Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, made no bones about the fact that he was tackling a sensitive topic when he called local school leaders together Tuesday morning to discuss the potential impact of another charter high school opening its doors in the city.
"I kind of had the idea to bring us all together and start off with an initial discussion, and if this thing explodes or goes south, then this will be our first and last meeting," he said at the outset.
Simonson called on the people in attendance to develop "sort of a global plan about how K-12 education is going to look in Duluth in the future" after Duluth Edison Charter Schools expands with the construction of a new high school, probably to open in the fall of 2017.
The decision to build a new charter high school was not made lightly, said Crystal Palmer, president of Duluth Edison's school board.
"Our parents have been relentless since I've been on the School Board, saying, 'Please open a high school. Please open a high school. We want our kids to continue with this curriculum,' " she said. "And it has been a long road for us, but we're finally at a place where we can offer that to them. So we're excited to offer that."
Simonson said city residents will need to brace for a new reality.
"We know that Edison is going to build a high school," he said. "There's no reason that that's not happening. And I'm not here to suggest that you shouldn't do that, because your business model says that it's needed, and I think that the parents who are involved in the Edison system support that idea. But I'm curious about what the impact of that is going to be on ISD 709."
Duluth public schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the district already knows what it takes to operate in an increasingly crowded market.
"Years and years ago, the Legislature made competition in public education a viable choice when charter schools were established, and I don't have a problem with choice. I don't have a problem with competition," he said. "My focus really needs to be on making our schools the premier choice, the best choice for students in our area."
Schools are vying for a shrinking number of students, according to data Gronseth provided.
"The population of school-age children in the district has declined steadily over the past 20 years," he said. "That's the reason why we've gone from about 25,000 school-age children at the peak to about 8,600 students, which represents about an 80 percent market share. So, of the school-age children in Duluth, about 80 percent of them choose to go to public schools."
The opening of an Edison high school probably will eat into the share of students who enroll at either Denfeld or East high schools. Gronseth said the schools attract about 55 percent of Edison students graduating from eighth grade, where the charter school's curriculum now ends.
Edison typically has between 125 and 150 students enrolled in each grade level.
If most of Edison's students choose to continue to attend the charter school through their senior year, Gronseth said it could conservatively result in about 60 fewer people annually enrolled at Denfeld and East. During the course of four years, that would amount to an enrollment decline of 240 students at the district's high schools, and at the current per-pupil funding level of about $11,000 per year, that would translate into a loss of more than $2.6 million annually on an ongoing basis.
Palmer said that about one-third of Edison's graduates now go to Denfeld and one-quarter to East. Denfeld already has a lower number of students, making the potential hit even more painful. Gronseth put current enrollment at about 1,700 students for East and just fewer than 1,000 for Denfeld.
Simonson questioned whether the school district will be able to sustain two high schools in the face of increased competition for students.
"I can envision a scenario where, 10 years from now, we're in a similar position, as far as ISD 709 needing to make some difficult choices," he said.
But Duluth School Board President Judy Seliga-Punyko assured Simonson that the district remains well positioned to support two high schools after the closure of Central High School several years ago.
"I think we're good for the next 30-40 years, honestly," she said.
Even if the district can sustain two high schools, Simonson said it may be necessary to bus more students westward.
"If the numbers are that significant just coming out of Denfeld, I don't know how to adjust to that without moving the boundary, which is unpopular in itself," he observed.
Seliga-Punyko expressed her distaste for that solution, saying parents probably will consider moving to send students to the school of their choice.
"I don't ever want to go through a boundary change again," she said.
Simonson said he would like to meet again with school leaders in early October to hash out enrollment projections as the number of educational choices for residents continues to grow.
"I don't know that it's reasonable to think that we should just wait and see what happens," he said.