3-15-2001 News Tribune
by Brad Bennett
Duluth schools have three problems: too many buildings,
too many professional staffers, and too much money spent on the last two
teacher contracts. Until the board and administration have the backbone
to resolve these basic issues and learn from past mistakes, the
community will suffer from reactionary, knee-jerk planning.
Duluth's school population has plummeted from 24,000
to 12,000 in the past 30 years. Neighborhood elementary schools have
been closed with little regard for our youngest learners, let alone our
neighborhoods. Now the board wants to close five more neighborhood
Remember Riverside, Fairmont, Irving, Merritt, Bryant,
Ensign, Emerson, Franklin, Barnes, Kenwood, Gnesen, Arnold, Cobb,
Washburn, Jefferson, Munger, Park Point and Lakeside? All were
elementary school casualties of declining enrollment while we continue
to run three exorbitantly expensive high schools.
Duluth's kindergarten has only 800 students. Soon
Duluth will have no more than 3,200 grade 9-12 students if our
population holds. From that number deduct 13 percent who drop out and
400-600 students who take some of their classes at the Area Learning
Center or the Secondary Technical Center and are not on campus. We
cannot afford to run three high schools for what is soon to be about
2,500 grade 9-12 students on campus at any given time.
Other Minnesota districts of Duluth's size have one or
two high schools. A visit to the Minnesota Department of Children,
Families and Learning Web site verifies that. There is not one school
district in the state with 10,000 to 15,000 students operating three
high schools. In 1992, as a School Board member, I supported keeping
three high schools open. Since then our school population has dropped by
2,000 and is still falling. It is time the School Board and
administration look at school districts of similar size and realize that
two high schools, three middle schools, and eight to nine elementary
schools would effectively and efficiently serve 10,400 students. And, it
should not require $6.15 million of renovation!
Duluth has far too many licensed professional staff
members. The 10 school districts closest to Duluth in size average 15.5
pupils per licensed professional staff. Duluth has 12.5 pupils per
licensed professional staff. If Duluth were staffed like other districts
its size, there would be 187.5 fewer professional staff members.
Multiply 187.5 times $59,000, the average cost including benefits of a
professional staff member. Duluth spends $11 million a year more for
professional staff than do other school districts its size. No business
could remain competitive being 23 percent overstaffed like the school
district is when compared to districts of similar size. The district
could be similarly overstaffed in nonlicensed employees but that data
was not available at the state Web site.
In regard to the last two teacher two-year contracts:
According to the News Tribune, the total cost of the 1997-99 contract
was $8.3 million, and the total cost of the 1999-2000 contract was $6.4
million. Over the past four years the total cost of the teachers'
contract has risen $14.7 million over a 1996-97 base of $50.3 million
according to a Nov. 23, 1998, article in the News Tribune. Simple math
tells you that teacher costs have risen by 29.2 percent over the
four-year period. Other employee costs increased the same. Revenues did
not increase near that much over the same period, and inflation was
under 10 percent total for those four years.
F.I.G.H.T. said then, and will say now: Those
settlements were irresponsible compared to revenues and inflation. The
only way the district came close to paying for those settlements was for
School Board members to go back on their word and raise tax levies to
the maximum, thus increasing property taxes beyond what they should have
been. It was absolutely predictable that the district would be in the
financial chaos it is now in.
The enemy is us! We have elected School Board members
who belong to the same teachers' union as our teachers. We should have
expected them to give the farm away. With the exception of member Bob
Mars there is no real business experience on the board of our $110
million-a-year business. And it appears that some board members are
neither curious enough nor serious enough to do their homework on
staffing or school closing issues. We will have an opportunity to change
four of them in the next election.
Bennett is director of F.I.G.H.T., Fight
Inefficient Government and High Taxes, in Duluth and a former member of
the Duluth School Board.