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Duluth School Board approves budget with no tenured layoffs

No tenured teachers were laid off by the Duluth School Board Tuesday night — a sign of improving financial health for Duluth public schools.

As recently as 2012, the board regularly had laid off 20 or more such staff, but that number has dropped because of large numbers of retirements, growth in state aid and a voter-approved levy increase.

Board member Annie Harala said her mother, a second grade teacher at Congdon Park Elementary, endured many years of being laid off in the summer and hired back in the fall, a common practice among school districts.

"It's exciting to me that we can ensure our tenured teachers that stability," Harala said following the meeting.

The board did vote to terminate eight non-tenured teachers Tuesday, with most working on one-year variances that allowed them to teach a certain area without the necessary license.

Also approved was a budget for next year that avoids large cuts thanks to a 2 percent increase to the school funding formula each of the next two years, approved by state lawmakers in last week's special session. Legislators passed a $17 billion education budget that spends $525 million more on schools, including the school funding formula.

The approved $103 million operating budget includes continued investments in lowering class sizes, and an additional $360,000 for teacher meeting time meant to improve instruction and academic performance. Money has also been set aside for middle school lifeguards and language immersion programs. The board voted 6-1 on the budget, with member Art Johnston opposing.

In other board news:

• Changes to the district's bullying prohibition policy were approved, along with the first reading of a revised digital technology policy.

Technology changes include allowing middle school students the use of cellphones, for example, before and after class and during lunch.

The bullying policy is more specific than what was passed last year, and puts the onus to report incidents not just on the victim, but on everyone. How an investigation should be conducted is spelled out in more detail, along with information on an appeal process.

• The board reversed last month's decision to move School Board elections to even-numbered years. A change to a state law pertaining to Duluth's election cycle and required for the board to move to even-numbered years was not made.

• Members Johnston and Harry Welty moved to block a routine leave of absence request by former East High School assistant principal Cheryl Lien. Lien, a long-time district employee, was granted a leave of absence last year when she moved with her husband for a job opportunity for him. She this year asked for a second-year extension.

Lien was involved in the decision to transfer Johnston's district-employed partner to a position at a different school last year, which resulted in Johnston's confrontations with Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board member Mike Miernicki at East's 2014 graduation ceremony, and the subsequent board move to oust him for that behavior and for conflict of interest allegations, among others. Johnston was instead censured last month.

Welty said Tuesday night that he didn't trust Lien, citing her part in "the year of trauma" related to Johnston.

Johnston said it was "bad policy" and "no benefit" to the school to award an extension noting, "I certainly hope this person doesn't come back."

Miernicki said such renewals have been done for years, for employees wanting to continue education or attend law school, for example. Board member and former Duluth educator Bill Westholm benefited from such an extension, he said.

"This is a well thought-of educator, a Goldfine Gold Star winner," Miernicki said of Lien. "I don't see why we would pull it."

The board voted 5-2 to allow the extension, with Johnston and Welty opposing.

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