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Preparing for the big day

Back-to-school. It's a busy and exciting time, and in a few days Duluth Public Schools will be in full swing for another year of education. The back-to-school season comes with visions of teachers getting their rooms ready and parents buying scho...

Back-to-school. It's a busy and exciting time, and in a few days Duluth Public Schools will be in full swing for another year of education.

The back-to-school season comes with visions of teachers getting their rooms ready and parents buying school supplies and new school clothes, or preparing themselves to watch their youngest get on the bus for the first time.

Often overlooked is what's happening "behind the scenes," so-to-speak, to prepare for the big day. Getting ready to educate more than 11,000 students takes a lot of planning and initiative.

"Summer for us is going from being real people-intensive to real project-intensive," said Bruce Watkins, director of school operations. "As early as May of last year our transportation department was working with each of the 20 sites," he said.

All summer long the transportation department gathers data about families moving in and out of various locations, enters the data into the computer, then maps out bus routes. In mid-August the Department of Public Safety inspects each bus, and drivers go through training on bus safety, first aid and new laws.

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Watkins said the district transports approximately 8,500 kids each day.

The school district also serves approximately 6,000 hot lunches and around 1,500 breakfasts each day.

"Each year, we make sure 150 employees are set and ready to serve," Watkins said about the food service department.

Staff, nutrition and OSHA training must be completed before school starts, and summer bids for bread and other food staples are set. Kitchen equipment is repaired and deliveries, such as how many cartons of milk go to each school, are coordinated.

There's plenty of paperwork as well. Food service has to keep track of it all, especially free and reduced lunches to determine who qualifies and to make sure the program is meeting budget requirements.

The district also makes sure each school building is cleaned and sanitized and that all repairs are made, from the shingles to boiler equipment. In fact, boilers are torn apart every year for a thorough inspection.

Every locker combination is changed, playing fields are chalked and ready for practice, principals check and order supplies, desks are repaired, software is updated, photo copiers are checked and maintained ... the list goes on and on.

But when Thursday arrives, it will all be done and the focus will be back on the kids.

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"This is a fun time of year for us: to fire up and think about our true mission," Watkins said. "It gives us a lot of energy to think about kids returning."

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