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Duluth School Board votes to increase class sizes

For the first time in at least 10 years, the Duluth School Board approved increasing class sizes across the school district Tuesday to help the district climb out of a $6 million deficit. The vote was unanimous.

For the first time in at least 10 years, the Duluth School Board approved increasing class sizes across the school district Tuesday to help the district climb out of a $6 million deficit. The vote was unanimous.

The move -- which will increase the student-teacher ratio by one student next year -- saved the district about $1.2 million. Increasing class size is often a last resort for districts facing deficits because large classes can make it difficult for teachers to give students the attention they need.

The board also opted to close Lincoln Park Middle School, reduce spending on school principals, make deep cuts to technology and administrative departments and mandate spending freezes in several areas, said Bill Hanson, the district's finance director.

Board members said the decision was not easy.

"I wish St. Paul would do a better job of understanding the dilemma facing school districts," board member Ann Wasson said. She said the state does not provide enough money for state responsibilities including special education, testing and No Child Left Behind.

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"School districts all over this country are being forced to cut in drastic measures," Wasson said. "We are down to the bare bones here and I am extremely nervous about it. I don't like going into the classroom for cuts."

Neither does board member Laura Condon, who said she would have fought to stay away from the class size increase if she wasn't so concerned about the fate of the district's operating levy. Some people in the community have expressed concern that anger over the district's long-range plan will lead the public to vote against the levy, which is up for renewal this fall.

"It makes me heartsick," Condon said. "You cut the budget because you have to, not because you want to. ... But if we don't deal with this now it will only compound the problems that will face us later, especially if our learning levy fails."

If the levy does fail, Hanson -- the district's business director -- estimated the district will be facing a $7.7 million deficit next year. If it gets renewed at the level currently in place, the district probably will be looking at a $3 million shortfall, Hanson said.

"We have deficits in our future no matter what, so we are going to need to have more of these discussions," he said.

The district's decision to implement spending freezes next year, as well as reduce deposits in rainy day funds for schools and administrative departments -- which totaled about $2 million in savings -- are a one-time fix, Hanson said. With another deficit looming in fiscal year 2010, Hanson said the district may be looking at deeper, more painful cuts in the future, such as rearranging the middle school day or consolidating school populations sooner than what is called for in the district's long-range plan.

"Capital is the kind of thing where for short periods of time you can go without," Hanson said. "These capital adjustments allow us to buy some time until we can get into a longer, more intentional discussion about those kinds of things."

The decision to cut the district's technology budget and limit spending on school principals and assistant principals reflects the declining enrollment the district has seen over the past several years, Hanson said.

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"As schools have gotten smaller, we have essentially kept the same model as when the schools have had many more students," he said. "These reductions reflect that change."

The closure of Lincoln Park Middle School, while considered a district savings of about $275,000, was made primarily to deal with declining enrollments at middle schools, Hanson said.

A full list of items affected by the district's cuts is available on the district's Web site at www.duluth.k12.mn.us . The board will adopt a final version of the budget in June.

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at shorner@duluthnews.com .

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