School Board members challenge Duluth schools’ tax requestDuluth officials say a levy increase is needed for ‘meat and potatoes,’ while dissenting School Board members question the budget figures presented to voters.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
The Duluth school district will join about a third of its Minnesota counterparts next week in asking voters for more money.
More than 100 school districts are seeking voter approval of operating levies in the face of rising costs, flat per-pupil money from the state and — for some — declining enrollment. The alternative, they say, will be cuts to teachers, programs, elective classes and student activities.
While grass-roots campaigns promoting levies have been common around the state, the Duluth school district has been confronted by an unusual campaign against the levy — from two of its own School Board members.
Members Art Johnston and Gary Glass are telling voters to select “no” for all three referendum questions they will see on the ballot Tuesday.
The district is asking taxpayers to approve one of three levels, each generating more revenue than the last. Voting “no” for all of them would maintain the current voter-approved levy of $365.60 per pupil. An additional state levy of $39 per pupil will expire at the end of December.
“This levy is about maintaining operations,” Superintendent I.V. Foster said this week.
What can be done with the extra money depends on which levels, if any, are approved.
The first tier will help the district shrink class sizes in several schools, which ranged from 40 to 50 students in some high school classes at the beginning of the year. The district spent money in September to pare class sizes, but swollen classrooms remain.
If the first and second tiers of levy are approved, money will go toward science and math education improvements, the district says. And if taxpayers approve all three tiers, the district says it can also replace outdated textbooks. About $1 million is needed for reading and $750,000 for math books.
“This levy is really important to … the meat and potatoes of what we do,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Gronseth. “It is people and materials and things that directly impact the classroom — the learning of students.”
For years, the district has cut teachers, support staff and classes for the Secondary Technical School. It eliminated the Reserve Officer Training Corps program and closed schools, including a high school and a middle school.
Failure to pass any tier of the levy probably will force a look at a four-day week, a six-period day, more teacher layoffs, less staff development and continued use of outdated books, district officials say.
“What happens is we start to narrow our curriculum due to lack of funding for programs,” Gronseth said, because teachers need to teach core subjects before anything else.
Cuts made over the last five years in programs and in teaching and support staff, plus efficiencies through consolidation of buildings and bus routes, add up to more than $24 million, district officials say.
The district’s portrayal of those cuts in advance of Tuesday’s vote is one of the major sources of conflict with School Board member Johnston.
Johnston, with fellow board member Glass, created a website called “Truth in Duluth” that blasts the district and its levy information. Johnston also paid for a newspaper advertisement that tells Duluth residents to vote against the levy.
He takes issue with eight items on levy literature that the district sent out to voters, labeling the statements as “myths.” After its original mailing, the school district made several revisions in its document for later publication.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure we give out data that’s accurate,” Johnston said. “Just because it’s for children doesn’t give everyone carte blanche to send out bogus information.”
Saying that the district has cut its budget by $24 million is wrong, Johnston said, because overall spending has stayed about the same in the last five years.
Spending has stayed about the same, agreed Bill Hanson, business services director for the district. But because of inflation and increased costs in other areas, the district has had to cut what it could to avoid going into debt.
“In essence, it’s about a freeze,” Foster said. “Expenses increased every year. I’m either going to go into debt and continue to spend as I normally would, or I am going to freeze it and reduce expenditures. We’re not saying that our (budget) has decreased.”
He said Johnston is comparing apples to oranges.
“If you have an individual with opposing views looking at data that may not be consistent with what we have, and being critical to the point where they are saying, ‘You’re lying,’ that is what rubs me about this,” Foster said. “We could say the same thing.”
Duluth has gone from 11,000 to 9,000 students since 2003, said Tom Melcher, program finance director for the Minnesota Department of Education, resulting in a loss of per-pupil revenue.
“What happens when you are shrinking like that, you can’t provide the same services because you’ve got fewer kids,” Melcher said.
Though the district’s consolidation of buildings eliminates some wasted space, until those changes occurred, “You might have some buildings not being fully utilized. You still have the same cost to heat the buildings but you have some empty classrooms,” Melcher said. “Your utility cost per kid goes up.”
Lowest-paid teachers with the least seniority are laid off first, he said. “So the cost per teacher goes up if enrollment is declining over time.”
Minnesota districts asking for more money are facing criticism from Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee. He says the $50-per-pupil increase each year for the next two years for school districts is enough. Duluth school district officials interviewed this week said that, while the extra payment is appreciated, it hardly scratches the surface of the district’s need.
The $50 per pupil means about $500,000 for the district. Out of that will come the district’s $150,000 cost of borrowing money to cover the gap caused by the state again delaying a share of its annual payment to Duluth.
Presenting so many numbers is fraught with problems, levy foe Johnston acknowledges. But, he said, if all the information the district provided about school finances was accurate, he would support the referendum.
“Why don’t they just tell the truth? ‘Give us more money to help out with class sizes,’” Johnston said.
Board member Tom Kasper said it’s unfortunate that Johnston and Glass oppose the operating levy.
“All I think about is, ‘What’s the impact on the student?’” Kasper said, noting he has analyzed the information from the district and trusts it. He doesn’t know why Johnston and Glass are against the levy, but the defeat of it is going to hurt kids, he said, “And I don’t think that’s a good thing to be doing.”