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Distribution of state money to Duluth schools raises concerns

Denfeld High School in Duluth, pictured in March 2017. (News Tribune file photo)

How a pot of state money meant for helping "underprepared" and low-performing students is divided among Duluth district schools is a concern to a community group working to solve equity issues.

The newly-formed Community-Based School Equity Initiative has been gathering feedback and studying ways to give Denfeld High School students not only access to the same opportunities as East High School students, but also more money to address Denfeld's unique needs. East has at least 500 more students than Denfeld, but Denfeld has more students of color and more students in special education and dealing with poverty.

How state "compensatory education" money is distributed surprised group member and Denfeld parent Kevin Skwira-Brown.

Each school is allocated a certain amount based on its population of students taking part in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. The district is required to keep at least 50 percent of that amount with each school, but can shift the rest around. It does that using enrollment as the guide. Among other allowable uses, the money pays for teachers to lower class sizes across the district — not just at the schools to which it is allocated.

"That's what's shocking," Skwira-Brown said, if the money is intended to target certain groups of students.

For example, the state allocated $852,000 to Denfeld this year, but the school was given $684,218. East was allocated $136,555, but was given $518,212.

State statute doesn't require that all of the compensatory education money go toward students who are part of the free and reduced-price lunch program, an indicator of poverty. That's a targeted population, said district business services director Doug Hasler, but there are struggling students who aren't living in poverty.

And there are kids who might fall just outside of the line for qualifying for the lunch program, and they might have the same needs as someone just inside of it, he said.

Skwira-Brown — who opposes the use of the lunch program by the state as a determiner of funds because of the stereotype it implies — still takes issue with how the money is used.

"Are we using it in a way that's consistent with the spirit of the statute?" he asked.

Some schools receive low-income funding to use however they choose — beyond the compensatory education money — that other schools don't. Denfeld received $281,542 in what's called discretionary money this year. East did not receive any discretionary money.

Hasler said the district acknowledges the high interest in how the money is distributed, and is in the process of allocating it for next year. Different ways of distribution are being examined, he said, but it's a challenge to balance the needs of each school.

"It is the zero sum game: what gets distributed somewhere isn't available to distribute somewhere else," he said.

That reality isn't lost on Skwira-Brown, who said he gets the argument that less of that money for, say, the overcrowded Congdon Park Elementary means even bigger class sizes.

"But that's not an equity question; that's a school funding question," he said. His concerns lie with distributing what the district does have in a way that best meets the needs of each school.

The parents and district employees involved in the Community-Based School Equity Initiative will offer recommendations to the School Board at its Tuesday meeting.

Among them are ways to make already-in-use student interventions more effective, circumventing the two-mile-radius transportation rule to help more kids get to school, and the use of technology to allow Denfeld students to take East classes in real time without leaving the building. Fewer students at Denfeld means less flexibility in scheduling for electives and high-level courses.

The district has proposed — in a preliminary annual budget the board will be asked to approve Tuesday — $150,000 from the general fund to go to Denfeld and Lincoln Park Middle School for equity purposes.