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With emphasis on testing, district spending less on support services

Spending on student support services in the Duluth school district dropped by more than 60 percent during a 10-year period ending last year, according to a study by progressive group Minnesota 2020.

The St. Paul think tank released a report this week examining how a stronger emphasis on testing — combined with funding cuts — has affected other areas of education statewide, including spending on enrichment courses, special education and extracurricular activities.

The past decade saw school districts weather deep state funding cuts, putting more of a burden on local property taxpayers to make up the difference, study author Michael Diedrich said during a presentation at Lincoln Park Middle School on Thursday.

In Duluth, the 60 percent drop was from the 2003-04 school year to 2012-13, taking into account inflation and a 20 percent decline in enrollment, he said, noting that statewide the decline was 12 percent. He also said the trend in Duluth has started to reverse with increased state money.

Employees listed under the support services category include nurses, mental health specialists, paraprofessionals and social workers.

Laura MacArthur Elementary School is in the last year of a three-year grant that has allowed the hiring of more support staff, said Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers and a media specialist at the school.

The grant, awarded to the school for its plan to work its way out of the group of lowest-performing schools in the state, means an assistant principal, two mental-health specialists and a full-time nurse at the school.

“If a child is struggling, hurting or hungry, we have the resources,” Burnham said. “If the child needs a break, you have a safe place to send them to change their perspective on the day. That’s important.”

Not all schools in the district have what Laura MacArthur has, and when the grant runs out, that school stands to lose many of those positions.

School districts need support staff and specialist positions to help children become well-rounded, Burnham said.

“It’s not just about testing,” she said.

There was a 10 percent drop in enrichment course spending across the state in the 10-year period, according to the study. That’s for courses outside the core subject areas. Diedrich said more money was spent on subjects such as math and English in the last year of the study than the first, which is a sign of shifting priorities.

Spending on core subjects is good, he said, “but it’s concerning we are losing opportunities in other areas.”

Duluth was among the school districts in which the study found spending shifts.

Speaking to the district’s drop in student support service spending, business services manager Bill Hanson said there were “notable increases” in special education and regular instruction spending during the same time period.

The report also noted decreased spending in the Rochester and St. Paul school districts, while the Bemidji and Anoka-Hennepin districts were highlighted for increased spending in certain areas.