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Our View / Endorsement: 'Yes,' 'no,' 'no' on school questions

Few voters want to go to their polling places on Election Day to cast ballots they know will harm students and the future of our community, that would take funding away from already-struggling public education.

So voters in the Duluth school district on Nov. 6 can resist any temptation to vote against the first of three levy referendum questions on their ballots. The first question is simply to renew or reauthorize a retiring levy that voters decided in 2013 was needed and was a good idea. No new or additional taxation would result from voting "yes" on the first question.

Simply continuing the community's support — specifically, keeping in place $3.3 million of annual funding and the 16 to 18 full-time teachers and curriculum it pays for — is a responsible, reasonable, and easy vote for district residents on Nov. 6.

"Without a local operating levy, current state funding by itself will not adequately support the initiatives, programming, and needed improvements Duluth needs and deserves for its public schools," a trio of School Board members — Chairman David Kirby, Vice Chairwoman Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, and chairwoman of the board's education committee and former teacher Jill Lofald — wrote in September in a commentary for the News Tribune Opinion page. "This local contribution accounts for only about 12 percent of the district's general-fund budget, but it is vitally important to improve the educational programming we provide."

As "vitally important" as our "local contribution" may be, Duluth district taxpayers can be hesitant about sending additional funding to ISD 709 via their votes this fall. Additional property tax dollars are being sought by the district to lower class sizes and to invest in technology. As important as those things are, voters can insist first on a better accounting of the public dollars already are flowing to the district. They can vote "no" and "no" on the second and third levy referendum questions, the rejection a clear representation of their insistence.

Is it any wonder there's frustration with this district? Just consider a few headlines from this past year: "Duluth schools face nearly $4M deficit," "Fiscal stability eludes Duluth district," "ACT scores dip in Duluth," "Former board member sues Duluth schools," "Duluth schools CFO put on leave," "Rat infestation closes Congdon Park School," and "Central High School property gets lower price."

"What many Duluth-district voters want," as the News Tribune opined in February, "is fiscal stability and a sense of budgeting confidence. At least optimism for an end to the constant budget-crisis mode." What we have instead, for literally decades now, is an unease of never-ending chaos and disarray.

And when we look to the top for stable leadership and words of reassurance, we find there a superintendent who has been trying to leave town. Bill Gronseth unsuccessfully sought at least five superintendent posts elsewhere since 2015. He also was responsible for the hiring of a chief financial officer who then was put on leave with little to no explanation.

In addition, "Our once-robust $30 million reserve is completely gone and replaced with a $22 million debt service," longtime district critic and four-time School Board candidate Loren Martell wrote in a separate commentary in September in the News Tribune.

"If a company in the private sector ran its finances into the ditch in such a reckless manner, would you just trustfully invest more money in it without at least demanding some changes in the way it operates?" Martell asked.

The trust voters need to authorize additional tax dollars for the district, a trust fueled by confidence that the funding would be be spent wisely and responsibly, just isn't there. It hasn't been built by School Board members who don't seem to be actively advocating for the referendum questions anyway or by administrative leaders who so often have erred over the years when calculating enrollment, state funding levels, and other basics of planning and management for a healthy future.

On Election Day Nov. 6, voters in the Duluth school district can support students by not taking funding away. But they can reject authorizing additional tax dollars, demanding first a more reliable and predictable record of responsibility.

About this endorsement

This News Tribune endorsement editorial was determined entirely by the newspaper's Editorial Board. The board's members are Publisher Neal Ronquist, Editorial Page Editor Chuck Frederick, employee representative Kris Vereecken, citizen representative Julene Boe and citizen representative Denise Wise.

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