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Duluth school district integration money at risk

Myers-Wilkins Elementary School. (file / News Tribune)

The Duluth school district could lose a longtime source of state money that pays for a dozen employees who work with the most at-risk kids.

Earlier this month the Minnesota Department of Education told the Duluth district that it no longer qualifies for money related to achievement and integration programs, which this past year totaled $1.6 million.

The district has since been working with the state to reconsider that change, said William Howes, coordinator of the district's Office of Education Equity. Duluth expects a decision today. Howes said he's been "encouraged" by the state's response and its willingness to reconsider, noting the issue is related to a formula change that could affect all school districts that receive this type of funding, not just Duluth.

Daron Korte, assistant commissioner for the state education department, said last week the state was working with Duluth and hoped to have the issue — which is whether Native American students are included in the formula — resolved soon. Duluth has historically received funding because it has a racially identifiable school in Myers-Wilkins Elementary, meaning it has a high percentage of students of color in relation to the combined totals of students of color at other Duluth elementary schools. It has always been required to submit a plan to the state for the money it receives.

Korte said the law says that if a school is racially identifiable because of a concentration of Native American students, the school isn't required to submit a plan. "Our interpretation has always been you're not eligible to participate in the program" under those circumstances, he said, and Duluth is asking for the formula to be changed now that its makeup of students of color has changed, leaving the district just under the threshold using the existing parameters.

The rule doesn't specify what counts as a concentration.

Duluth's integration money pays for a dozen integration specialists who work with at-risk kids on behavior, attendance and grades; the position of Howes; a diversity coordinator; reading intervention positions at Myers-Wilkins and Lowell Elementary; an Ojibwe immersion classroom assistant; professional development; and transportation between Lowell and Myers-Wilkins, so students who live within boundaries of each can attend the other school as part of integration efforts.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said that he, too, was hoping for "a positive outcome," and has worked with the state on the issue. If Duluth remains ineligible, it would mean staff cuts to the programming the money pays for, and also discussion about priorities, he said.

Duluth has received state money meant for desegregation and integration for decades. This past school year, 53 percent of Myers-Wilkins students were students of color.