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District could start school budget cuts Wednesday

After numerous meetings and considerable comment, the Duluth school board could start taking cost-cutting actions at a special meeting on Wednesday. Facing a declining enrollment for at least the next five years, the board is expected to consider...

After numerous meetings and considerable comment, the Duluth school board could start taking cost-cutting actions at a special meeting on Wednesday.
Facing a declining enrollment for at least the next five years, the board is expected to consider aspects of its long range plan that are critical to cutting the budget.
But it will probably stop short of voting on school closings. That decision could come in April, when the district has a better idea as to whether its revenue picture could improve.
Can the city of Duluth bail the school district out of its pending financial peril?
Probably not, but the possibility was discussed as the district continues to explore potential solutions.
Faced with declining enrollment and modest state aid, the district must make considerable cuts. It needs to reduce costs by $4.8 million next year and more than $8 million the following.
Proposed remedies include closing schools, changing the school day and cutting administration costs and some programs. An early excess levy referendum could help -- though not right away.
Scenarios have come out for closing four or five elementary schools or possibly a high school. New school boundaries would be established, and the district would take on a three-corridor focus. Wednesday night, school board members sat down with city councilors.
The board has been through a long-range planning process that has provided a framework for addressing the situation, while the city is just starting a process to develop its comprehensive plan.
The board took the opportunity to bring its City Hall counterparts up to date on the district's status and how it got there. As one board member pointed out, it was a chance to share the burden. And unlike other recent meetings on the issue, few residents attended.
Superintendent Julio Almanza provided the history leading up to the current crisis.
He explained enrollment has continued to decline since five schools were closed at the end of the 1992 school year. There were 15,000 students then and 12,000 now. By the 2005-06 school year, that number is expected to slip to 10,800.
"Our projections are pretty accurate," he said. The Duluth district also has more buildings with fewer students per building than most similar districts.
Using enrollment as the main indicator, Almanza said, "We see a continuing decline in revenues for the next three years. We know we will continue to have a declining enrollment for at least five years."
The board shared some of the public's concerns and the strong sentiment on saving buildings and keeping neighborhoods together.
Board member Harry Welty brought up his two high school concept, and said it could mean not closing so many elementary schools.
He also brought up money.
"I'll tell you what would help us a lot, a little money," he said. "Definitely, a little money would allow us to delay some of these closing decisions."
Councilor Greg Gilbert suggested the possibility of using money from the city's tax increment financing districts (TIF).
"We have several TIF districts flush with property tax money," he said. It would require special legislation, but would buy some time.
"We all seem to link schools with economic development," said Gilbert, who has often held challenging views on TIF money. "This is an area where we have a competitive advantage. We hate to lose that. It's worth pursuing."
Councilors Ken Hogg and Rod Stenberg did not think the idea was feasible. Hogg also thought it was likely that the state would reduce its school aid in an equal amount to city assistance.
But he did point out some good news about TIF districts in the future. Some of them will expire in the next few years, putting more property tax money into the system.
Councilor Lynn Fena said that maybe TIF money could be used to work on some of the things that keep families in the community.
Almanza concluded that the district was committed to maintaining quality and bringing equity to all students in the district.

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