The Mother of all ISD 709 Issues…

…was handled scrupulously and extensively by the Tribune on Sunday. I’m going to pull out many paragraphs and insert my own thoughts.

In 2009, a secondary-school boundary extending from Sixth Avenue East up to Kenwood Avenue and Howard Gnesen Rd. and Airport roads was approved by the Duluth School Board as part of the district’s $315 million long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan, … It set in motion a plan to better balance low-income and minority populations of middle and high school students. But since then, gaps in some of those populations have widened between the schools.

Critics of the Red Plan pointed out early on that the new layout for our schools would foster different mixes of racial populations. In response Dr. Dixon postponed a boundary plan until the last possible minute. I don’t believe that any changes in our demographics of consequence took place since the 2010 school year. The Red Plan was destined to end up with the racial division of the population as it currently exists. To quote myself from a DNT column published on April 12, 2008:

“There is only one problem with the red plan that the top dogs have conceded. It will, according to a map sent by the district to the Minnesota Department of Education, split Duluth along 14th Ave. East into rich/poor, high minority/low minority halves. There is a great irony in this and Jaros knows it well. His law originally allowed some building without referenda for, among other reasons, to encourage integration. It’s ironic because the red plan kills our integration program and segregates Duluth. It completely violates the spirit of Jaros’ law. Over time the red plan will impoverish Jaros’s western district as its prosperous residents flee to eastern Duluth. Shiny new schools will not stem this exodus.”

The Duluth school district plans to study changes to elementary school boundaries in an attempt to even out enrollment among those schools — many of which are at capacity. Some residents are asking that the district consider redrawing lines for the secondary schools, too.

Nothing has shocked me as much at this. The Dixon crowd crowed about the great demographic work that took place in preparing the Red Plan. And then when I went to the Think Kids meetings last fall I discovered that in less than three years since the elementary school construction ended most of our new elementary schools were or were soon to be over-crowded. Here’s the map that we passed out. So much for the notion that we could fit Edison kids and other refugees from our schools back into our brand new Red elementary schools when they saw how bright and sparkly they were. In fact, the remaining parents are anguished that their new Duluth schools are overcrowded.

There is a terrible contrast between the timidity of the current school administration to investigate difficult problems today and the boldness of the Dixon Administration to forge ahead eight years ago with a breathtaking building program. For instance, today the District is hiding behind some supposed demographic experts to make critical boundary decisions. These all will involve the aforementioned elementary school boundaries but leave until tomorrow the disastrous secondary problems. I’m unimpressed with taskforceitis. I let that slip in the post preceding this one “my unhelpful sarcasm.” Would that this timidity encourage some restraint in spending our woefully diminished budget reserve which has rather grandly been made to sound as though it is rebounding.

I have nothing to add about the stories headed by bolded subsections on Scheduling and Crowded Classrooms except to note I have always felt that the District began the Red Plan with an impossible pitch claiming that it would save five million dollars a year. Classes of forty plus students suggest, if they don’t outright prove, that our savings was nothing more than laying off teachers that were considered necessary previous to the Red Plan. The near drowning of a middle school student two weeks ago in one of our superlative new monster swimming pools testifies to the necessity of smaller classes. Ah, but Duluth can now host knuckle polishing and pride inducing regional swim meets. A fair trade-off it seems.

As to the Transfer Policy subsection, I should know something about that as I was appointed to that unpopular committee.

But some parents allege that families lie about where a student is living to get into East, suggesting the number of students from the Denfeld boundary area attending East is much higher. Addresses of relatives are used, parents said, and it’s been a practice for years.

However, the appeals I was a part of masked any sneakiness on the part of parents who might have been using false addresses of friends and relatives to move their children to more favored schools in ISD 709. Would people do such a thing? Well, I can only testify that when I served on the School Board eleven and more years ago hockey phenoms were apparently moved to within the Duluth East boundary by numerous means so that good prospects for the often state bound Greyhounds could bump out other longer serving but less skilled East Hockey players.

Why the Loss?

Many students left the school district during the Red Plan, choosing surrounding school districts, and that was felt at Denfeld. That school, in particular, also saw many students go to the district’s Area Learning Center, or drop out. The 2013 drop-out rate is 4.3 percent, but the status of another 2 percent of students that year is unknown; those students simply stopped attending. Last year’s senior class was much smaller than those of previous years.

I’ve harped on the Red Plan exodus for years so its no surprise to me. Still, when I went door to door in Gary and found kids returning on Proctor School Buses with Proctor’s green jerseys it unsettled me.

Perpetuating the divide A study has been commissioned by the school district to research birth rates, demographic and real estate trends and where various age groups live. The point is to help change elementary school boundaries for next school year because many schools are over capacity, and therefore are of immediate concern. While district officials have said secondary schools might be part of the conversation, Gronseth said last week any changes to secondary-school boundaries probably will be a few years down the road. It will depend on study results, he said, and decisions will be based on data.

Yes, by all means let’s wait a couple years to respond to angry Denfeld parents…….again seem my previous post.

Denfeld, with its higher number of low-income students, receives more funding than East per student. It can use that money for smaller class sizes or other student support, “and in some ways, that’s the model we have,” Gronseth said.

My inclination is to cater even more drastically to the Denfeld students with Title One funds and whatever other fiscal resources are available to us. There has been a long unfortunate expectation in Duluth ( and it was in force years before I arrived here forty years ago) that the schools were run by and for elite Eastern Duluthians. A year or two before I got elected there was a Tribune story about how suddenly Denfeld graduates ruled the School Board roost having taken over the majority. Even so, as I discovered during the East Hockey coaching scandal these westerns were intimidated by what they considered the potent political power of Eastern parents.

Today, the way to avoid a civil war is to bend over backward to make sure there is no course work discrimination against Denfeld. Maybe it would be wise to give Denfeld special courses that would entice East Students to transfer westward. Certainly, skyping classes would be one way of addressing the discrepancies in course catalogs.

”If you divide students into groups and provide one with a rich experience and the other, which happens to be mostly low-income and students of color with one less robust, you further perpetuate this divide,” said Bergstrom, who studies equity and is also a district parent.

No kidding! It is for this reason that I have begun my experiment in positive color sightedness. Our minority families need to know that at least one (two counting Art Johnston) of the all-white school board members are on their side.

Ness said he doesn’t believe that boundaries should be changed. Schools with low enrollment should be marketed with a selling point to draw people to them, creating equity by choice rather than force. The idea is similar to a magnet school specializing in, say, music or science. Money could be invested in Denfeld to market it as a school with small class sizes, Ness said, and ensure it had the same offerings as East.

“We are almost leading with the negative, saying it’s not equal,” he said. “But not for every parent. Not for every family. Some families would love to be in a smaller high school that hopefully still provides the same type of programming. If you make those changes, it will naturally grow.”

Ness should be on the School Board. But he isn’t so I’ll have to do.

Gronseth said he has created a task force to look into such ideas.

Great, good idea. Taskforce-itis…….Only I haven’t heard about it……then again, as stated in the previous post, “I’m only a school board member.”

One last thought about our priorities. Let’s hurry up and get rid of the Denfeld area’s elected representative, Art Johnston. That’ll make things so much better. We don’t need any more of his finger pointing.


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