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Duluth school district boundary changes possible

Boundaries within the Duluth school district could change in the future, as enrollment is projected to continue to decline, especially at the elementary level.

That's according to a new demographic study commissioned by the district, which also shows that most school buildings have room for more students. The information sets the stage for the School Board to decide how to move forward.

The district has been facing declining enrollment for decades, and it hasn't adjusted boundaries since 2007 under the long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan. During that time, enrollments at various schools have become imbalanced. East High School has grown to have at least 500 more students than Denfeld, Congdon Park Elementary is filled to capacity, and some elementaries have room for at least 100 more students.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said enrollment at every school, the number of school buildings, grade configuration and equity issues could be examined.

"Beyond that, I am looking to hear what others have to say," he said.

The board will decide soon whether to hire the company that did the study to carry out a process involving school employees and the community. That would mean public forums, committees and more analysis of enrollment. Gronseth said no changes would be made for next school year, but if it was decided to move forward, the 2018-19 school year would be likely.

RSP and Associates, the Kansas-based company that conducted the study, used data from St. Louis County and the city of Duluth, the U.S. Census Bureau and a complex forecasting model to make its projections.

Data shows middle and high schools remaining fairly stable through 2022 with losses of around 30 students at each level, but that elementary schools are projected to lose more than 200 students by that time. Two years of smaller kindergarten classes indicate an emerging trend, said Robert Schwarz, head of RSP and Associates.

Those losses don't take into account students who might enroll outside the district.

Only Congdon Park Elementary showed capacity issues, with the school expected to be over capacity next school year. All other elementary schools — Homecroft, Lakewood, Laura MacArthur, Lowell, Lester Park, Myers-Wilkins, Piedmont and Stowe — are shown to have extra space going forward. All of the secondary schools — including East High School — are also shown to have extra space.

Congdon Park principal Kathi Kusch-Marshall said adjustments to school enrollments look to be necessary, and it should be a transparent process that includes taxpayers.

"There are courageous conversations that need to be had," she said.

Board member Annie Harala said she agreed with beginning a process that looks at solving inequity issues. Changing boundaries could free up space for early childhood opportunities in more buildings, ensure more scheduling flexibility can be offered at Denfeld and offer more access to things like immersion programs.

"There are some glaring things" to address, she said, and communicating about that with district residents is key.

Board members Alanna Oswald and Harry Welty said they didn't think the board needed to hire RSP to examine such changes.

Welty said one way to balance enrollment would be to spend more of a type of state funding geared toward low-achieving kids on western schools, as opposed to spreading much of it throughout the district to lower class size.

Maybe then "people from East will want to start beating down the doors of western schools," he said, for what they could offer.

The cost to hire the company wasn't available Thursday night.

A 2014 study done by RSP also showed declining enrollment in some areas, and at that time, there was no recommendation to change boundaries. Prior projections had shown excessive growth at the elementary level, indicating boundary changes were imminent. Those projections were wrong.

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