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Tom West: School needs out-of-the-box thinking

Watching the reactions of some members of the Duluth Board of Education to the idea of closing a high school earlier this week brought to mind an image of deer caught in the headlights.

Watching the reactions of some members of the Duluth Board of Education to the idea of closing a high school earlier this week brought to mind an image of deer caught in the headlights.
Who can blame them? They had just trotted out a plan to save most of the educational programming in the public schools by cutting the cost of heating, lighting and equipping five of the 20 or so buildings now in use.
The response of 3,000 or so Duluth parents was to take one glance, rip the plan from the board's hands, scrunch it into a ball, throw the ball on the floor, jump and stomp on the ball until they had flattened it into little pieces, and then, just in case the board did not get the message, they spit on it.
OK, OK, nobody spit -- but only because it was clear the board heard really well.
Another image that came to mind was Old Jim Hagerty. Jim passed away a year ago, but I dearly wanted to call him up and ask him what he thought of all this. Jim would have had a wonderfully wry insight about the human condition in general and about school boards in particular.
Jim had chaired for about 10 years a school board that I had covered. A farmer by birth, he had finally given up the uncertainty of trying to scratch a living out of the soil, and had taken a job as district field representative for former 1st District Congressman Tim Penny.
Jim was well liked and well respected by everyone who knew him. He negotiated more than one teacher contract, but somehow, when each contract was done, the teachers still liked him and so did the taxpayers. He treated everyone with respect and kept a ready smile to relieve the tension. He was the perfect eyes and ears for a congressman.
Old Jim also liked to think outside the box. One day, not long after he had left the school board, Jim stopped by to see me, saying, "I've got an idea for a column for you. I think we might have a little fun with this."
Jim's idea? We ought to give state aid directly to teachers, he said. Like everyone else who heard the idea, I said, "Whoa, you're losin' me, Jim."
So then Jim explained. Teachers would get state aid directly from the state based on the number of students who signed up to have that teacher teach them. The amount of aid would be based not only on pay, but also on what the state figured it would cost that teacher to rent classroom space and purchase the necessary equipment or textbooks.
It would be illegal for teachers to take both money from parents and state aid, too. That way, the wealthy could not hoard all the best teachers for their own children. Maybe the teachers would have to rent space in a public school building, or maybe they could go anywhere.
Regardless, parents and students would decide whether the setup worked for them, and the teacher would flourish or starve based on his or her reputation.
As expected, the idea went nowhere, but as I said, Old Jim thought outside the box, and he loved to engage others in thoughtful exercises.
Another out-of-the-box thinker is Duluth School Board member Harry Welty. The difference between Welty and Jim is that Welty is more abrasive, and does not mind offending people to make a point. Harry has chutzpah.
So, there were 3,000 Duluthians who had just stomped the school board's plans to smithereens, and along comes Harry, who is more than willing to yell "Fire" in a crowded theater.
OK, OK, he didn't yell, "Fire." But he yelled the next best thing: "How about we close a high school instead."
You could almost see half his fellow board members slide under the table when he said that. I mean, Harry, these people are mad. What are you trying to do, get us lynched?
I mean, we can't close East because it has a great athletic program, and we can't close Central because then none of our high schools would be culturally diverse. And we can't close Denfeld because we already closed Morgan Park, and then there would be no high school on the entire west side. Can't be done. No sir, no way.
But an odd thing happened. Instead of throwing a rope over a lamppost for Old Harry, the mob that was still kicking around the crumbs of the original plan to close five elementary schools did not say much.
There are perhaps three reasons for this. First, those who opposed the original plan are mostly parents of elementary students. Their passion was largely spent on stopping the original plan. They can adjust over the next several years to the two high school concept. Second, not everybody believes yet that closing a high school is a real possibility politically. And third, and most importantly, there is a big difference between taking a 6-year-old out of a neighborhood school and telling a 16-year-old he or she has to go a couple of extra miles to school.
In our modern two-working-parent society, having an elementary student also means having day care or a latchkey program readily available for after school. Moving those students out of the neighborhood schools disrupts the whole daily routine for hundreds of Duluth families. On the other hand, one of the biggest problems at any high school is finding enough parking for all of the kids who drive to school. What's another five miles when you're 16 and have wheels? And even if you don't have a car, you know someone who does, and is more than willing to pick you up.
These lifestyle issues may not seem to have anything to do with the quality of education, but they are no less real.
If I were on the school board, I'd stick with the seven-period day, but I'd also give Harry's two-high-school plan a really hard look.
OK, OK, it isn't really out of the box. We looked at it 10 years ago. But we need some out-of-the-box thinking.
How about we merge with Proctor?
Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by phone at 723-1207 or e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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