Duluth School Board denies compensatory education funding change
The Duluth School Board voted against a measure Tuesday night that would have triggered a plan to alter the way the school district uses a kind of state funding meant to help low-performing students.
Tuesday's special meeting was called by board members Alanna Oswald, Harry Welty and Art Johnston, with Johnston offering a measure that would keep compensatory education funding with the schools that generate it starting with the 2019-20 school year. Oswald, Welty and Johnston voted for it, with members David Kirby, Annie Harala and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp opposing. A majority vote was necessary to pass the measure. Member Nora Sandstad left the three-hour meeting prior to the vote.
The money is allocated by the state to schools based on their percentages of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator. State statute allows the district to use up to half of the money allocated to each level — elementary, middle and high school — for about a dozen uses. The district has for many years used portions of that money to lower class sizes. A portion also pays curriculum department expenses, an area that has been hit hard by budget cuts.
A year-old group — the Community-based School Equity Initiative — formed to address disparities between western and eastern schools, has advocated for the money to stay where it is generated as a means for addressing persistent achievement gaps. On Tuesday, the board heard from community members both for and against changing how that money is spent.
Mary Owen, a member of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, advocated for each school to keep its money, citing the historically poor graduation rates of Native Americans at Denfeld High School and throughout the state.
"How can we call this anything but a justice issue?" she asked. "I know inequity when I see it."
John Krumm, who said he lived on the eastern side of Duluth, said the issue was a simple one.
The west side was "paying for part of our cake," he said, and the money should be for students who struggle the most.
Districtwide Parent Student Teacher Association president Stacey DeRoche said there are students living in poverty throughout the city, and there hasn't been enough discussion on the impacts of a funding change.
"How much will class size increase and how will teachers be affected? Will we lose counselors?" she asked. "Are we thinking about every child?"
East parent Henry Helgen said compensatory education funding should be considered along with other revenue.
Schools that have higher percentages of kids receiving free or reduced-price lunch "have more funding and lower class sizes," he said.
Denfeld teacher Tom Tusken said that wasn't necessarily true, citing a class of 37 he was teaching this year.
There are "desperate attempts" at Denfeld to help kids succeed, he said.
"Why are we here? Because we're desperate," Tusken said. "We need the city to come together on this because it's that much of a crisis right now."
The district this year received about $6.8 million in compensatory education funding, a $637,000 decrease from last year. Denfeld received about 80 percent of its allocation, while East received nearly 400 percent. Considering other sources of funding, Denfeld received $5,433 per student compared to East's $4,347 per student. Similarly, most other district schools with higher percentages of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch got less of their allocated compensatory education money but received larger amounts per student overall. Some advocates for a spending change have said equity lies in meeting student needs, however, and not in ensuring all students are treated the same.
Superintendent Bill Gronseth said in a separate interview that using the money for something other than lowering class size would increase the teacher-to-student ratio by five more students per class on average, although that would play out differently at elementary schools compared to high schools.
Some schools do need more support than others, he said, and using a portion of compensatory education money to help do that is a direction the district would like to go.
"I'm leery of doing that without identifying additional funding sources to invest in class sizes across the district," he said, which is why the district will likely ask for an operating levy increase next fall.
"We need to back up and make sure we are addressing the needs of all students," he said.
Sandstad said during the meeting she'd rather invest the money in early childhood education, such as offering free pre-K to more kids, noting research shows that kind of investment leads to better long-term outcomes and increased graduation rates.
Oswald said she didn't want an abrupt change, but wanted to do something that would ensure the money was being spent on narrowing achievement gaps, keeping it more in line with the spirit of the state law.
"This isn't about east versus west; it's about providing for our kids," she said.
Kevin Skwira-Brown, who has led the community equity group, said he was disappointed the board didn't approve a clear plan, but noted that newly elected board members all talked about equity during their campaigns.
"We are just one of a number of groups pushing and advocating for greater equity," he said. "(Tonight's meeting) brings that energy to light."