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Duluth schools face budget shortfall

The Duluth school district is facing a deficit for the coming year that could range between $1 million and roughly $4 million.

The amount the School Board will be asked to cut depends on several factors: whether there is an increase in the amount of money the state gives in student aid, whether teacher salaries are increased in a new contract under negotiation and how new playground mulch is paid for, if the School Board follows through on its intention to replace rubber mulch.

The board heard from district administration Tuesday night an early forecast for a budget it will be asked to approve in June.

Business services manager Doug Hasler stressed that the budget projection was fluid. It takes into account yearly teacher salary increases for experience and education, declining enrollment, improvements for the former Rockridge Elementary to suit the needs of Woodland Hills Academy and a likely increase to insurance premiums, projected to be nearly $600,000. In its deficit estimates, it doesn’t take into account possible teacher salary increases for the yet-unsettled contract or the cost of replacement mulch.

Each of the last three years teachers earned 2 percent salary increases. Mulch for most elementary and both middle school playgrounds is estimated to cost more than $600,000, which Hasler said he recently learned could be paid for out of a separate fund meant for building improvements, lessening the burden on the general fund. Choosing that option might mean putting off projects already earmarked for that fund.

The cost to renovate Rockridge for Woodland Hills Academy — which isn’t a done deal — is projected to be $2.5 million, with the hopes that most of that can be paid for out of the building improvement fund. Woodland Hills, whose students the Duluth district teaches, is asking the district for a new building because of costly repairs needed in the former Cobb School, where the students are currently taught. If the district continues to lease space there for its teachers, Woodland Hills plans to increase rent from $156,000 annually to $340,000.  

The board also learned that because the 2013 operating levy sunsets at the end of 2018, the budget deficit for 2019 could grow to between $5.6 million and $8 million. It is likely that the district will ask for a levy renewal or increase to avoid that, and superintendent Bill Gronseth said Tuesday that talks on what that might look like have begun.

Hasler said that if Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2-percent-per-pupil funding increase proposal is approved, the district would receive about $1 million more in aid each of the next two years. The state’s February forecast was released Tuesday and showed a $1.65 billion projected surplus for 2018-19. What is actually approved will likely fall between nothing and 2 percent, Hasler said, given the forecast.

Last year the board cut $3.3 million. Gronseth said the district is looking for ways to save money, either through restructuring or backing away from things that aren’t productive. A draft budget will go before the board in April.

Board member Nora Sandstad said she was hopeful Dayton’s funding proposal is approved, and that Rockridge and mulch costs can be paid for out of the building improvement fund.

“A lot is still in flux,” she said.

Several parents spoke at the regular board meeting held later Tuesday in support of reinstating the seventh period in middle schools.

Nyasha Spears asked the board to make reinstatement a budget priority, and consider it as a future referendum item.

The loss of time for electives, she said, “has significant consequences for all Duluth students.”

Gronseth said at the earlier meeting that a rough estimate to reinstate the seventh period in all secondary schools would be $2.5 million. Some board members have expressed the desire to reinstate for next year the seventh period, a victim of budget cuts in 2012 at the middle school level and in 2004 at the high school level.

Advocating for another hot-button topic, Anne Skwira-Brown spoke about the need to solve equity issues in Duluth schools, and said a group of parents has been meeting about that for several months. They will hold a discussion from 7-8:30 p.m. March 7 in the Denfeld High School Media Center.

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