Duluth School Board District 1 candidates differ on key issues
Both of the candidates for the Duluth School Board District 1 race agree that changes to school boundaries are necessary and that voters should be asked to at least renew an expiring operating levy. When it comes to key issues, however, similarit...
Both of the candidates for the Duluth School Board District 1 race agree that changes to school boundaries are necessary and that voters should be asked to at least renew an expiring operating levy. When it comes to key issues, however, similarities end there.
Kurt Kuehn and incumbent Rosie Loeffler-Kemp are the candidates running to represent large sections of eastern Duluth, the city of Rice Lake and four area townships.
Kuehn, 54, is a retired St. Louis County Sheriff's Office corrections officer. The Lester Park resident has four grown daughters and 18 grandchildren, and grew up on the North Shore, graduating from Two Harbors High School.
His top motive for running is to "represent the taxpayer," he said. The No. 1 issue he hears from residents while campaigning is "why didn't we sell Central" to Duluth Edison Charter Schools, he said. Class sizes are a close second.
He links most issues plaguing the school district to perennial budget woes, and would like to see independent financial advisers brought into the fold to examine spending. He sees the inequities between eastern and western schools - fewer course options at Denfeld High School and Lincoln Park Middle School because of enrollment disparities, for example - as a financial issue that could be solved by shifting priorities.
Changing certain funding mechanisms would help ease some of those problems, he said, pointing to a type of state aid called compensatory education funding. Schools get an allocation of that based on their percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch. But state statute allows the district to take up to half of each allocation and use it in other ways, which is done in Duluth to lower class sizes throughout the district. Taking money from some schools and transferring it to others with less need, Kuehn said, doesn't "reflect the values of the community."
Selling remaining vacant schools would also be a priority for Kuehn, whether to a competing interest such as Duluth Edison, or not.
"Our funds are in a state of emergency," he said.
The board voted to cut $1.9 million from its budget this past June and $3.3 million in 2016.
With the coming expiration of the current operating levy, the district "should at least ask" for it to be maintained at its current level. Being more transparent about where the money would go would be key in getting it passed, he said.
"After the Red Plan, the district has lost some trust from the community on where the money is going and if it's being spent wisely," he said, referencing the district's $315 million building plan completed in 2013.
Kuehn is open to advocating for boundary changes, especially on the eastern side of the district where some elementary schools are at capacity. Out door-knocking, he said, he's encountered parents who live in between Lakewood and Lester Park and have children who attend Lester Park. Some would be "happy" to transfer to Lakewood for its smaller class sizes, he said.
"I think it has to be done to some extent," he said, but the community should be involved in crafting the solution.
Loeffler-Kemp, 56, hails from Hallock, Minn., a small town in northwestern Minnesota. Her family, husband Ken Loeffler-Kemp and four kids, have lived in Duluth for more than 20 years. She has a daughter enrolled at East High School, and her other three children are grown. Loeffler-Kemp is completing her first term as a School Board member, but has been involved in education for several years as a local PTSA president and as president at the state level. She recently earned a master's degree in social work and works with kids in foster care through Gale Koop Foster Care, and with a high school study abroad program, Education First.
She's driven to serve, she said, because of her passion for education.
"My mom and dad did not graduate from high school but really valued education for the 10 of us kids," she said, noting that her dad died when she was 14, and the support from her teachers helped her get through the difficult periods. "I know who I am today because of the relationships with people at my school."
She has used her role in the past four years as a "champion" for her district, she said, and as a resource to constituents.
District inequities caused by enrollment and boundaries, she said, are being addressed in several ways: language immersion programs, expanded early learning opportunities and full-service community schools are some examples. But more work needs to be done, she said, citing recent training she received from the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership toward those efforts.
"We need to develop a common understanding of racial equality and equity and what it means to educational success," she said, and do a better job of engaging families about the issue. "We need to commit to doing things differently."
In 2016 Loeffler-Kemp voted against changing board policy to negotiate a Central High School sale with Tischer Creek Building Co. on behalf of Duluth Edison, which had offered $14.2 million for the property. She was also more recently against selling other school buildings to Many Rivers Montessori.
She stands by those decisions, and the policy.
"My primary focus is how to best serve the long-term interest of Duluth public schools," she said, which, in her opinion, a sale to Duluth Edison would go against.
A sale to another school would be a wasted opportunity to add to the tax base, she said. She cited work being done between the district, city, county and state lawmakers to generate interest in the property.
"I make any of my decisions based on community input," she said, from stakeholders across the city.
Any boundary changes should stem from such community input, she said, and with the use of an "unbiased," independent consultant. Loeffler-Kemp voted for such a service last school year, and it was rejected by the board majority. To lessen heartache, a sort of grandfathering-in process could be used for affected families, she said.
A longtime campaigner for operating levies, Loeffler-Kemp supports maintaining the current operating levy, with a community discussion on how it should be used going forward, as well as whether there is an appetite for an increase.
"I am not going to sit here and say it should just be for class sizes," she said.
The operating levy passed in 2013 has largely been used to lower class sizes.
The general election is Nov. 7.