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UPDATE: Duluth voters say yes to smaller class sizes

Nyasha Spears and a group of parents and kids rally in support of the Duluth school district's education levy near Congdon Park School on Superior Street Monday morning. Jana Hollingsworth / jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com

Duluth students and teachers can expect smaller class sizes in the coming years thanks to voter approval of two referendum tax hikes on Tuesday, but voters rejected a third tax hike that would have updated technology in schools.

The first and second questions put to voters through the Duluth school district operating levy referendum passed soundly. The first maintains the district’s operating levy and the second increases it enough to make it comparable to the state average: $947 per student.

With all votes counted, voters approved the first question by a 72 to 28 pecrent margin, and the second question by a 54 to 46 percent marign, but rejected the thrid question by a tight 48.7 to 51.3 percent margin.

“We are thrilled,” said Duluth schools superintendent Bill Gronseth of the increase. “Thank you to the voters of Duluth for saying yes to the renewal and an increase. … We will continue to work with the community to use the funds to provide the best education possible for the kids.”

District voters were asked three questions. Approval of the first maintains the current amount residents pay in operating levy costs, which doesn't include other property taxes paid out for Duluth schools. Approval of the second means the owner of a home valued at $150,000 pays an additional $104 a year. The majority of that extra money is expected pay for 25 more teachers in schools, via a reduction of the student/teacher ratio. A third question asked for support of technology updates with training throughout the district.

School district officials have pushed the fact that the district’s portion of taxes approved by voters is far lower than the state average at about $372 per student. The state education department says the average is about $957 per student. Approval of the second question brings that amount to $947 per student. The levy is set for 10 years.

Some voters Tuesday expressed tax fatigue and said they wanted more fiscal responsibility from the district before increasing taxes.

Teri Hagadorn, voting at Elim Lutheran Church in West Duluth said she voted against every question.

“I think schools are just fine the way they are,” she said. “I don’t want to raise the price of my property taxes.”

Garry Nordstrom, a retired teacher and businessman voting at the Woodland Community Center also voted against all three questions.

“I think there should be more responsibility on spending,” he said, noting he’s taught in large cities and in prisons where he saw “a lot of (fiscal) waste.”

But many voters said kids and education were worth it.

Dave Walter, voting at Duluth Congregational Church in eastern Duluth said yes to all three levy questions.

“ My taxes are going to go up, but we’ve still got to support education,” he said.

Michael Slosson at City Center West in West Duluth said he voted for all three.

“I have twin 16-year-old boys, and anything we can do to help young people out, I’m down with that. Let’s not fall behind in the technological race,” he said.

Retired teacher Liz Holt also voting at Duluth Congregational Church said she voted for all three levels.

“If you don’t support the children in their education, it impacts the future of our community,” she said. “I heard people complain they were going to vote no because of the Red Plan. The Red Plan was 10 years ago. It’s over. We’re not looking backwards, we are looking forward.”

Also voting at the Woodland center was 33-year-old nurse Kim Volkart. She said yes to all three.

“I don’t have kids but I think the world will not be going in a positive direction,” she said, if students aren’t given what they need to do well. “Teachers spend all their own money on supplies. I have a teacher friend who is alloted 72 cents per kid per year. That’s spent two weeks into the school year.”

The 8,800-student district has been in cost-cutting mode for years in part because of declining enrollment. With the failure of the technology question, the district will find a way to move forward, Gronseth said, making plans to muddle through with outdated computer and surveillance systems until a new solution is found.

Another 34 Minnesota school districts held operating levy referendums and 25 held bond referendums. Duluth was the only district that put three operating levy questions to voters.

News Tribune reporters Samantha Church and Peter Passi contributed to this report.

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