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Duluth School Board tables boundary decision

Congdon Park Elementary is filled to capacity this school year, and projected to grow. Duluth School Board voted to hold off on a decision to hire an outside firm to analyze school boundaries. (file / News Tribune)

A decision to move forward with examining school boundary changes was put off by the Duluth School Board Wednesday night.

Board members seemed split on whether an outside firm should be hired to both analyze boundaries and helm a process to engage the public in decision-making, and voted 5-2 to decide in May.

Members Alanna Oswald and Art Johnston opposed the measure, both wanting to approve a boundary analysis, putting off only a decision about the more expensive public process.

The district has already paid $13,000 to have its enrollment analyzed by Kansas-based demographer RSP and Associates. To go further, an additional $6,000 would be spent on analyzing boundaries and $31,000 on the public process. If the board moves in that direction, changes to boundaries would be in effect for the 2018-19 school year at the earliest.

RSP found that district elementary school enrollment is expected to decline, and that most school buildings are not filled to capacity. Only Congdon Park Elementary is already full at about 600 students, and is projected to continue to grow. Lincoln Park Middle School can hold more than 1,000 students, but has fewer students than Congdon.

Enrollment is out of balance throughout the district. Superintendent Bill Gronseth said working with the out-of-town RSP would mean a more objective process than having it done in-house or through a local company, considering the effects of boundary changes on families.

Some board members wanted to ensure the process would address east/west equity issues, and take into account things that might grow enrollment, like pre-kindergarten and immersion programs, and those that might draw away, like expected charter and Catholic high schools in Duluth.

Those topics weren't part of the demographer's proposal. What most members seemed to agree on was dealing with equity issues, and those holding greater importance than boundary changes.

The district has a number of important issues to invest in, said board member Nora Sandstad.

"I'm not sure starting a large public process specific to enrollment and boundaries would be a good investment right now," she said.

Art Johnston said a boundary analysis would be useful, but doesn't think a public process run by an outside firm is necessary.

Annie Harala said that done right, the process could address equity issues, in which enrollment plays a part. Many parents have been coming to board meetings this year advocating for issues, she said, and a public process would be well-attended.

Harry Welty didn't see boundary changes as an issue parents would be engaged in as much as equity matters, and also thought the work could be done without hiring a firm.

The boundary analysis and public process are intertwined, Gronseth said. Considering expected layoffs, giving extra work to already stressed administrative staff who don't have the expertise of RSP isn't advisable, he said.

"We know the following year we need to have some changes in place, at least at the elementary level," Gronseth said of 2018. "It would nice to (at the same time) address some other issues."

Board members agreed that more information — in particular whether school principals agree their buildings have extra room — was necessary before making a decision. The idea will be discussed again at a May 8 meeting, and will come to a vote May 16.

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