Duluth voters asked to help lower class sizes and update technology

Large class sizes at the perpetually full Congdon Park Elementary mean crowded hallways, tightly-packed rooms and even some shared lockers and books for its 616 students.

t10.18 Bob King -- 102118.N.DNT.LEVY1 -- Congdon Park Elementary fifth grade teacher Kathy Lofstuen (top) answers a student's question during a recent class. Lofstuen's classroom is packed with 35 students, 32 of which are present here. Bob King /
Congdon Park Elementary fifth grade teacher Kathy Lofstuen (top) answers a student's question during a recent class. Lofstuen's classroom is packed with 35 students, 32 of which are present here. Bob King /

Large class sizes at the perpetually full Congdon Park Elementary mean crowded hallways, tightly-packed rooms and even some shared lockers and books for its 616 students.

At Piedmont Elementary, teachers often struggle to meet the academic needs among students in the same big class, with reading levels ranging between kindergarten and sixth grade in one fifth-grade room of 32.

A physical education teacher at East High School - population 1,630 this year - needed two weeks of studying on her own time to learn the names of students in her massive classes, one with 49.

For educators district-wide, big classes can make it hard to build relationships with students - one of the most important pieces to educational success, many said.

"Students learn better and I do a better job when I don't have as many," said Lynn Thompson, a fifth grade teacher at Piedmont.


The district's persistent problem with high numbers of students in many Duluth classrooms is a huge driver of the Nov. 6 request for more taxpayer money.

District voters will be asked three questions. Approval of the first will maintain the current amount residents pay in operating levy costs, which doesn't include other property taxes paid out for Duluth schools.

Approval of the second would mean the owner of a home valued at $150,000 will pay an additional $104 a year. The majority of that extra money would pay for 25 more teachers in schools, via a reduction of the student/teacher ratio. A third question asks for support of technology updates and training throughout the district. If all three are approved, the owner of a $150,000 home pays an extra $164 a year and the owner of a $250,000 home pays about $273 a year. All would authorize a decade-long levy.

If all three fail, the district loses $3.3 million for at least the coming year, with the operating levy approved in 2013 - which also paid for more teachers - set to end. Class sizes will rise then, and even if the levy is maintained, superintendent Bill Gronseth said.

The 8,800-student district has been in cost-cutting mode for years thanks in part to declining enrollment.

Enrollment imbalance

When overall enrollment is lower than projected - a common reality - addressing high class and course section sizes is difficult, Gronseth said.

"We don't have any wiggle room in our budget to cover that," he said.


Certain classes must be small to meet student needs, which can lead to an imbalance in other courses at the high school level.

Some Duluth schools get extra money for their populations of low-income students, and can use that money to lower class sizes. But that money often doesn't reach every grade in those schools, with a district focus on benefiting the youngest children. Those with no extra money feel tight classrooms more keenly.

If voters agree to pay for more teachers, East could hire two more full-time positions which would add 20 course sections a day, said principal Danette Seboe.

"That would be a game changer for us," she said, easing up some full sections and opening up electives to students stuck in "some really packed study halls" and those who have turned to online offerings.

And with this year's 460 freshmen, relief isn't expected otherwise.

For Congdon Park, boundary changes will have a bigger impact on class sizes than more teachers, simply because the school has run out of room. Because of Congdon Park's historic nature, most classrooms weren't expanded during the Red Plan, the district's $315 million building consolidation and construction plan. When enrollment grows, as it does every year, teachers struggle to fit the kids and the furniture inside classrooms that are smaller than many in schools that were built brand new.

Principal Kathi Kusch Marshall said balancing enrollment throughout the district would "strengthen all schools."

The district has studied boundary changes before but has pushed the idea down the road for several years. Boundaries haven't been adjusted in about a decade. If not for the Lowell Elementary language immersion classes, Congdon Park would have 20 more students, Kusch-Marshall said, who now attend Lowell. As it stands, Congdon Park has about as many kids as Lincoln Park Middle School. Lester Park Elementary comes close. (Nine elementary schools filter into two middle schools.)


'The cracks are too big'

The din inside Kathleen Lofstuen's fifth-grade class of 35 at Congdon was restaurant-level loud during a partnered reading lesson on a recent Friday. No one was shouting, but it didn't matter.

Lofstuen said she struggles to make a daily personal connection with each child.

"How was your soccer game last night? Good job, you got your homework done," she said of the ways she likes to check in with kids. "It's that personal one-on-one time that I notice I am missing."

Every elementary teacher consulted for this story said larger class sizes mean less time in small groups - which they say is best for learning - targeting kids who need more help, and more time spent managing the class.

Even with good kids, said Congdon Park fifth grade teacher Dan Kopp, "classroom management takes up valuable time. Just moving chairs becomes a five-minute ordeal. And we have to use every minute."

Staff reductions also often mean losing crucial support staff, like social workers and deans who work with kids on basic needs and problems outside of school.

"I can do 30 kids when I have those other people supporting," said Piedmont's Thompson. "But take that away ... now we have total chaos."


Secondary schools struggle, too, said Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers.

Teachers are hoping for more people in front of classrooms, she said.

"How do you realistically run a physical education class with 50 kids?" she asked. "It's not good."

Megan Mikulich teaches ninth grade civics at East and has 184 students between five sections. Managing the grading, planning and teaching for such a high number of students can be physically and mentally draining, she said, but she's more concerned about catching the kids who need her.

"I want all my students to know that they are important, they matter, I see them and I care about them," Mikulich said. "In a class of 38, the cracks are too big and too many students are slipping right through."

'An investment'

New technology money would go toward a Chromebook or similar device for each student in the district to use at school. Currently, carts of Chromebooks are shared among classes. Approval of the third question would pay for training and major upgrades to an outdated system that includes phasing out SmartBoards. The Red Plan didn't include money for an eventual technology update, and none has been set aside to do that. Without any new money, millions of dollars in technology won't be replaced as it fails.

"Technology gets to a point where software doesn't work," Gronseth said, "and we don't have the funding to replace it on the same schedule" of original installment.


Current technology keeps kids competitive in a global economy, said Piedmont teacher Justin Chumich.

"Everything is already on the computer, and that will increase," he said.

John Schwetman is an organizer with Duluth for Education, a grassroots group campaigning for referendum approval.

"People might be unhappy about higher property taxes, but should think of it as an investment" in public education, he said.

"It's great to show teachers we care about them and are going to have their backs," he said.

No known organized group opposing the referendum has surfaced.

Duluth's last attempt to gain voter approval of three questions - in 2011-failed. Back then, the district was in the middle of the Red Plan, which played into taxpayer disinterest.

Another 34 Minnesota school districts are holding operating levy referendums in November, and 25 will hold bond referendums. Duluth is the only district putting three operating levy questions to voters, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association, which tracks the 332 public school districts.



To find out more


To find out what operating levy approval would mean for you, see . The website also includes information on the questions voters will be asked .

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