy passed. And to top off this gloomy scenario, I told Jenny, this is all based on an almost impossibly rosy financial forecast, one that projects a mere $2.6 million deficit next year. 

Now, since that conversation, it seems the state is facing a potential $2 billion dollar revenue shortfall as a recession economy takes hold. While legislators have said they do not intend to let public schools suffer its hard to imagine how they can protect K-12 spending since it now accounts for 40% of the state's budget. 

The hard fact is that Duluth's shrinking population has turned the city into something like an African lake drying under the hot sun. Our parents are circling the School District like so many crocodiles, zebras, lions, elephants and baboons drawn to the receding water all the while preoccupied with thoughts of eating or of being eaten. Only our parents don't like being carnivores.

I've seen this before. Twelve years ago parents from across the district promoted a $55 million bond that would have built a dozen new schools. They didn't have the stomach to pick just a few top priorities and dash the hopes of other parents. Neither did the School Board. The voters were not so faint hearted. The bond failed.

Last night the School Board heard a presentation from a new generation of parents who have worked diligently to design a plan for our schools. I didn't have the heart to tell them, after their presentation, that their proposal was pie-in-the-sky. They recommended that we not close any high schools, not close any elementary schools, keep a seven-period day, create more middle schools, keep elementary specialists, and not increase class size. Somehow this was to be accomplished by cutting "fat" from the budget. After eight straight years of budget cuts it's hard to imagine where we could find any more fat.

I thought about our plight at the Mayor's recent Economic Summit. The speakers kept telling the audience how critical public education was for the future of Duluth. A strong public school system, we were told, was vital to any healthy, growing community. There were even proposals for more, not less, educational spending.

Because of Jenny, and the parents, and the Mayor's summiteers I'd like to think I've been too pessimistic about our hard fiscal reality. Believe it or not I'm an optimist. The plain fact is, however, that our steadily diminishing size is forcing us to do what other shrinking communities in Minnesota have been forced to do. We have no choice.

Things would have been different had the excess levy passed. It's worth pondering why it failed. A few weeks before the election a poll showed that the public was evenly divided on the referendum. In the absence of exit polls I can only guess what was on the voter's mind. The state had dramatically reduced property taxes while offering Duluth $2 million state dollars if the voters chose to pass a $4 million property tax increase. This turned out to be an insufficient enticement. 

I think the referendum failed because the voters just didn't trust the School Board. I even had parents of school children tell me they were going to vote against the levy because we, the School Board, hadn't made the tough decisions. And what decision did the voters want us to make? I think that they wanted us to close a high school. I don't think we can ever pass an excess levy until we do what the voters demand. Indeed I think it would be a grave mistake not to close one of our high schools now. The public would take this as the School Board's final abdication of responsibility.

There is still a strong sentiment on the part of some school board members to close elementary buildings instead. I disagree. I believe this would open the floodgates as elementary parents abandoned the Duluth schools in droves.
I understand that our administration does not want to close a high school. Just today I heard a powerful argument for smaller high schools on the news. Smaller high schools mean more student participation, less alienation and less violence. This was a worthy goal to work for while an excess levy was a possibility. I believe, however, that the voters quite intentionally foreclosed this possibility. As a Board member I'm willing to accept most of the blame for the levy's failure but I do have one angry finger to point at FIGHT (Fight Inefficient Government and High Taxes) and its spokesman Brad Bennett.

One of my proudest accomplishments has been to keep the school district out of debt. Our surpluses for the last three years have been as follows: 1998 = $3,431,650, 1999 = $1,067,157, 2000 = $31,190. Yet FIGHT placed an ad in the newspaper just before the election that said: "…they have deficit spent in each of the past three budgets." 

FIGHT's ad further claimed that Duluth "employs 13% more licensed…staff than the Minnesota State average at a cost of $7million dollars more per year." Unfortunately this charge has taken on a life of its own. Just today another critic of the Board repeated this same allegation in an opinion piece in the News Tribune. Do we have too many teachers? Not hardly.

Brad is right. Duluth does have more teachers than the average district and as a former Board member Brad should understand why this is. Unfortunately, his grasp of educational issues is no firmer than his grasp of revenue, deficits or taxation. Duluth has more teachers because Duluth has more distressed children than the average school district. The Federal and State government both give Duluth more money than the average school district because of this and we use the revenue to hire more teachers to help these children. The specific funds include: Title One, Special Education, Desegregation and Compensatory Education. 

I have much more to say about Mr. Bennett's failings but it would take a visit to my web site: www.snowbizz.com for a fuller accounting. 

So after all this venting what can I say about the future of the Duluth Schools? I have one simple prediction. The Duluth School District will emerge from its coming travails leaner and meaner but still a fine educational enterprise. High school class sizes could shrink. We may offer more semester classes and more Advanced Placement courses for college bound students.  Duluth will likely lose the seven period day but can console itself that fine schools like Edina have never had more than six periods in their day. We may have to change grade configurations but the Board will do everything in its power to preserve the essence of a good education while shucking off the bricks and mortar which are superfluous to the education of a fine mind. 
The traditions of an alma mater might suffer but the tradition of a superlative education will not. We will make things work so that if and when we come before the voters again with an excess levy they can be certain that their hard earned tax money will be used to help our children and our community bloom.