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Duluth School Board At Large candidates talk equity, boundaries at forum

Historic Old Central High School dominates the hillside above downtown Duluth at dusk in March 2016. (Clint Austin /

Duluth School Board At Large candidates all seem to agree that the district needs to work harder to attract students who have left back into its schools.

But how best to do that drew a variety of responses at the Duluth News Tribune/Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce forum held Friday morning at the Depot.

Josh Gorham said the school district doesn't do a good job of "telling its story."

The "public narrative" is that the western schools are "scary" he said, a false perception based on the time he's spent in schools working as a public health nurse.

"There are a lot of things to be proud of in our district," he said. "I will tell those stories."

Dana Krivogorsky said the choice parents have to send their kids to whichever school fits them best needs to be respected, and the district must better itself to stand out from the crowd.

"We need to show them we will provide to children the best education possible," she said, and show that money is being spent responsibly.

Incumbent Harry Welty said trying to re-enroll students who left and have made friends and new homes in other schools isn't going to be easy, noting an effort this year to recruit students from neighboring districts via bus route extensions didn't work.

"We've got to make (schools) attractive," he said.

Sally Trnka talked about the energy she feels at her son's elementary school, Myers-Wilkins, and how to spread that energy to other schools.

"I am not going to judge other parents' decisions," she said, "but tell honest and transparent stories on why Duluth public schools are successful."

Addressing the various "opportunity gaps" between some western and eastern schools highlighted the different beliefs of candidates.

Krivogorsky said redrawing boundaries would be a "total disaster," and suggested instead restructuring the day to reinstate the 7th period that was cut from secondary schools as part of budget reductions in past years.

Welty said a portion of state money that goes to schools based on their percentages of students eating free or reduced-price lunch — a poverty indicator — should not be divvied up to bring down class sizes as has been done by the district. State statute allows up to half from each school be spent in other ways. Welty also said he was against redrawing boundaries.

"The last thing we want to do is put a gun to a parent's head," he said, and force them to change schools. At a previous forum, however, he suggested making one of the high schools for freshmen and sophomores and one for juniors and seniors.

Trnka said enrollment disparities have led to larger class sizes on the eastern side of town and fewer opportunities on the west side.

"We need to consider redistricting but we need community input," she said, ensuring decisions don't have "unintended consequences."

Gorham, too, said the redrawing of boundaries could address some issues, but work needs to be done to ensure that solutions aren't the same in all schools in the name of equality, but are tailored to the needs of schools.

The board has two At Large seats to fill this November.