Category Archives: Duluth Schools

Skepticism abounds 1

Regarding the coverage of the Schools in the news I got a flurry of email this morning. One was directed at the Trib editorial that attempted to banish pessimism.

What percentage of students have left the Duluth School District (since the beginning of the Red Plan), as compared to the number of students who have returned?

Also, weren’t the new schools designed to be smaller since the district projected they would have fewer students in the future? Wouldn’t that then give an appearance of being crowded (along with too many students in a classroom)?

I’m not saying that this isn’t good news, but if the Duluth News Tribune were to include some actual facts and figures with their opinion, some of the doubters may become believers.

If there are only a couple extra classrooms to handle an excess of students that is worrying because of at least a thousand lost students only a couple hundred seem to have re-enrolled. The whole (initial) justification for the Red Plan was that we had too much space which required building smaller schools. If we’ve built too little space for our children then Dr. Dixon and the School Board made a terrible miscalculation. Either that or the Trib’s gushing about crowded schools is just hyperbole. Which is it?

I’ve had a disquieting feeling for some years that all the demographic data tossed around at the beginning of the Red Plan might have badly underestimated the number of likely students or schools would be enrolling. Because of the barrage of criticism leveled during the early Red Plan years I was worried that the Red Planners would hide any of the shortcomings in their work from the public – as they hid so much else. If these $315 million dollar schools (the District added another 15 million to the price tag this year and is considering another 19 million) don’t have enough room for the children in the community then the build it all at once crowd will have given us a costly inflexible set of facilities.

I’d like the administration to give us the facts that my emailer calls for.

How about it DNT? Are you going to make any inquiries or are you going to continue to play cheerleader to help lure students back?

47 kids in a biology class

Its not just the schools that are packed. According to today’s story in the Trib a lot of classrooms are packed too. Time will iron out the worst of this crowding but only the worst cases of it. As I wrote earlier most of the new money going into the schools will not reduce the number of children per teacher. Its simply to hire additional teachers because there are additional children. The bottom line is that of 6 new teachers hired, one of them will be divided up between all our 9,000 children.

The result:

Several students reported large class sizes on the first day. Sophomore Nicole Bourgoyne said she was in a biology class with 47 students, and sophomores Kristel Baltazar and Abby Weisinger said their geometry class had more than 40.

Josh Gruba, a senior, said he was in a study hall of 105 students in a classroom, and there wasn’t room for everyone to sit.

Another senior, Alex Smith, was in a chemistry class with between 40 and 45 students without enough seats to go around. But Smith was philosophical about that.

“I thought it went pretty well,” he said. “If it had been the old East, last year, it would have been a mess.”

Denfeld also had some large classes, including a math class with 45 students, Crawford said. If class sizes remain that high, adjustments can be made, he added. Already, the school has been able to add faculty with the money the School Board approved this week.

Likewise, Piedmont School added a fifth kindergarten class and might have to add a sixth, Obst said. A kindergarten-friendly room is available if that needs to happen, she added.

Having more children than expected “is a wonderful problem to have,” said Wolden, the Lester Park principal. “Weve made some adjustments. We have another teacher to help us with large class sizes. We’re watching some of our other classes to see if our enrollments do go up … then we’ll have to discuss how we’re going to manage that.”

At-large School Board candidates – 2011

I agree with the DNT Editors on their recommendations for Duluth’s at-large candidates for the School Board. Either Ryan Stauber or Mike Miernicki would be a good addition to the Board. Bill Kron, I presume the former long time County Commissioner, has nice things to say about Mike in today’s paper. Ryan has a very short and smart letter about the district in the paper as well. He’s crisp and precise something I’ve seen little of in most of the current batch of school board members.

The state of our district is becoming dire. We have brand new classrooms going unused due to teacher layoffs. Class sizes are growing at an astronomical rate. And, most disturbing, public perception and trust are at all-time lows. Other educational facilities in our area continue to grow, even generating waiting lists. While we watch others flourish, Duluth public schools are floundering. We’ve lost 50 percent of our students over the past 34 years, we’re not just bleeding students; we’re hemorrhaging them at an unprecedented rate.

The third candidate Doug Frisk, no friend of mine, has a lengthy applogia for the Red Plan and a call for a little Kumbayah.

As painful as changes have been for Duluth, we must move forward rather than look back and pick at that scab. Our community can only heal if we move forward together.

I was sort of impressed when he wrote about children who were “innumerate” (can’t count their fingers) but less so at his promise which is prefaced by call for “iterative” improvement: “My vision to move the district forward includes parent involvement, challenges for all students and iterative improvement.”

I promise to listen respectfully, but I won’t promise to always agree. I promise not to go down a path my conscience tells me is wrong for our children or schools. I refuse to promise everything and deliver nothing.

For a guy who says what we need is more parental involvement I guess his conscience has told him to make sure there is no public involvement is such trivial details as building the new schools the public will have to pay for.

Will Judy vote to increase Red Plan spending by…

…another $3.3 million a year?

If I understand the arguments of Loren Martell who I just spoke with and who was not handcuffed during the perfunctory meeting at which the Board raised another 15 million for the Red Plan the answer is, “Yes.” I hope the Tribune will ask her before the election whether she will vote to bump up this spending or not. It will do nothing to lower the student teacher ratio but it will add more bangles to the Red Plan schools.

I’ll have no objection to her doing this if she tells us prior to the November General Election what she plans to do. Would the Trib’s Editors be as curious about this as I am? I don’t know but at least one of their number, Chuck Frederick, is an honest man.

…if you don’t like an editorial cartoon published in the News Tribune, don’t blame the writer of the letter or column that accompanies it. Blame me.

Do new teachers cost $90,000?

A fellow named Mike Switaer made a comment on today’s Trib story which was hidden because a lot of readers said they didn’t like it.

“so each full time position is $90000? most teachers I know don’t make that. I know “benifets” are added but the city and PERA are arguing now that city of duluth employees should not have medical benifits included as part of their payroll package, at least not when figuring retirement amounts.”

Only 6 people “liked” the comment and 18 “disliked” it when I viewed the online comment section.

Who in the hell would have disliked the comment? It was better than a comment. It was a question. Don’t we learn from our teachers something like, “there is no such thing as a stupid question”? It wasn’t a snide question or a smart ass question. It seemed to be pretty genuine and I couldn’t help noticing it because I’d done the same math after reading the story. 6.6 teachers divided into $6 million dollars is a bit more than $90,000 per teacher.

When I started on the Board 16 not terribly inflationary years ago new teachers were being paid about $54,000 a year. I seem to recall that that was both salary and benefits. Six or seven years into my 8 year tenure on the board I used that figure in a little back room calculating and was told the figure was terribly outdated. It was closer to $65,000 or more.

I know the District has been relatively profligate under the awful fiscal circumstances in recent teacher negotiations but even so $90,000 does seen like rather a lot for a new teacher.

I suspect that the teachers hired back will not be “new” teachers so much as laid off teachers whose salaries are fixed above that of a first year teacher. I’m not sure what the average cost of a new teacher is anymore but things have changed. Sixteen years ago I could make a simple calculation that a million dollars would get us about 20 new teachers. Today it appears the same one million would barely hire ten.

By the way, Mr. Switaer, Thank you for not hiding your identity. Thank you for posting a non-snide post. Thank you for asking a reasonable question. I apologize for the 16 people who have swept you under the carpet. Let me welcome you under rug with the rest of us dust mites who have raised embarrassing questions.

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…  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Y#Demographics

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
SOURCES OF NEW REVENUE PROJECTIONS
2011-12

INCREASED STUDENT ENROLLMENT REVENUE
$500,000.00

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.