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Duluth to bus kids in from nearby school districts

In an effort to attract more students, the Duluth school district plans to send buses into three neighboring communities this fall.

The district has seen steady enrollment decline for decades attributed to many reasons, including changing demographics, more school choice and the tumult of the long-range facilities plan. Enrollment currently sits at about 8,500. This past school year, 30 percent of Duluth district residents were enrolled elsewhere, ranging from charter and online schools to neighboring districts. Only 3 percent of Duluth's students are open-enrollees.

"We would love to increase our enrollment numbers, especially in some of our smaller schools," said Superintendent Bill Gronseth, noting he is aware there are students just beyond district borders who have expressed interest in attending Duluth schools, but a lack of transportation has prevented it.

More students means more state aid, and that money helps offer more opportunity to students, Gronseth said, like more scheduling flexibility in secondary schools.

The district is planning to extend current bus routes into Proctor, Hermantown and the North Shore south of Two Harbors. The district already draws students from those areas via open enrollment. Proctor, Hermantown and Lake Superior school district students make up the bulk of Duluth's open enrollees this past year at 178 combined. The much smaller Proctor and Hermantown districts draw far more Duluth students.

While 4 percent of Duluth students were enrolled in Proctor this past year, those students made up 18 percent of Proctor's enrollment. In Hermantown, 3 percent of Duluth kids made up 13 percent of its enrollment.

Proctor has for years sent buses into the Duluth district. Hermantown, however, sends buses to the district line to pick up Duluth kids, which is common practice throughout the state, said Mike Johnson, Duluth's transportation manager. The Lake Superior district — which enrolls only a handful of Duluth students — does not come into Duluth for pickup.

Wrenshall also sends buses into Duluth, with about 1 percent of Duluth kids making up 34 percent of Wrenshall enrollment last year.

Possible pick-up sites in Proctor include the city's downtown area, Zenith Terrace and Boundary Avenue, where it intersects with Interstate 35. Proctor students bused this way could attend Stowe and Laura MacArthur elementary schools, Lincoln Park Middle School and Denfeld High School. Lowell Elementary, for its language immersion programs, would be considered.

Possible pick-ups for Hermantown students include the intersections of Maple Grove and Ugstad roads; Maple Grove and Stebner roads; and Maple Grove and Haines roads. Lowell, Piedmont, Lincoln Park and Denfeld would be the designated schools of attendance related to those stops.

For Lake Superior school district kids, stops could include Knife River and McQuade Road, and schools of attendance would be Lakewood Elementary, Ordean East Middle School and East High School.

Lake Superior school district superintendent Bill Crandall said the news is "disconcerting for area districts having to compete with each other for students just to keep the doors open."

School Board members were presented with plans at a recent meeting. While some wanted assurance that requests for bus coverage inside the two-mile radius in the Denfeld area would be addressed also, as a way to help more kids living in poverty get to school, they appeared supportive of the plan. In Duluth's secondary schools, those living within two miles of their school are not provided transportation. The need for that is being studied, Gronseth said.

Need for the route extension plan would be gauged by contacting the current open-enrolled students in those areas about ridership.

"We thought once people started seeing buses flow through their neighborhood, that would be a cue for (more) interest," he said.

Board member Art Johnston approved of the district pursuing the plan, noting some other districts are doing the same thing in Duluth.

Member Annie Harala said after the meeting that the state allows open boundaries, and it's a measured way to increase enrollment.

"Every single day Wrenshall and Proctor buses come into our school district," she said. "A significant amount of complaints I have heard from parents in West Duluth are about why we aren't affording the same opportunities to others."

The cost of extending bus routes would be a minimal addition to the Duluth district's $6 million annual transportation budget, Johnson said. It would involve a small number of buses adding a few miles to each day, he said, noting route adjustments could be made to accommodate all interested students.