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Duluth School Board approves superintendent contract, discusses disparities

A three-year contract and pay increase for Duluth school district superintendent Bill Gronseth was approved by the School Board Tuesday night, but not without efforts by some board members to shorten the term and withhold the raise.

The board approved terms in a 4-3 vote that allow for a 2 percent increase the first year and 1 percent each of the following, putting his base pay at $174,800 in his third year. He is currently paid $168,000 and has not received an increase since he took on the role in 2012.

Bill GronsethMember Alanna Oswald proposed a one-year contract instead, to give Gronseth time to work on equity concerns between Denfeld and East high schools, which she said while not set up by Gronseth, haven't dissipated under his tenure.

"I challenge him to improve what we see as inequities in our district," Oswald said.

Member Art Johnston proposed other amendments, including one that eliminated any pay increase over three years. His measures failed.

"It's a reasonable contract," said member Nora Sandstad. "We have some challenges ahead of us and it's something we are all responsible for."

At the meeting, about a dozen people shared with the board their unhappiness with disparities between Denfeld and East.

Often impassioned speakers including parents, guidance counselors, a teacher and a student spoke to the board and a packed room about differences in offerings of music and college-credit earning courses between the two schools. They said that something should be done — and done quickly — to fix what many see as an equity issue drawing students away from Denfeld, worsening the problem.

"People are surprised we send our kids to Denfeld," said parent Juhl Halvorson. "Why are we asked that in this community? Is it racism? Classism? ... Part of the (long-range facilities, or red plan) was to resolve some of these issues, and it doesn't seem like it's being done."

Because Denfeld has far fewer students than East, it only offers one of most of the college-credit earning classes, resulting in scheduling conflicts for many students who aren't able to take many of the courses they want, contributing to reduced rigor and less opportunity, despite the desire for it.

Parents suggested to the board allocating more money to Denfeld to ensure students have the same choices, using technology so Denfeld students can take classes from East teachers, or reinstating the seventh-period at Denfeld and Lincoln Park Middle School to draw more students to the western side of the city.

"We are a small community; we should be able to do this together," said parent Anne Skwira-Brown.

Denfeld guidance counselors noted the school serves all kinds of students, many who have families who can't speak for them because of poverty, addiction or mental illness.

People in the community, said counselor Jennifer Wellnitz, say some schools get more because they speak more loudly.

"Our students are just as deserving of access. ... We and our students don't want to be seen as 'poor Denfeld,' " she said.

An East parent presented a petition signed by 74 parents and students in support of more equitable treatment between the schools.

“We also care, and we are concerned and if we are benefitting from something, we want to be part of the solution,” said Lynn Goerdt.

Students are leaving the district, said longtime Denfeld teacher Tom Tusken.

"I refuse to believe there is nothing that can't be done in the short term to make needed changes," he said.

Gronseth noted differences between schools according to needs of students and different strategies used because of those needs, mentioning several efforts underway to address problems. He said he was "confident" that changes can be made to benefit everyone.

Contract details

Gronseth, whose new contract will run from July 1 to June 30, 2020, has been receiving $5,000 a year to pay for costs associated with pursuit of his doctoral degree, and the new contract includes a cause that says any unused portion for that year will be rolled into his salary the year he earns his degree, ending that payment any following years.

When the School Board in 2011 approved the three-year contract for I.V. Foster, who preceded Gronseth, his base pay was nearly $174,000, with 1 percent raises each in years two and three. He left with a separation agreement after six months when he failed to obtain the license required by the state to hold the position. The slightly larger St. Cloud school district last year awarded its superintendent a three-year contract that has him earning $202,000 in the final year, according to the St. Cloud Times. The leader of the Mankato school district — similar in size to Duluth — is in the middle of a three-year contract that has her earning about $168,000 next year, according to the Mankato Free Press.

Gronseth is a native Duluthian and Denfeld High School graduate, who has spent about 20 years working in the district as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent. He was a finalist for three other superintendent positions this year and in 2015, in Minnesota and in other parts of the country. He has since said he wants to stay in Duluth.

Levy decrease

The board also set its property tax levy, decreasing it by 4 percent. The annual levy amount decreases from $33.1 million to $31.8 million. The decrease comes from declining enrollment, savings from district debt refinancing and increased state aid. Increases the past couple of years were less than 2 percent, following two years of dramatic increases to help pay long-range-plan debt.

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