Duluth Central. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Duluth Central. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

One of my column’s readers told me I sounded a little “pissed-off” in my last article. 

Our public school district is mired in red ink after embarking on a reckless spending spree with our money, and you’re not one bit upset, Duluth? What is your secret? Is the DFL or the Duluth News Tribune passing around some kind of mellowing herb? 
My last article covered the school board’s Committee of the Whole budget meeting. A week later, Superintendent Gronseth waltzed into the Business Committee meeting with Option A and Option B for the Board to consider. These “options” for next year’s budget would have been much more appropriately labeled as Loser One and Loser Two, with our unlucky school board caught in the middle. 

Business Committee Meeting

District CFO Doug Hasler started his presentation off with an upbeat note about the district’s APU (student enrollment) number. Mr. Hasler happily announced that our “total additional pupil units count” is in the positive range this year. “One of the basics that we all understand is that funding follows the student,” Mr. H. elucidated, “and to the extent that we are showing some growth this year, that is very beneficial to our financial operations.”

This increase is one ray of sunshine amid all ISD 709’s fiscal doom and gloom. Taken in aggregate, however, the student gain is a bit misleading. The latest numbers I’ve been able to procure show that nearly all the gains have occurred in two schools: Lester Park and Lowell. The gain in Lowell is likely linked to the popular Spanish Immersion program; the big increase (68 students) in Lester Park is likely related to the migration of Duluth families to the eastern schools. 

All other Elementary schools (other than Congdon, with a net gain of seven) lost students. Piedmont lost the most, with 36.
The current APU number — 8297 — remains 1300 students below the Red Plan’s projection of student enrollment “stabilizing” at 9600, a fact that has obviously been very unbeneficial to ISD 709’s financial operations. 
But — hey — grab onto any robe you can if you’re drowning!
In the question and answer segment following Mr. Hasler’s presentation, member Lofald broached the central theme of the DFL’s strategy for turning the district’s fiscal problems around: marketing and promotion.
“I’m interested in what our budget is addressing from a marketing strategy. I think I saw a decline (in spending) and that concerns me. That concerned me throughout my campaign as well: that our effort to communicate with our communities the great benefit of being in Duluth public schools isn’t as effective as it could be, and if enrollment is so critical to our budget…I would really like to see us have marketing that’s really targeted…”

The Red Plan’s grand, “twenty-first century schools” were supposed to be so superior to everything else in the marketplace they would market themselves. The plan was to spend millions, build it, and they would come. 
Plan RED obviously flopped, so it’s back to the drawing board with the DFL. 
What’s our policy?

As always, to cover these meetings in detail would require at least half the space in the Reader. I’ll just mention that administrative staff continues to alter Board policy, as it has been doing for years now. A number of existing policies were completely deleted and “incorporated” into a new bylaw, numbered 204, and Administration is recommending a new data practice policy. 
If you want to obtain public data from ISD 709, I highly recommend submitting your request before the second reading during the April meeting makes data practice policy 108 the law of the land. The new policy is lengthy, draconian, and will make it even more difficult (and expensive) to get copies of public information from our public school district. 

An article published 9/2/17 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted Don Gemberling, a retired attorney who was employed for more than 30 years at the Department of Administration, helping citizens understand their rights under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The Star Tribune reported that, according to Gremberling, “too many (government) agencies unreasonably delay information requests, attempt to overcharge for copies of documents to raise revenue and sometimes even fail to respond to requests--all of which are illegal. School districts are often the worst offenders…and that view is shared by many people. ‘They’re supposed to maintain that data in such a fashion that it’s easily accessible to the public.’ he said.” 

Member Oswald, as always, had assiduously done her job and gone over the policy changes more carefully than anyone else, prior to the meeting. In regard to the all-compassing new bylaw — 204 — she pointed out a clause that stated: “The school board shall cause its official proceedings to be published once within the official newspaper of the district within 30 days of the meeting at which the proceedings occurred.”

Member O asked: “Does that happen? Is that what we should be doing?”
“Yeah — ” Superintendent G. responded with a mystified tone, looking at the policy he and his administrative staff had supposedly vetted and were recommending the Board approve, “it almost sounds like you should have your Board minutes in the paper every 30 days…Yeah — that doesn’t happen.” 
Administration promised to “look into it,” and member Oswald moved on, to data practice policy 108. She pointed out that the form that will be required for use in data requests under this policy includes the statement that “inspection (of data) is free, but there is a charge for copies.” Member O requested that the statement be incorporated within the actual policy, “just so people know they can come and look at it (public data,) for free.” 

“I can evaluate that.” Mr. Hasler responded.
“Thank you.” Member Oswald replied. 
Thank you, Member O., for keeping my faith in representative government alive. 
The most visible symbol of the screw-up

Once upon a time, our brilliant school board voted to proceed with an investment so overtly dumb it will go down as a record-setting screw-up in our town’s history. 
The most visible symbol of the error of the Red Plan’s entire financial structure is Central High School — a multi-million dollar building only 47 years old that has been sitting empty nearly seven years. 
“We really believe that the best thing we can do (to move the property,)” CFO Hasler informed the Board, “is to get funding to demolish the existing high school building. Our estimate for the cost of that (demolition) is up to two million dollars; that is what we’ve asked for from (the State of Minnesota.)”

“I think I would be remiss,” member Oswald said, “if I didn’t speak. I know that many community members out there were very supportive of a sale of this property the Board did not endorse. And to have to spend actual taxpayer dollars to tear down the building is not going to go over very well. I just want it to be known that I recognize and understand my constituents that have told me they wanted us to sell that building and re-use it. And I recognize that the way we’re moving forward is not going to let that happen.”

None of the six Board members endorsed by the DFL (the party renowned for pious environmentalism) voiced any concern at all with spending millions of taxpayer dollars to tear down a perfectly good 228,826 square foot building and haul it off to a landfill. Business Committee Chair Trnka made the boardroom power clique’s only remark, in a tone best described as a perky put-down: 

“We can agree to disagree on that one.” 

The most important part of this meeting. 

ISD 709’s projected fiscal 2019 deficit is a moving target. Back in January, it was $3,993,500; it’s gotten a little better now, at $3,137,192. Option A, however, handed to Board members during this meeting, proposed adding another $2,976,800 to the deficit, for what Administration is calling “new investments.” 

“Please note that this new investment number in Option A represents the money that would then become discretionary at the sites.” Our Super informed the Board. 
The real shock was the revelation that cutting from other parts of the budget (including raiding another million dollars from the district’s already deplorably under-funded maintenance fund) in order to make nearly three million dollars of “new investments” would NOT keep the student/teacher ratio (or class size) from jumping higher. Rather, a good part of the $3 million investment would also be robbed from teaching staff, and the ratio would still jump by an astounding THREE students per teacher. 

The assumption rationally made from what I would characterize as a desperation move is that this fiscal shell game was being played to AVOID increasing class size. A broke district that finally saw a tiny bump in enrollment is going risk losing this hard-earned ground by jumping class sizes? 
The Duluth News Tribune described Option A as a “non-starter” for Board member Oswald. “I will not vote in favor of any budget that raises our ratio by 3.0,” the paper reported member O. as saying, “It’s not acceptable to me, and it’s a bad public relations move.”
Member O.’s objection was rational, but rationality has not often ruled the roost since Keith Dixon first stepped foot in the boardroom. 
Option B was another variation of a proposal the Superintendent was selling to the Board during the Committee of the Whole meeting a week earlier. Even now I’m not certain I picked up everything correctly during that meeting. The explanation given to the Board was quite murky — so much so that I took the first-time approach of sending part of my article to a Board member to see if my interpretation was accurate, and was told it was. I’m transcribing the entire explanation from this meeting in the Mr. G.’s own words, so readers can see just how murky it is:

“The only part that’s really different in Option B is the top. The amount that goes to discretionary is reduced. What that does is: when we spoke at the Committee of the Whole meeting, we talked about 80% and 20%. The 20% was going to be district-wide, and that our goal was to have 80% be support above the student/teacher ratio, or discretionary funds. This model takes 20% of that (the 80%) and allocates it to staffing for each school, which means it (the school) has 60% left in discretionary.”

Super G. continued his illuminating explanation: “Our initial model when the resolution (to move 80% of comp-ed money to the schools eligible for it) was passed (by the Board) was 40-40-20. This is 60-20-20. So, it’s a little further down the road than we thought we would be. Our goal was to have the whole 80% be discretionary. The difference on this option is: the ratio shift is reduced to 1.5.”

Clear as mud? Essentially Mr. G. was saying the second option would force individual schools to use more of the ‘new investment’ funding to hire teachers. The most important point: neither option preserves the student/teacher ratio unchanged, as I assumed was the goal from the Committee of the Whole meeting. Loser Option One jumps the ratio by 3 students per teacher; Loser Option Two jumps the ratio on average by 1 (and a half) students per teacher. 
The Duluth News Tribune ran some comments made by Board member Sandstad, after the meeting: “Giving kids a smaller kindergarten class sounds great, but does it have an impact on the success? That’s what I want to know. And the research shows that it doesn’t if we’re talking a few kids here and there.”
Out of the DFL power-Six-clique that controls the boardroom of ISD 709, I most respect member Sandstad, but I have disagreed with her on a number of points. I disagreed with her when we ran against each other in 2015 and she said during the League of Women forum that she saw “no problem with one high school being smaller than the other.” I disagreed with her refusal to sell Central High to Edison Charter. And I disagree with her current position.

Aside from the bad p,r. referenced by member Oswald, and the erosion of any competitive edge in the educational marketplace, class size is key in establishing an effective student/teacher relationship. It also obviously helps in preventing teacher burnout. 
In August of 2015, teachers from East High School sent a despairing letter to the Board: “When the levy was passed (in 2013,) one of the key focus areas was reducing class size. Our data for the last five years would indicate that this has not happened at East. We encourage you to review data and ask for your support to funnel funding into the classroom. The following compilation, generated on 8/21/15, provides a breakdown by class size over 30: class sizes 31-34: 143, class sizes 35-39: 121, class sizes over 40: 37. In other words, sections over 30: 307, sections 35 and over: 158, sections over 40: 37...”

East High is scheduled to lose $162,347 of its funding next year, due to the shift of comp-ed funds to the western schools. Congdon Park Elementary, already packed to bursting with students and understaffed, will lose $307,269. Some eastern schools are likely to see their student/teacher ratio go up significantly, very worrisome on many levels. 

An expanding tax base has stabilized Duluth property tax bills a bit in recent years, but our public school district will soon correct that aberration in the universe. Local taxpayers are going to be asked (or coerced) to step into the breach and rescue this fiscal calamity. 
Superintendent Gronseth made the following remarks about the $1.8 million excess levy passed by Duluth voters in 2103, during a 2016 Education Committee meeting: “We passed a ($200/per student) levy that was supposed to produce small class sizes, and we still have that in place. That levy — the $1.8 million — paid for about 16 teachers. And when we look at 13 schools and 16 teachers — that’s not enough to make a huge difference in class size. But it was the amount the community was willing to support at the time, and so I just want to let everyone know that these funds are still in place, and without these funds our class sizes would be even higher…So it’s not enough (money) to make a huge difference, but every bit helps, and we (really, really) appreciate that support.” 

Despite Mr. G.’s veiled suggestion that Duluth is a bit chintzy, I think it’s amazing the good-hearted citizens of the town voted to approve a $1.8 million excess levy five years ago, after hundreds of millions of tax dollars had been forced down their throats for a very unpopular investment, without a vote. If $1.8 million barely made a dent in the deep black hole five years ago, how much more is going to be required to bail out the mess this time? 

Had enough yet, passive Duluth? Are you willing to hand over buckets more of your hard-earned money? Our school district is in deep trouble and a world of hurt, and class size going up next year is definitely NOT a good thing.