Officials list many uses for Duluth school funding

This year at Duluth East High School, some classes have 40 or more students, making one-on-one time with teachers difficult, senior Kristina Green said.

This year at Duluth East High School, some classes have 40 or more students, making one-on-one time with teachers difficult, senior Kristina Green said.

That's why she and other students are grateful that the city voted to approve both operating levy questions, the 17-year-old said.

"I have a younger brother who is in the ninth grade, and now knowing that he will get a better education than I did makes me a lot happier," she said. "We all needed this: A change in our schools."

The passage of both questions means $7.3 million a year for five years and includes $1.1 million a year in state aid. The money is intended, for next year, to hire between 13 and 18 more teachers to lower class sizes districtwide, to update curriculum on a regular basis and invest in new science technology. It also will aid teachers in spending more time with at-risk students to improve the graduation rate and narrow the disparities between low-achieving and high-achieving students.

Across the state, 50 of 57 districts were able to pass an operating levy question; an 88 percent passage rate. According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, that is the highest number since 1980, when the association began recording results.


"We've had a decade where public school funding has been coming in from the state at about 50 percent the rate of inflation," said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "School districts, over that time, have had to eliminate or reduce programming, reduce staff and increase fees."

While the state gave more money to school districts this year and next, one biennium doesn't make up for a decade of underfunding, he said.

"In Minnesota, people truly care about the education of children, and I think that came through loud and clear on Tuesday," he said.

Looking at the history of operating levy requests in Duluth, last week's renewal passage had the second-highest percentage since 1999, with 66 percent of voters saying "yes." The highest was in 2008 with 68 percent.

But that percentage is still low for a renewal, said Mark Jennings, University of Minnesota Duluth assistant professor of political science.

"I would have expected that one to pass with a much greater percentage of support," he said, citing possible lingering anger about the district's long-range facilities plan and a desire for tax relief.

But Pat Kendall, past president of the Duluth Parent Teacher Student Association, sees it another way. Consider the 2011 operating levy request, which saw all three questions defeated by wide margins.

"I view it as turn in confidence ... for the district and the direction it's going in," Kendall said.


She's hoping money will be used to add more time for specialists and paraprofessionals.

"I believe that's why some kids come to school -- for music, art and gym," she said. "It's not all about reading and writing and arithmetic."

For its part, the Duluth Federation of Teachers is hoping new money could go to reinstate some of the time cut from specialists at the elementary level to give teachers more time to meet, said its president, Frank Wanner. Specialists teach art, physical education, music and media, and they have had time cut from their days in the past.

The union and administration still are in negotiations for the DFT contract that expired June 30. The time for teachers to meet is crucial in improving student achievement, Wanner said, and has been key for raising test scores at Laura MacArthur Elementary. That school was able to carve out the time aided by federal grant money and intricate scheduling. At the secondary level, Wanner said, the union wants the time teachers spend overseeing things such as study halls to be set aside to meet together, with other staff taking over those duties.

"We don't need someone with a master's degree doing those things," he said, noting teachers would also like to go back to a seven-period day to give students more course options.

As for Green, the Duluth East senior, the updating and purchasing of textbooks is crucial. It isn't just about having in-shape books and the most recent information.

"Sometimes there are not enough books for every student," she said, which means one needs to be assigned in class. "Which can be stressful because we can't take them (home)."

Happy about receiving support from all areas of the city, School Board member Mike Miernicki said the board knows it needs to be transparent about how it spends the money.


The board needs to "show the citizens that we're going to be responsible custodians of these funds," he said. "The citizens demand that."

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