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Our view: Imbalance between schools demands stronger leadership

"Steve Lindstrom /' For the News Tribune)

The goal was admirable: Give every kid in Duluth a shot at a top-notch education via the same classes and opportunities, no matter what school they went to, where they lived or how much money their family had.

But while the school district’s long-range facilities plan gave us modern, efficient and safe school buildings, a headline-dominating controversy this spring over the opportunities and classes being offered at Denfeld and East high schools laid bare a disappointing reality: As hard as district officials may be trying, not all education in Duluth is equal.

And neither are our schools. While more than 57 percent of students at Denfeld come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the percentage at East is just 21.7 percent. Also, while Denfeld has about 990 students, East has about 1,550. That can lead to more money for East and more classes and opportunities there, as funding is distributed on a per-student basis.

But it’s not that simple, Superintendent Bill Gronseth insisted to the News Tribune Opinion page after editorials were published calling on the district to fix its lack of equity. Denfeld and other schools with higher percentages of low-income students can tap into state and federal funding sources schools like East can’t, he said. He requested a meeting with the editorial board to further explain.

For nearly an hour he and district business services director Bill Hanson detailed the process used to determine how classes come to be offered at Denfeld and East and the challenges the district faces.

Frustratingly, they came without specific enrollment or other numbers. Even more frustratingly, there was little to no acknowledgement from either of the district’s top leaders that the process being used maybe needs improvement. Neither suggested changes or a strategy to close the troubling gaps. They only indicated that elementary school boundaries would be looked at in the coming weeks.

Instead they blamed the community for the boundaries that determine where kids go to school, blamed individual schools for determining the classes that are offered and how teachers are assigned, and said imbalances in student populations are “bigger than the school district.”

“We can’t change where people live. We can’t change where affordable housing is available,” Gronseth pointed out.

Of course not, but Duluth’s affordable housing stock and where its students live haven’t changed much, if at all, since the Red Plan was written and adopted just a few short years ago. Inequities and imbalance were supposed to be fixed by the Red Plan, yet here they are.

“Once the two-high school plan was determined, (at) the very top of the list (of next steps) was (to) equalize the enrollments in each attendance area to maximize the amount of opportunities,” Hanson said. “I mean that was right at the top of our list. And that’s what led us to draw the line originally, based on the demographics in place at the time, at, I want to say it was 14th Avenue East.

“But we drew that and then there was all kinds of community pushback,” Hanson said. There were concerns the boundary would isolate minority and low-income student populations. “So then the line got moved back to Sixth Avenue East and right away that threw the enrollment numbers off but it did a better job of diversifying the population both from a socioeconomic standpoint and from a students-of-color standpoint. Certainly not equal, but a better job.”

At the risk of Monday-morning quarterbacking, a better job could have been done in determining school boundaries to both equalize school populations and maintain healthy diversity at both of Duluth’s high schools. Certainly new boundaries could be found now to accomplish these goals. A solution isn’t simple, but we shouldn’t settle for either-or. And right now neither goal is being met.

So how are class offerings determined?

“We give (each school) an allocation of FTEs,” Gronseth said, referring to “full-time equivalent” teachers and staff. “The schools develop a plan (for class offerings). We encourage principals to work with … a group that includes, you know, some parents (and) some students. And when you develop a plan with parents and students, sometimes that’s taken as a final plan. … That’s kind of what happened (this spring when class cuts at Denfeld were questioned by parents and others). Generally (schools then) come to us and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve planned.’ And I (and others), we all come together and look at it through our lenses.” District officials then can suggest changes so limited resources are allocated in the best way possible before final offerings are approved.

By and large, the individual schools make their own calls. “The FTEs are the FTEs,” Gronseth said. “How they use them is their decision at the school.”

As admirable as resisting an urge to micromanage may be, the administration has to be willing to step in to make hard choices when those choices have to be made.

District officials’ willingness to move school boundaries under public pressure when the Red Plan was being written, even though they knew it would cause problems, and this spring’s controversy suggest those hard choices aren’t always being made, that the administration isn’t always stepping in when it needs to.

That’s a matter of strong, effective leadership, something district residents expected when they voted last fall to invest more of their money for education. They deserve no less but aren’t getting it, and it has to be on the superintendent, top district administrators and School Board members to deliver. How? By putting aside differences that damage their credibility; by working together; by being ready, always, with numbers and relevant information; and by being willing to quickly recognize and fix clear problems.