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Duluth school cuts could increase classroom sizes

Duluth public schools administrators are proposing tampering with the sacred cow of student-teacher ratios to balance the budget and provide money for support personnel.

The School Board, in its business meeting on Monday, heard Superintendent Bill Gronseth present two options to erase a $3.1 million deficit and invest new money that could include teachers but also might add positions such as social workers and reading specialists.

Option A calls for investing nearly $3 million in those areas; Option B calls for close to $1.9 million.

The proposal, which is preliminary, details numerous cuts in human resources, curriculum and other areas, including taking $1 million out of the district's long-term facilities maintenance budget. But the big-ticket item would be a $2.4 million savings under Option A by adding 3 to the student-teacher ratio; or $1.4 million under Option B by adding 1.5 to the ratio.

So under Option A, the student-teacher ratio at the kindergarten level, for example, would increase from 24.4:1 to 27.4:1. At the high school level, it would increase from 27.8:1 to 30.8:1.

Since students are never distributed perfectly from school to school and grade level to grade level, some class sizes can be higher than the ratio would indicate, Gronseth said.

Those numbers were a non-starter with board member Alanna Oswald.

"I will not vote in favor of any budget that raises our ratio by 3.0," she said. "It's not acceptable to me, and it's a bad public relations move."

But some board members, while agreeing there might be a negative perception of increased class sizes, suggested that the actual impact might be minimal. Under a question from board member Nora Sandstad, Gronseth said that the most comprehensive studies show little difference in achievement from modest increases in class sizes.

"Giving kids a smaller kindergarten class sounds great," Sandstad said later. "But does it have an impact on the success? That's what I want to know. And the research shows that it doesn't if we're talking a few kids here and there."

Gronseth noted that the district hasn't increased its student-teacher ratio in at least seven years, while the budget for support services has been cut to the bone.

Also, he said, individual schools can use their so-called discretionary funds entirely on teachers, if they wish, reducing the ratio for that school.

Those funds come from state-allocated compensatory education funds, which are based on the population of a school's students taking part in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Groseth said either option would fulfill the board's January resolution that 80 percent of that money stay with the school for which it was awarded, although Option B would require that a portion of the school's share be spent on teachers.

Gronseth provided a school-by-school breakdown showing which schools will come out ahead under the 80 percent formula, and which will lose some money. Congdon Park Elementary School, for example, would go from $460,285 in fiscal year 2018 to $153,016 in 2019; Myers-Wilkins Elementary School would jump from $423,714 to $907,077. Denfeld High School's share would climb from $577,918 to $705,294, while Duluth East's would drop from $474,014 to $311,667.

Monday's presentation was only the first phase of a long budgeting process and required no board action. The board won't act on the final version of the budget until June.