School Board At Large race offers wide range of candidates
Voters will choose between three newcomers and an incumbent to fill the two open At Large Duluth School Board seats Nov. 7, each candidate with a varying set of priorities.
Choices include a public health nurse, a research scientist, a health care industry executive and a onetime teacher.
A native of Coon Rapids, Minn., Josh Gorham, 34, works for St. Louis County as a public health nurse. He and his wife have a preschooler and kids at Lester Park Elementary. Gorham says his critical thinking skills and strong sense of empathy make him an ideal candidate.
"As a parent of three kids coming through the public school system, you can't ever detach yourself as a parent. You want the best for your kids," he said, explaining his decision to run.
And because his job has allowed him to work in Duluth's schools, he's seen how poverty affects many students and their academics, an issue that "compelled me to step forward" to help solve it, he said.
That's why the continuing issue of enrollment-caused inequities and meeting the individual needs of schools is a priority for him. The problem is solvable not by treating all schools equally, he said, but instead by treating them equitably.
He applauds new programs in place: Lincoln Park Middle School's parent-teacher home visit program, and those that are working to serve social and emotional needs of kids, for example. That work needs to continue, he said, and more needs to be done. He suggested board members and school employees host dinners in different neighborhoods to reach community members and hear their needs.
The redrawing of boundaries could help solve some disparity issues, he said, and deal with large class sizes at certain schools.
"It's a simple, low-cost solution," he said.
Gorham is in favor of renewing the current operating levy amount, but said he needs more information on the needs of the district and what the money would go toward before advocating for an increase.
"We've got to be cautious, because we live in a community right now where taxes are increasing significantly," he said.
(In 2013, voters approved an additional $1.8 million a year, which has been used to lower class sizes.)
Gorham has been vocal in his opposition of a sale of the Central High School property to be used as a high school for Duluth Edison Charter Schools. (A $14.2 million offer was made on behalf of the school in 2016, and the School Board declined to negotiate.)
It wouldn't be in the best interest of public education overall, Gorham said, because it would remove the option of development that would add to the city's tax base and it could lead to a larger annual deficit in the district's budget if it causes student loss. That means fewer resources for schools, he said.
Dana Krivogorsky, 40, has lived in the United States for more than 20 years after immigrating from Ukraine. She and her husband have two children — a toddler and a student in Lowell Elementary's Spanish immersion program. A scientist, she most recently worked in the chemistry department at the University of Minnesota Duluth and says she has a great love of the city.
Krivogorsky feels called to do work that betters the school district, she said, seeing herself as someone who will rise above the fray and work to rebuild what she says is diminished trust in public schools.
The district has lost students, she said, because families haven't felt it has offered the best education.
"If you have a great free public education with small class sizes, why go through the (charter school lottery)" or choose some other option outside of the district, she asked. "All we are doing is saying trust us again, we will do a good job, and then we have to go out and do it."
To deal with east/west school disparities, Krivogorsky is a proponent of keeping compensatory education money — a type of state aid meant to help low-income populations — with the schools that generate it, as opposed to the current practice of using up to half for lowering class sizes in all schools, and she would push to reinstate the seventh period in secondary schools, cut for budgetary reasons in the high schools in 2004 and in 2012 at the middle school level.
"There is not much time," she said, to act. "Kids are coming through the mill; they aren't waiting."
She doesn't think altering boundaries is part of the answer.
"It's a suicide for the district to change boundaries," she said, after changing them during the long-range facilities plan. "I don't see any direct benefits other than angering parents."
As for how to address an expiring operating levy, she wants to first take a hard look at the district's budget. You can't make "colossal" decisions that affect kids without knowing a budget intimately, she said.
Krivogorsky would sell Central for the use of Duluth Edison with conditions attached, such as capping enrollment from district students. She would rather add to district coffers than continue to see money poured into maintenance of an empty building, she said.
She's confident she can work on a board that has a reputation for discord, citing her diplomacy skills.
"I can hold my own for what I believe in, but I am not into this kind of high school squabble," she said.
Sally Trnka, 34, is a product of the Duluth school district, a graduate of the former Central High School. She is executive director of the Northern Minnesota Network, a provider of health information technology systems and, with her partner, has a son at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School.
Trnka's "sense of servitude" compelled her to run.
"I wanted to give back to the community that gave so much to me," she said.
Trnka said the board could benefit from her business acumen, which she'd use to help direct its focus and develop documented accountability goals that will help the board "stay at a strategy level and not diving into operations."
That can be hard for any board, she said, but it "takes the personal dynamics out of the conversations."
She wants to demystify the district's finances, which could help make any future operating levy requests more palatable, she said. She'd like to see what similar-sized districts are getting in the way of property taxes before deciding how she'd like to proceed when Duluth's current operating levy expires.
"I know from door-knocking that some constituents don't understand why their taxes would be raised," she said. "You shouldn't have to have your MBA to understand where your dollars are going."
"Honest conversations" need to be had throughout the city to find answers to "real and perceived" school inequity issues, Trnka said.
"It's the unfortunate piece with the changes in high schools (going from three to two via the Red Plan)," she said. "We definitely created the environment in which we are living. How do we find a way to mend wounds while being proactive and developing community-based solutions?"
She's interested in the use of technology to help Denfeld students have more course choices. Differences in enrollment at the high schools have resulted in more opportunities to take certain courses at East than at Denfeld, which typically only has one section of an advanced course, for example.
Trnka expressed support for using boundary changes to balance enrollment, but she wants the help of an outside consultant and for the community to guide decisions.
She doesn't agree a sale of Central for Duluth Edison's use would be in the best interest of the city, citing hope for efforts being made with other partners, such as the city and lawmakers, to sell it in a way that will benefit taxpayers.
"It's one thing to take it off the books and use it as a zero line item," she said. "We also need to think about it as a revenue generator for our community."
Harry Welty, 66, is running for his fourth term as a board member. He was first elected in 1995. He's lived in Duluth for more than 40 years and has two grown children with his wife, Claudia Welty, and two grandchildren. He had a short-lived teaching career earlier in his life, working in three area districts.
He's run for public office more than a dozen times, and was one of the most vocal opponents of the approval of the Red Plan, the $315 million building and consolidation plan, without a public vote. He's been part of a lawsuit against the school district related to the Red Plan and blames the plan for the district's continuing financial woes.
"I have a deep feeling that public education is the foundation of the American democracy. And it has become broken in the Duluth schools," he said, blaming the repayment structure of the Red Plan that has led to more than $3 million in general fund spending annually toward Red Plan debt. "I feel I am a key to solving the problem."
If he's re-elected, finding outside financial advisers to work with the district is his first priority.
He bristles at the notion that he should move on from his criticism of the Red Plan, which was completed in 2013.
"This is my problem with the Red Plan: the fight is over but the aftermath is not," he said. "There is a question about whether we have the maintenance money available to take care of this big investment, and I can't think of anything more stupid than to build something like this and then let the whole thing go to seed."
(District investment in maintenance is routinely less than recommended, and the board last school year approved deferring some maintenance to pay for the playground mulch project and Rockridge school renovations.)
Welty would ask voters for an operating levy increase: "I always believe in asking people ... It's the voters' decision."
If that is granted, he said, it would go a long way in dealing with school inequities, but in the meantime, he, like Krivogorsky, advocates keeping compensatory education funding with the schools that generate it.
Welty calls himself a "provocateur," and displays that trait on his personal blog, where he often writes about board and district issues. That blog has also been a source of trouble for Welty. In 2014 he revealed in a post the purchase price of the Central High School property before an agreement with the potential developer had been signed. The School Board censured Welty as a result. (The deal eventually fell through.)
In 2016, Welty supported Duluth Edison's bid for Central, and today maintains that if interest were revived, he would support it again for a similar price.
To deal with enrollment imbalance, he suggested transforming western schools into magnet schools. He wants community input, but he'd only make incremental changes to school boundaries where they are most needed — such as around Congdon Park Elementary. But he doesn't want to force any families into new schools, he said.
He suggests one high school for freshmen and sophomores and one for juniors and seniors. He said the transportation costs and long bus rides "would be a small price to pay for healing wounds in a city that has notoriously been divided — long before I came here — east and west."
Upcoming forums to feature School Board candidate
The Duluth League of Women Voters holds Duluth School Board candidate forums Thursday and Nov. 2.
Thursday, District 4 candidates Art Johnston and Jill Lofald and At Large candidates Josh Gorham, Dana Krivogorsky and Harry Welty will answer questions at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Park Middle School, 3215 W. Third St. Sally Trnka cannot attend.
Nov. 2, District 1 candidates Kurt Kuehn and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and the four At Large candidates will answer questions at 7 p.m. at Lester Park Elementary School, 5300 Glenwood St.