MSBA Notes 2 – The Incredible Shrinking School District

I have the terrible gift of prophecy where the Duluth Schools are concerned. Much that has happened since the uber ambitious Red Plan was announced I anticipated, its phony financial projections, the massive exodus of families, the chaos of an expedited construction as whole school populations were shuffled about for the convenience of contractors. So, it was without surprise that on the day I left for the MSBA convention there was a story confirming that our Edison Charter is well on its way to deciding to build a new high school just a stone’s throw from the Northstar Academy on the Rice Lake Road.

On my first full day at the conference I attended two fascinating sessions on Minnesota schools. I’ll post my “Notes 3” about the session on PELRA law led by our District’s lawyer, Kevin Rupp, following this installment which concerns one more prophecy.

Last Monday I missed our Business Committee as I was returning by plane from Florida. On Wednesday Art filled me in on what I’d missed as we drove down to the MSBA’s Minneapolis Convention.

Art has routinely annoyed our Board by continually pointing out our declining student enrollment at every meeting. The Board majority’s reaction seems to be to blame the declines on him for not being positive. If we would just ignore the lumpy rug in our living room everything would be hunky dory. Ditto for my blog.

Student enrollment figures are complicated by state financing which has a complicated formula for doling out money. Younger kids don’t get the same financing as senior high kids. This financing takes us away from just counting enrolled children and preoccupies with WADMs (pronounced waddum). The acronym stands for “Weighted Average Daily Membership.” Its essentially a figure which is calculated by multiplying each child by the amount of funding he or she generates to the District. WADMs are always larger than actual enrollment. But for our purposes simple enrollment is easier to explain.

In January ISD 709’s enrollment was 8,465.75 students. (Some kid must have left our system three weeks into January) This is probably the lowest student enrollment for Duluth since the baby boom. It may be lower than anything since the Depression or maybe even the turn of the twentieth century. I’d love to research this but the District probably wouldn’t let me go through its dusty old records or, as with Art, would charge me an arm and a leg to dig the data out.

At the Monday meeting our Finance Director, Bill Hanson, was uncharacteristically eager to point this enrollment drop out first before Art had a chance to grouse about it. This may be the best enrollment we can muster for the next decade.

The new Edison high school which 90 percent of Edison families want their children to attend will eventually pull another 600 students (150) per grade out of ISD 709. That will put us below 8,000 students. That’s hardly the enrollment you would expect for one of Minnesota’s “cities of the first class.” It will put a couple dozen other Minnesota School districts ahead of us in enrollment. Six hundred lost students will mean fewer state dollars, fewer teachers and a smaller curriculum. But that’s not all.

I learned more grim news at an MSBA session led by pollster, Bill Morris. He advises school boards on the best times to hold referendums to insure their passage. I knew Bill Morris before he conducted a survey in Duluth telling Supt. Dixon that the people in Duluth didn’t want to waste a few thousand dollars on holding a referendum for his Long Range Facilities Plan.

When I was an active Republican thirty years ago Morris was the Chairman of the State Republican Party. He was an academic and a bit pompous as I recall, as well as rotund with a full beard. I wouldn’t have recognized him last Wednesday. He’s still ample in girth but balding and without the beard. He made potshots at tea partiers while asking for the audience not to broadcast his jests. A big part of his bread and butter is advising school districts how to convince voters to pass referenda but I’m sure he’d offer his services to anyone for the right price.

I learned some disconcerting, but not unexpected, information at his session. He had a list of voter types along with their typical voting pattern during school referendums. It showed that the most enthusiastic pro bond parents were elementary school parents. Support for bonds and levies tended to drop off as children aged through the schools so that parents felt less of an investment in raising taxes. Support continued to drop off with senior citizens being the most resistant.

I asked Bill about parents who had children open enrolled out of their district or who were attending parochial , charter or private schools. Duluth has a lot off all three categories. The news he offered was not good for ISD 709. He told me these parents became openly hostile to public bonds because they considered the public schools as their children’s school’s competition. The swing is dramatic. While 80% of elementary children’s parents tend to vote for levies it changes to 80% voting against when their children attend other schools.

So, the parents of another 600 Duluth charter school students will transform from being 80 percent pro ISD 709 on school referenda to 80 percent opposed. That is one of the reasons I am not eager to see an Edison High School built. It doesn’t help that ISD 709 has been at best indifferent to Edison and at worst hostile. Member Miernicki is typical. After I voted to invite Edison into Duluth in 1996 it was a subject we both agreed to disagree about. In our last conversation he dismissed the Raleigh Street elementary school by saying he’d put the public school’s Laura Mac students up against the Raleigh street kid’s education any day.

Losing 600 more students to Edison will not only cost us massive amounts of state money and leave our new Red Plan secondary schools vacant but we will replace pro-levy voters with anti-ISD 709 voters. This will make passing future make-or-break school levies much harder. That is one of the reasons I regret the terrible experiences so many Edison kids had during the massive and chaotic student transfers during the Red Plan’s construction.

I fretted about this fifteen years ago when my school board was taken over by teacher union partisans. They were far too eager to shuck off our sponsorship of Edison and blissfully unaware of how powerful Edison’s new freedom would make the charter school.