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Duluth school district plans meetings on referendum

The Duluth school district is gearing up for a potential referendum later this year to help cover its operating expenses.

The district plans to turn to the community in the coming months to weigh in on school needs ahead of finalizing an operational referendum for the November ballot, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said during a Tuesday forum with the city's business community to discuss the district's budget.

Bill GronsethConversations have been taking place on opportunities and equity issues within the district, as well as about program funding needs, Gronseth said at the forum, hosted by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and the News Tribune.

The additional community meetings are expected to be held in March, although Gronseth said the meetings won't be the only way residents can provide their opinions.

"What we really need is your perspective," he said. "We need your opinion on what takes priority in all of these conversations. What goes to the top of the list? What we know is that we can't afford to do all of those things at once. If we're going to have a referendum that everyone can support, it needs to reflect the priorities of the community."

Voters approved an operating levy in 2013 that is set to expire after this year. The district will need a referendum on the ballot in November to continue or increase that funding. It needs to hear from the community about how that money should be spent before it can move forward with that, Doug Hasler, the district's director of business services, told the News Tribune after the forum.

"We've been meeting, we've been discussing. We have not been making any big discussions yet. Ultimately, we're going to need to determine what levy we're going to the community to seek support for," Hasler said.

During the forum, Hasler noted that the district is in the midst of its budget process for next year and "we have some serious challenges that we're looking at."

The Duluth School Board was told in January that the district was facing a $4 million deficit for the coming year. Hasler said that budget cuts have been "a regular activity" and the district needs to strike a balance between budget realities and providing "high-quality programs and services" for families.

Hasler told the business leaders gathered for Tuesday's forum that the district welcomes their input.

"We represent this community. We want to give you the best schools and the best programs that we can," Hasler said.

Gronseth asked those present to stay informed and involved in the district. The district is reconvening a community finance group to advise the district, including on the potential referendum.

"The students who are in our schools will one day be in your chairs, working for your companies and starting their own companies that maybe some of us will work for. Your involvement in helping them and mentoring them and making sure that our programs include the skills that you believe are necessary in the workplace — that's all a part of building strong schools," Gronseth said.

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