Category Archives: Duluth Schools

Ten percent of ten percent

Today’s story about new money for the District walks back an earlier story that said about 150 new students had enrolled this year over last year. Now it appears that so far only 100 additional students have come back. With about 1000 students gone the means the new schools have lured about one tenth of the lost students back. Of course, this is welcome but its only a start.

As for reducing class sizes the additional money won’t be that much help. We are getting 6 new teachers with it which will help a little but most of them will simply be teaching the 100 new students who helped finance the teacher’s return. Now if we had the six new teachers without the additional students that would have meant a reduction in class size. As it is the new teachers are needed, mostly, to teach the 16.6 new students apiece who helped add the teachers to the payroll. Divided over 600 or 700 teachers and 9,000 students there will be a modest decrease in the number of children in each class. The operative word here is “modest.”

What would really make a difference would be if an operational levy passed (without any new students) and that money was used to hire more teachers and lower class size…….or if the $5 million a year from classroom spending that was diverted to pay for Red Plan construction could be put back in the classroom. That lost $5 Million is serious money and a lot bigger deal than the new $600,000 for teacher hiring. We can’t do that because its being used to pay bankers back for lending us money to build the Red Plan.

BTW. The District’s explanation to the State to get approval for spending classroom money on building was that we really wouldn’t need it for the classrooms. Why not? Well, the Red Plan schools would save us so much money on energy costs that we would save $2.5 million a year that could go into the building plan. The other $2.5 million wouldn’t be needed for the classroom because our efficient new (and fewer) schools would not need as many secretary’s and janitors and teachers. That savings could also be put into paying for the building of the Red Plan.

Dr. Dixon desperately tried to convince Duluth that it was Governor Tim Pawlenty that shorted Duluth the money that forced us to cram more kids in our classrooms. Wrong! Dr. Dixon and his loyal School Board took that $5 million a year for the next twenty years out of school operations and used it to build the Red Plan.

I might add that it was nice to see Tim Grover using the word “prudence” again. It is an adjective that escaped from his vocabulary for the last five years.

ISD 709 $ cuts to gen X and gen Y

A Mr/Mrs. D (or some other letter of the alphabet who wishes to keep him/herself anonymous) sent me this Answer to a Question on ISD 709’s website:

Will there be a budget deficit next year?

Yes, and we project budget deficits for at least the next 5 years for several reasons. For nearly two decades, increases to our per-pupil funding from the state have not kept pace with increases in the cost of living. Some key expenses are rising significantly, like health care coverage, transportation expenses, and energy costs. Our enrollment is declining due in large part to Generation X being smaller than previous generations, and a recent demographic report projects that decline to continue through 2013. Combine those three factors and you get budget deficits. We’re not alone, most school districts in Minnesota face these same challenges.
We address this situation by reducing our budget each year. Our district has managed to balance revenue to expense each year by reducing our budget by about $24 million over the past 5 years. We will need to address a budget deficit in 2012-13 and for several years to come.

The Q Mr./Mrs D asks is this:

Weren’t the last Gen-X students born in 1980 and thus out of high school? I thought the current kids were Gen Y or Millennials… and they are largely the kids of Baby Boomers and have little to do with Gen X as far as I understand it…

If I’ve got the XY and Us Baby Boomers figured out correctly my children were Xers (indeed a smaller group) who went to the Duluth schools after being born between 1980 – 1995. Their children, including my two (so far) grandchildren are the Y’s or Millennials. To answer Mr/Mrs D’s Q: I don’t know if the millennials will be smaller in Duluth or not so I don’t know if the District PR folks are blowing smoke. What I do know is that a thousand or more children have left the Duluth Schools. Some may be coming back but not the 140 that have been added to the Edison Public Schools this year. As well as another few hundred from other recent years.

What does catch my attention is the claim that state funding reductions account for the 24 million in budget reductions over the past five years. The state has been stingy but just look at last year. If 1000 students were out of our school times $5000 apiece in state funds that is $5 million less. It all had to be cut from the budget. I’m sure that even more than 1,000 kids were transferred out last year. But if we stick to the number 1,000 fewer students times $5,000 times five years that would account for budget cuts of $25 million. (One million over the District’s claimed $24 million) $25 million can not be accurate because the enrollment drop gradually increased over the past five years to the level of 1,000. Still, the loss of students in ISD 709 had far more to do with the budget cuts than the state holding its per student funding at the level of inflation. In fact, I don’t see how the state’s funding could have had much to do with the budget cuts. Heck, the last time the voters approved a local levy it was below the rate of inflation. Who’s fault was that?

I in no way hold IV Foster to account for this information. He is still learning the ropes and trusting to his cabinet to get the word out. They, meanwhile, are still doing their best to justify the financial decisions of Supt. Foster’s predecessor, Dr. Dixon. That means protect Dr. Dixon from charges that he had anything to do with the budget cuts. (Its the state’s fault!) And while we’re at let’s blame the Baby Boomers for that too…….for not having enough children and grand children! (And I thought they were all about “Free Love!”) And we will evidently get to blame the Baby Boomers for the next five years worth of anticipated budget cuts.

I just thought you ought to know that Boomers screwed up everything.

With Dixon gone and many schools nearing completion…

…it appears that some of the lost 10% of our students are returing. This is an abbreviated account from information sent to the School Board.

Duluth Public School ISD 709


Good News! It appears that students are coming back to Duluth Public schools.
Student enrollment is up across the school district.

As of 8/30/2011:
Elementary Enrollment has jumped from 3,892 to 3,956
An increase of 64

Middle School enrollment has jumped from 1,708 to 1,711
An increase of 3

High School Enrollment has jumped from 2,829 to 3,078
An increase of 189

More Good News!

A change in the Average Daily Membership formula for the year will give the District an additional $500,000.

An insider tells me that this means that the additional money for teachers will reduce class sizes from 40 to 30 in some schools and from 35 to 25 in others. It doesn’t hurt that the Trib keeps publishing positive stories about our new schools. Thank goodness our schools aren’t like Excelsior Energy or St. Lukes.

Because the Trib has frozen me out…

I can no longer read their Online paper. A pop up keeps preventing me from getting into their news.

Fortunately I still get a newsprint copy delivered to my door.

If I could I’d link to the astonishing editorial noting that Kerry Leider’s family think he’s done a fabulous job spending $40 million dollars to make the mundane Ordean Junior High an “awesome” High School. Good work Kerry.

Too bad you can’t do anything about the teaching end of the Duluth Schools.

ACT now

College bound students in Duluth are doing OK.

Poor kids – not so much:

Despite the Duluth school district’s failure to meet state standards in district-wide testing, its college-bound students continue to outperform the state average on a college-readiness exam.

I’d be interested in reviewing ACT test results in the era before Dixon. I think the results would be about the same. We’ve traditionally led the state for a decade and more just as the state has led the nation. The story’s point that some states get good results by only having 10 or 20% participation vs. better than two thirds participation by Minnesota’s students is well taken.

I don’t think many of the test takers this year left our District before taking the ACT test. They were already in high school when the worst of the Red Plan consequences hit and loathe to leave their friends in the last years of high school. In future years our test taking population could change perceptibly as some of the more ambitious Duluth students take their ACT tests in Proctor and Hermantown. Time will tell.

Will moss grow on IV?

Sorry about the stupid title. I’m in a hurry.

I’ve already commented on the story about Duluth’s new Superintendent after his first month on the job. It covers a lot of territory but leaves the impression of a man with a lot yet to learn about his struggling district. How true. He won’t fully have a handle on the district even as early as a year from now. The story notes that he is seeking information from, among other entities, the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. That’s only natural. What he can’t yet appreciate is how incestuously the Chamber leadership has been in supporting Red Plan work which may soon be discredited. I can’t expect that the Emerald City is eager to disclose some of its horrors. IV will have to wait until he sees all its citizens recoiling in horror as the Wicked Witch of the West flies overhead spewing out the smokey warning, “Surrender IV.”

I’ve already quoted the new Super’s pragmatic and quite correct assessment that simply getting back our lost students will not solve our District’s problems. That gives me hope that Dr. Foster won’t make matters any worse.

I’m also heartened that he has made “poverty” not “race” the basis of his call to help distressed children. That he, himself, is a black American will give him some protection as he pursues this potentially controversial but necessary change of attitude.

At the moment all IV can do is hope that the Red Plan construction continues on without a hitch and completes on time with fewer cost overruns and change orders than seems likely. Moving the kids around after the next round of building completions will be exhausting for the staff and potentially dizzying for the students. In a less stressed staff this could be easily manageable. In Duluth? I don’t think so.

The most telling and, in my view, troubling part of the story was the listing of the Superintendent’s cabinet. If ever there was a group of people with lots to hide from a new superintendent I can’t imagine who they would be. From the Trib:

(The council consists of business director Bill Hanson, Assistant Superintendent Bill Gronseth, public relations director Katie Kaufman, and property and risk manager Kerry Leider.)

I have to leave in a few minutes for a meeting so I don’t have time now to offer much comment. For those who are interested in my assessment of these people, which I feel compelled to compose, you will have to wait. Until I do offer such comment you might type their individual names into the search function on this blog to see what I’ve posted about them before. You won’t find much on Gronseth. I have an impression of him but not much more. He was Dixon’s man and that hardly commends him. I have had a little more experience with Bill Hanson as my Board hired him and a lot more experience with Katie Kaufman. I have even more with Kerry Leider. I’ve called him a “liar” in this blog. Its an imprecation that I only recall conferring on one other local personality, Supt. Dixon. I like Kerry. He can’t be replaced at the moment. Poor IV.

Monday Trib reax

Its rare that I wake up to find any issue of the DNT ripe for comment let alone the sleepy Monday paper. Today is an exception but sadly I’ve got company and I’m much less interested in spending time blogging than in the past.

The Story on Charlie Bell and his senior housing development got me thinking that the right man was elected Mayor in the last election and Charlie and Duluth are lucky that he has focused on senior housing rather than everything under the sun which is the Mayor’s lot. I think Ness has done a better than creditible job which seems to be demonstrated in his free ride campaign which leaves him without a challenger in November.

Both Ness and Bell have bent over backward not to make people mad at them (something our politicians in the Beltway could learn from) but I think Ness is the more cunning of the two. In the case of the Red Plan I would have preferred the Mayor take a harsher view of our old superintendent but practically I realize he was not in the best position to tackle Dixon. He had other fish to fry and really only time would reveal whether Duluth had been taken in. With five schools soon to open I think Dixon’s depredations are closer to being revealed. Still, there wasn’t much the Mayor could do because the School Board had such a head start. Some Duluthians have caught on and Betty Maarsa has pretty well pointed out the District’s dilemma in her letter to the editor of which I will quote but a portion.

Operating money follows students who leave the Duluth district. Up to $5,000 multiplied by those approximately 2,000 students equals $10 million, and an operating budget shortfall. According to the New York Times, Kansas City had to close 28 schools in March 2010 because of a lack of operating funds due to a mass exodus to schools in the suburbs and charter schools. No one listened. I was told by a Duluth school administrator, “They’ll come back” You better hope so! I heard from a teacher there may be 40 students in an honors math class this fall at beautiful, 21st century Denfeld. Doesn’t sound very inviting to lost students, does it?

Even the Trib seems to be catching on. In their story on Dixon’s unfortunate successor I V Foster he explains and they paraphase the impossible situation he is in:

As for recruitment of students back into the district to gain more state money), even if we went out and got 500 students back into the schools, that doesn’t translate into enough money to go out and hire enough teachers and provide a quality learning experience for them.

I’ll have more to say about the Foster story in my next post but lets go on to the DNT’s fine editorial about “transparancy.” Regarding the school district’s web page the Trib has this to say:

The state’s website earned a “The state’s 10 largest school districts and five largest cities also earned B’s,” while the state’s five largest counties scored “mediocre grade,” according to a statement released by the group.

Closer to home, the Duluth school district received a “C,” with red check marks, meaning “information was not provided,” for taxes, contracts, public records and background checks. The district provided adequate information, the analysis found, on budgets, meetings, elected officials, administrative officials, audits and academics.

Considering who serves on the new Superintendents “cabinet” I wouldn’t expect any improvements to the website anytime soon. Which gets me to wondering if the school district is still paying Howie Hanson pay off money for his addition to the District’s Internet web presence.

Do Trib editors ever do the math?

I only ask because their glowing endorsement of Dr. Foster has some intriguing numbers, to wit:

Dr. Foster’s Illinois district had a reported 3,200 students and 415 staff.

The Duluth District has 9,000 students and 2,000 staff.

The math I have in mind is long division, something I had difficulty with in the fifth grade. Thank God for hand calculators.

In Illinois Dr. Foster had 3,200 students divided by 415 staff or 7.7 children per public employees.

In Duluth Dr. Foster has 9,000 students divided by 2,000 staff or 4.5 children per public employee.

There’s a bit of a discrepancy here. I wonder at the implications. Did the Trib editorial Board notice?

I think this discrepency takes on even more significance since Dr. Foster has previously expressed concern about Duluth’s very large class sizes.

“Foster said one concern he sees already is the high numbers of class sizes in the district and their effect on student’s learning.”

Considering we have a lot fewer children per staff member this must indeed be very puzzling to him. I’m puzzled by it too.

No mea culpa from the Trib yet…

…for its six year effort to turn a blind eye toward Red Plan related worms.

But, at least they are giving the new guy who replaced Dixon an early honeymoon. I V’s going to have to live with Dixon’s folly.

Duluth’s new school superintendent, I.V. Foster, set a refreshing and encouraging tone this month at his very first School Board meeting. He emphasized improving student academic performance and he talked about directing resources toward narrowing the achievement gap, increasing graduation rates and reducing dropouts.

In other words, after years of angst and controversy over buildings, let’s return our focus to classrooms and to the success of all students.

Those “resources” will not include the $5 million annually that the Red Plan requires from school operations to pay for the Red Plan building bonds. If the voters haven’t recovered their good humor by a November referendum he won’t have any additional operational levy money either. We’ll see whether the Trib ends up tar and feathering Dr. Foster over Dixon’s legacy. God forbid they take any responsibility for it.

Good hearing is a blessing

I wonder if Mr. Frisk was expecting a phone call while sitting in on the Burn Gary Glass School Board meeting. He says in Area Voices that what I saw him with was a bluetooth which is sort of like a non denial for a man who claimed to have heard every thing I said from across a very large room with exceedingly poor acoustics.

And surprise, surprise. Bluetooth add-ons are advertised all over the web as spy devices.

I wouldn’t have known this if a friend hadn’t emailed me this note today:

Hello Harry,

I just was reading your blog on Frisk and wasn’t sure if you follow the area voices blog but Frisk has been posting in response. He seems more popular on this particular article for some reason. In any event, I think you will enjoy the back & forth. Like Goossens, Frisk will have a difficult time hiding the kind of person he truly is. It is interesting to see mention of the hearing device and his response. I have since then gone online and there are “apps” to make your Bluetooth actually amplify & record .
Here is just one of them
Or there are a ton others that work through a Bluetooth.

They work with a Bluetooth headset and so technically he isn’t lying when he says that it is a blue tooth, but it certainly is amplifying so he can hear others conversations.

And I agree. It would be scary to have this guy on the Board sitting beside Ann W –

I should give Mr. Frisk points for flattering me by telling his critic to take an allegation to the police. Of course, when I suggested that Mr. Frisk go to the “authorities” he really did.

I’m not so impressed with Mr. Frisk’s lofty observation that if he had been eavesdropping and been caught at it he would likely spend most of his school board term in jail. It sounds very much like the kind of foot stomping “Aha” arguments I recall him using in the irate emails he sent me. If you could go to jail for amplifying your bluetooth’s hearing all the suckers who were buying spy apps online would be putting themselves in jeopardy.

4-day-school-week, coming soon to a school….

… make that already here at a school near you.

This is an important story because I think the people in Duluth will be looking at a 4 day week soon too. Its not a horror story by any means. The Survey probably does reflect the views of Two Harbors. A majority of folks approve of the change.

In no particular order here are my observations.

1. Its a terrible thing that a gamble like this had to take place because of the School District’s fiscal disaster.

2. A change like this could only have taken place because of a fiscal disaster. Call this change as a reaction to necessity or “necessity is the Mother of invention.”

3. Having school five days a week is in large part a result of our society’s need for child management five days a week. In some ways its glorified babysitting. Most people work five days a week both Mothers and Fathers now days. Unsupervised kids get hurt, killed and pregnant. Because the school day has proven to be too short for the parents’ work day American schools have added a special after school daycare system called school sports to its portfolio.

4. Two Harbors discovery that a long school day can sharpen a lot of kids is not that big a surprise. Real learning requires some intellectual engagement by the student. The system in most schools like Duluth, at least in the secondary grades, is a series of 50 minute classes by subject of which 20% of the time is wasted on getting organized. If you are studying the Civil War or calculus or French that’s barely enough time to get your engines revving and then you have to put your books away. Two Harbors from necessity is altering this pattern probably for the better.

5. How about that three day weekend? By the time I was a junior in college I got to put my school week together at class registration. I can’t tell you how much I and many of my classmates enjoyed creating a four-day week with Friday (usually) off. A five day week can be a grind, a mind numbing grind. Ask anyone who works five days a week at a job! With their four day school week Two Harbors’ kids get to turn off that grind and for many, I suspect, that results in better focus during the official learning portion of the week.

6. Two Harbors went to a 4 day week to save money. They have saved it but not quite as much as they had hoped. They’ve saved $216,000 annually not $250,000. Most of the savings was expected to come from buying less fuel to bus children. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, diesel prices went up more than expected.

7. As with the Duluth district’s poorly thought out Red Plan transition the four day week at Two Harbors has forced everyone to experiment to make it work. For Two Harbors that has resulted in a burst of creativity and even enthusiasm. Although that does not yet seem to be a major factor in Duluth’s Red Plan there is hope for us in the Two Harbors’ example. I’d say that such hope should be tempered with the recognition that school leaders in denial or wearing blinders about or making excuses for past blunders are the wrong people to be making such a change or taking such a calculated risk.

A testimonial to the about-to-be-closed Lake Superior High School

From an email sent to all the Duluth School Board members……names deleted.

LSHS SHOULD STAY OPEN [**************************]Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 1:17 AM To: ************* Cc: School Board

My name is ***** *******, recent graduate of Lake Superior High School. Here is my story about how LSHS changed my life. My first year of high school I went to Superior High School. While attending there, I didnt get the one on one learning that I needed to succeed in school with my learning disability. After talking to my friends and family, I decided to get more information on LSHS. I’d heard that there were smaller class sizes, and the teachers worked hands on one on one with the students. I was put on a waiting list and soon after I was accpeted. I can honestly say LSHS gave me the confidence in myself to be dedicated to pursuing my dreams. The staff and teachers accomodated my learning requirements, amd made my focus turn from the bad things in life, to focusing on getting on track and graduating. LSHS helped me strive for my goals, and gain confidence in my education. With the help of the staff and teachers, I graduated 1 year before I was supposed to, with 2 awards. I am currently still pursuing my goals and I’m attending Lake Superior College’s Building Construction program, and working full time at McDonalds. LSHS has truly saved my life, and many other peoples lives that I know, and has set many people on the right track in life. If the school remains open, LSHS will change lives of many more teenagers that dont do well in a public school. If the school closes, it will affect the number of dropouts in Duluth greatly.

Sincerely, *******

Three last minute SB filings

The Duluth School Board race just got more interesting yesterday in the last day of filings.

All the races are contested. My old 2nd District seat pits incumbent Judy Seliga-Punyko against the Red Plan critic, Loren Martell, that her board had handcuffed when he had the temerity to quote Chairman Tim Grover’s campaign rhetoric. My God! Who can blame Tim? I’d have anyone who quoted my blog back to me at a public meeting put in cuffs to! Oh wait…….No, I don’t think I would.

Meanwhile in the 3rd District Race which sees the handcuffer, Grover, retiring former Denfeld principal and apparent Red Plan enthusiast, Bill Westholm, has filed. He will be challenged by Jon Donahue a candidate from the epicenter of the District’s mass student exodus, Piedmont Heights. Mr. Donahue still has three children in the Duluth Schools despite the Exodus. A self described “whistle-blower” he works with the nonprofit PAC community television.

Finally the At-large seat being abandoned by Gary Glass has three contenders. They include Mike Miernicki, a former Duluth East Activities Director; Ryan Stauber a former candidate for the legislature, son of City Councilor Jim Stauber and a school mate of my son; and lastly Doug Frisk who I was about to feature in one of my Thugs for Better Schools posts. I hadn’t planned to name him but seeing as how he has decided to file for the School Board I see little point in keeping his activities or previous threats against me anonymous.

Thugs for Better Schools I

A couple weeks ago I had coffee with a fellow I hoped to recruit for a School Board run. He’s a professional who wrote an article critical of the Red Plan’s management and the contract provisions which gave JCI big money and little incentive to do the public’s bidding.

He now works for the City and reminded me that just after he had started work the Chamber of Commerce tried to get him fired.

The villain in this story is a former student of mine the upbeat and charming Andy Peterson. Andy and I always got along well. He had been in my classes years ago when I taught in Proctor. I was a disaster in those years but Andy recalled me with some charity for which I was grateful.

I ran across Andy ten years ago when he was the industrious brains and legs behind a West End business group. He recruited me to build snow sculptures in West Duluth for a few years before he started work at the Chamber which quickly put him to work in politics to strong arm politicians. I was chagrined to run across folks who had little use for him.

Perhaps the lowest thing he did was go the city to ask who in the Hell had hired a Red Plan critic and encouraging them to fire the same. I don’t blame the fellow I had coffee with for deciding that running for the School Board might be a tad too nasty for his taste. He still had his job.

By now I’ve put together quite a little catalogue of similar actions by the Red Planners. Too bad they didn’t put more of their industry into our schools but I guess that’s hard to do when presented with such a gravy train.