Questions persist, but residents ready for action on school decisions

The Duluth School District's goal in developing a long-range facilities plan was a community-involved, data-based process that would result in a plan to provide cost-effective, high-quality learning environments for all district students. The pro...

The Duluth School District's goal in developing a long-range facilities plan was a community-involved, data-based process that would result in a plan to provide cost-effective, high-quality learning environments for all district students. The process began 14 months ago, included well over 100 community meetings and involved thousands of people.

The concept was simple. Start with a blank sheet and no preconceived ideas of what the plan's end result would look like. Identify what information the community would need to make an informed decision. Gather the data and disseminate it in digestible amounts to the community. Provide opportunities for the data to be reviewed and discussed by the community. Then scientifically survey the community's opinions regarding the potential solutions that surfaced during those community discussions.

The community said it understood the challenges facing the development of a plan. Demographics: The Duluth district has 30 percent more space than students to fill that space. About half of all students live west of 14th Avenue East. Geographics: The district extends an elongated 42 miles from North Star Township to Duluth's Fond Du Lac neighborhood. Infrastructure: The district's buildings, on average, are about 54 years old. Economics: The district is wasting $5.25 million per year on building and staffing inefficiencies.

The plan forwarded by the citizen advisory group to the School Board for adoption reduces the number of schools from 19 to 14. The plan considers demographics, cost-effectiveness, market value, education adequacy and location, in relationship to where students reside, of each existing building.

Certain questions keep being raised.


Some have to do with high school socioeconomics. The recommended plan actually reduces the current free and reduced lunch percentages at the western high school while increasing those numbers at the eastern high school (by 2 percent each).

The target high school population was 1,500 students. That's optimal because it allows for advanced courses to be offered in all subjects, maintains consistent class sizes, provides students with reasonable extra-curricular participation access and provides a small enough student body for better individual attention. The average high school in Minnesota's largest 100 districts has approximately 1,700 students.

For every block the high school boundary moves west for socioeconomic reasons, the student population decreases at the west high school and increases at the east high school.

That shift has potential academic and extra-curricular programmatic consequences to each school. If the boundary is changed, it needs to be done with a sensitive eye toward programmatic impacts on students at both schools.

There have been site-related concerns. With regard to Ordean, concerns have been expressed by some abutting neighbors relating to traffic and parking management and site utilization. These concerns must and can be addressed by close site-development cooperation between district planners and interested residents. The high school sites allow for the most site-specific planning time since they are the last schools redeveloped.

Site-specific programmatic concerns also have been raised. The merging of an outstanding elementary at Nettleton with an outstanding elementary at Grant has raised concerns that already are being addressed by incredibly dedicated and concerned parents and staff at both schools. Confidence is high that the newly consolidated and greatly improved Grant will be equally outstanding.

With regard to finances, $100 million must be raised through bonding over 20 years to accomplish, but not to exceed, $257 million of improvements. This can be done by saving the $5.25 million mentioned previously, selling surplus properties and redirecting $35 million in future budgeted facility maintenance.

Duluth is last among its 15 closest-sized school districts in Minnesota in per-student spending for facilities, when the figures are adjusted for net tax capacity. This plan, at $9.50 a month on a median assessed-value home, brings Duluth from 65 percent to 10 percent below the average.


The two most often asked questions at the 60 to 75 meetings I've attended during this process were whether the School Board will really do this or whether it's just another false start and why the process was taking so long.

The clear preference with regard to both questions was to get on with it.

A survey of district residents showed 77 percent wanted the School Board, duly elected by the residents, to act and to act now.

Combining construction inflation and existing inefficiencies, the School Board can save $10 million to $15 million of extra cost by making its decision now.

It's painful and difficult to consolidate schools.

The School Board and superintendent have done an exemplary job in bringing Duluthians, finally, to this long-sought decision point. The board now has an opportunity to make facility changes that will cost effectively advance the community socially, economically and educationally for the next 20 to 30 years.

Robert Brooks of Duluth is chairman of the Citizen Advisory Group's Community Outreach Subcommittee, is the father of five Duluth Public School graduates and is the self-employed owner of a Duluth business.

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