Duluth school superintendent wants town hall meetings before asking for more moneyThe Duluth school district has decided not to ask voters for more classroom money this November, opting against an operating referendum after the failure of the last one.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
The Duluth school district has decided not to ask voters for more classroom money this November, opting against an operating referendum after the failure of the last one.
The School Board voted in April to put an operating levy on the November ballot, but Superintendent Bill Gronseth instead wants to spend time in town hall meetings over the next few months talking to residents about what they want from their public schools. The board does not need to take official action to change its earlier decision.
Gronseth recommended the change to School Board members Monday during a business committee meeting, and it was met with their support.
While the large number of items on the presidential year ballot played into the decision, Gronseth said, many conversations he’s had with residents in the past few months led him to the recommendation. He noted widespread confusion and hurt relating to Duluth schools, and in many cases, distrust, “whether it has to do with finances or curriculum or just how we operate,” Gronseth said. “But people I talk to recognize this is not helping. Whether they are for school construction or against it, everyone agreed we need to bridge the gap … they want our students to be successful and have a voice in how that’s done.”
Voters rejected all three levels of a multi-tiered levy proposal last fall, meant for reducing class sizes, purchasing textbooks and improving math and science curriculum. At the time, some voters said they couldn’t afford it. Some said they didn’t understand what the money was for and some were still angry over the district’s long-range facilities plan, implemented without voter approval.
Gronseth recently heard from a friend who had pulled his children from the district and sent them to private school, citing class sizes and funding issues.
“They had this feeling that they couldn’t really be sure what they had been voting on; what the schools stood for and where they were going,” Gronseth said after the meeting. “It’s important we do find that direction together.”
Board members Mary Cameron, Mike Miernicki, Art Johnston, Tom Kasper and Judy Seliga Punyko all supported postponing an operating referendum. Members Ann Wasson and Bill Westholm were absent.
“I’m in total support of postponing a vote,” Cameron said Monday. “I really do appreciate you wanting to invite the public in. I highly recommend those conversations take place in churches, community centers and the schools.”
Johnston said a referendum wouldn’t have been successful.
The move “is a wise decision on his part,” he said of Gronseth, and going out into the community to talk to people is a good idea. “I hope to be a part of that.”
A delay, Kasper said, will help everyone gain an understanding about what’s needed for teachers and students in Duluth’s schools.
“We do have some great buildings and even better teachers. It’s time to move on and coalesce,” he said.
Nick Lansing, a member of a grass-roots referendum effort, Duluth for Education, said he’s “disappointed.”
“We would have liked to see a levy passed this year, but we support the decision and we support the superintendent,” he said. “We’re looking ahead to next year.”
Through his research-based efforts, Gronseth hopes to find out what’s most important to residents.
“It’s not just about ‘we need the money’,” he said. “It becomes about a whole community getting involved in education.”
And what that could ultimately look like is this: “We want to end up with principles that help with day-to-day decision-making,” he said. “With how we spend money, with what we offer and how we offer it. (We want) the values and beliefs and ideals that are shared within this process to be seen and heard in our schools every day.”