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Guest columnist: Our community is close to a consensus about our schools

This is an exciting time for Duluth schools. Residents who have been at opposite ends of a long public debate are nearing a consensus on the best way to improve our local schools. The debate about whether we need a long-range facilities plan fina...

This is an exciting time for Duluth schools. Residents who have been at opposite ends of a long public debate are nearing a consensus on the best way to improve our local schools. The debate about whether we need a long-range facilities plan finally seems over, as both groups -- people who support the current plan and those who have voiced support for an alternative -- share a common belief that the schools do need repair and upgrades.

It's how we get there that differs.

For nearly two decades, we have not made needed investments to improve the safety and security of our school buildings. Our classrooms, science labs and other education facilities have fallen behind the standards established through the rest of the state. At the same time, declining enrollment means Duluth Public Schools needs to close some buildings, as we are wasting millions of dollars each year keeping classrooms available that simply aren't needed.

MoveForwardDuluth was formed as a community voice that supports the current long-range facilities plan and the process that the district went through to establish it. Another group, Let Duluth Vote, has raised questions and concerns over the past year about the plan and, in fact, proposed one of their own, which they call "Plan B." They started a petition drive, obtained signatures and now have been told they can develop their competing plan to send to the Department of Education for review.

Before a competing plan can be placed before voters, Let Duluth Vote must work with the school district to develop a plan that meets the Department of Education's requirements. If the department approves the plan, the district will hold a special election. Funding for any needed consultants and the special election will come from the school district's general fund, and the costs could start at $50,000 to $75,000.

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I must admit that I don't think we need to spend this money. The school board spent 18 months obtaining community input into the current long-range facilities plan.

Duluth residents told the board to close some schools and make needed investments in others. They told the board to pick the best plan, not the cheapest plan. Most importantly, they told the board to offer the best academic programs using two high schools, rather than cutting needed programs trying to keep three high schools open.

But it seems democracy isn't always free. Let Duluth Vote has the right to propose a competing plan to the Department of Education and we at MoveForward

Duluth encourage them to develop their plan as quickly as possible. Waiting to do so will only be more costly to the public, which is anxious to see how this competing plan compares to the current one.

After decades of delay, we are finally moving forward with discussions about how we should provide 21st century schools and education, not if we should. That is a huge victory for today's students and the people who want to raise their families here in Duluth.

Mimi Larson is a mother of four in the Duluth public schools system and one of the leaders of MoveForwardDuluth.

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