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Posted on Mon, Apr. 15, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Decision time


"The School Board, in its effort to thwart me, has given up everything they sought to protect last year,'' Welty said.


Having contributed three days last fall to plan the Duluth school district's future, Andy Holak is disheartened at the cost-cutting measures the School Board will consider Tuesday as part of a budget plan due for consideration next month.

"Neighborhood schools were a big issue'' at three long-range planning sessions, he said, "yet they're closing Birchwood and talking about closing another school.''

That's contrary to recommendations made by 175 citizen planners, said the Chester Park parent, whose elementary school is on a short list of potential 2003 closures.

The group's final report recommended that small neighborhood schools be retained. Underutilized buildings, it said, should be shared with other organizations, such as clinics, social service organizations and governmental agencies, to help defray costs.

But school officials knew the decisions would be heartbreaking when they reviewed their options Dec. 11, Superintendent Julio Almanza said at the time.

"I don't think any superintendent in the state is looking forward to what we face. This list wasn't easy to come up with. It's not what we want and not what the long-term committee asked for,'' he said, adding, "This will still allow us to maintain quality education in Duluth.''



Just three weeks after the planning group outlined its priorities, voters rejected a property tax that would have added $6 million to the school district's annual budget.

"Had the excess levy passed, things would be much different,'' said planning group member Ken Loeffler-Kemp. Instead, the district was forced to reduce 2002-03 spending by $2.6 million.

That could have been avoided if the School Board took decisive cost-cutting action last year, School Board member Robert S. Mars Jr. argued last fall, but controversial decisions were delayed until this year. For that reason, he declined to endorse the levy. Without the added revenue, the tough decisions were merely postponed for a year.

Board members on Tuesday will consider three measures integral to that cost-cutting plan, and more than $1 million of additional cuts will be considered at the board's May budget meeting.

The items to be considered Tuesday are:

Closing Birchwood will save up to $238,000 annually, according to a district analysis.

Converting to a six-period day will cut $400,000 per year.

Trimming the all-day kindergarten staff will save $434,000 each year.

Board members also will consider a fourth change, adjusting middle and high school boundaries, which will have no effect on spending. It's needed, Almanza said, to equalize the number of students, and thus courses, available at each school, providing equal opportunity.

Loeffler-Kemp conceded the board's challenge has been difficult. Nonetheless, he considers its current direction shortsighted.

"It doesn't seem they have any goals or objectives you could define as long term,'' he said. "People feel disempowered because their recommendations are not taken seriously.''

Board member Garry Krause, who represents the Birchwood neighborhood, tends to agree. When a Duluth Heights housing development was announced in January, he distributed a map to the board showing that 40 new homes will be constructed just blocks from Birchwood.

"These are the style of homes that kids end up in,'' he wrote.

Billman Realty Co. Inc., the housing developer, sent a similar letter. Co-owner Gregg Billman said the viability of housing development "is inextricably linked to the accessibility of educational facilities.''

Other concerns are overblown, according to Mars. He found that the six-period curriculum is being successfully used in all but two Minneapolis high schools, along with those in Moundsview, St. Paul and Edina. Others have noted the six-period day previously was used in the Duluth school district for decades.



The School Board's cost-cutting plan incorporates several concepts advanced by citizen planners, but it stops short of following a long-term plan, said Barb Sederski, who helped to write the final report.

"I think they're trying to work this information into their decisions, but we're right where we were last year at this time,'' she said.

That's especially disappointing because planners were rushed when compiling their final report last December, she said. Wanting to begin budget deliberations, School Board members sought the report earlier than scheduled. Yet in the months that followed, Sederski said, few decisions were made.

"They've had two years now. Enough is enough. The community needs to know what's going on,'' she said.

Unsure where his children will attend elementary school, Holak agrees.

"Parents are just being held up in the air,'' he said, not knowing whether Chester Park Elementary School or some other school will be closed.



Recommendations in the final planning report represent a consensus, but they don't represent all of the cost-cutting suggestions voiced by participants. School Board member Harry Welty is among those who promote minority findings.

In particular, he supports the conversion of one high school into a middle school and the conversion of one middle school into an elementary school. Those suggestions appeared in a preliminary planning report. It proposed that Woodland Middle School replace Chester Park Elementary School, less than a block away, but did not identify which high school should be converted.

While planners ultimately rejected those suggestions, Welty's plan would save $1.2 million, according to a 2001 school district analysis. That's enough money to retain the seven-period day, maintain current kindergarten staffing and keep Birchwood open.

"The School Board, in its effort to thwart me, has given up everything they sought to protect last year,'' Welty said.

Board members have argued the change might require remaining high schools to drop one grade level in order to make room for all students. Reverting to a grade 10-12 configuration would violate the board's intent to gradually adopt the grade 6-8 middle school curriculum being tested at Morgan Park, according to Almanza. Offering more contact among students, teachers, guidance counselors and parents, it assists students during the vulnerable years from ages 9 to 14, a district goal.

Board members rejected another significant cost-cutting measures advanced by citizen planners, said participant Aaron Bransky. While he praised them for tackling difficult problems, he disagreed with their busing position.

"The planning group recommended the district follow state transportation guidelines,'' rather than a more liberal local busing plan. "That would have saved many hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a far better way to save money than closing elementary schools, which hurts kids educationally and probably chases kids from the district.''

Board member Laura Condon disagreed when the plan received tentative approval Dec. 11.

"I don't want kindergartners walking a mile to school in the dead of winter,'' she said.



School Board members will resume the long-range planning process April 24, eight days after the Tuesday vote.

"It's unfortunate they couldn't make their way through these short-term problems without making decisions that will affect us in the long term,'' said Loeffler-Kemp. "This will be the first time since the long-term planning event that they've engaged in long-term planning. At best, this has been reactionary. At worst, it's exclusionary.''

But state legislators, who allocate school funding, take a different view, according to Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington.

"I've been told the Duluth district has buildings that are not filled to capacity,'' said Seagren, who chairs the House K-12 Education Finance Committee. "You've got to make those hard choices. If you don't, that will be perceived negatively when you ask the Legislature for money.''

RON BROCHU writes about education issues. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5340, (800) 456-8282 or by e-mail at



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