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School sales, inequity at issue in school board district races

Historic Old Central High School in downtown Duluth in July 2008. (News Tribune file photo)

Candidates for district seats on the Duluth School Board weighed in Friday on proposed sales of vacant properties, budgetary issues and disparities between schools.

District 4 incumbent Art Johnston, a two-term representative for the western Duluth seat, and his challenger, retired Denfeld High School teacher Jill Lofald, disagreed on a number of issues in a forum hosted by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and the News Tribune.

Kurt Kuehn, who is seeking the District 1 seat in eastern Duluth, also participated — though incumbent Rosie Loeffler-Kemp was unable to attend.

Lofald was the only candidate at the forum who said she was opposed to selling vacant properties to competing school districts.

The district has a policy against selling to competitors, and last year the board turned down offers from other districts to buy several vacant properties, including a $14.2 million proposal for the former Central High School.

"We have to be more competitive," Johnston said. "Like it or not, charter schools are part of Minnesota law. We as a school district have absolutely nothing to do with that. Our primary thing as representatives of the community should be what best serves our children and future leaders of this town."

Lofald, though, said the district would be better served by working with the city to find a developer to repurpose the property for other uses — instead of increasing the number of students leaving the district through open enrollment.

"When we are looking to sell buildings to competing educational facilities, it's a bad choice," she said. "I'm really shocked that the District 4 incumbent would be selling to a competing school because it's going to hurt the western community schools more than I think it's going to hurt any other community."

Kuehn, siding with Johnston, said he feels the district can't afford to wait on sales.

"I don't think we have any choice with the state of our finances," he said. "It's unfortunate that the board majority chose to not even consider almost $20 million for all the offers for our vacant schools we got last year. We need the money."

Candidates also were asked how they would address declining enrollment, low graduation rates and opportunity gaps, particularly for students on the west side.

Lofald, who taught at Denfeld for more than 30 years, said she is encouraged by increased mental health counseling services in the schools, which she said would increase and prioritize attendance and graduation. She said she also supports analytical approaches starting with early-childhood education.

"We have data ability now that we never had years ago, and that's allowing us to really target and work specifically with students where their needs are," she said. "Achievement gap isn't just academics; it's the whole family, it's the whole home structure."

Kuehn cited the board's financial decisions and the failure to sell the vacant properties as a significant factor in academic performance. He said he would bring in an outside entity to evaluate the district's finances.

"A lot of it is systematic inequity that has to do with the budget and the compensatory money," he said. "If we kept that in the schools where that was generated, (students) would have more opportunity."

Johnston blamed district administration for losing students to neighboring districts when Central closed. He said the high schools need to move back to seven-period days and provide similar class choices at Denfeld and East.

"We have to encourage people that graduation is an expectation," he said. "From our heart, we've got to tell our kids to graduate."