Denfeld News

May 19, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

District will endorse Denfeld-Ordean plan
By Sarah Horner

The Duluth school district announced Friday its intention to move forward with the red proposal, inching Central High School and several other schools closer to closure as part of the district's long-range facilities plan.

The plan, recommended by Superintendent Keith Dixon and a commmunity taskforce called the Citizens Group, rose to the top after a professional survey found the majority of respondents supported it. The results were in line with feedback Dixon and the Citizen's Group said they have heard from community over the past several months.

The recommendation will go before the Duluth School Board for a first reading Thursday. A final vote will be taken in June.

If approved, the landscape of the district will drastically change. Only Denfeld High School will remain as a historic fixture of Duluth high schools. East High School would be reconfigured into a middle school and replaced by a new high school built on the site of Ordean Middle School. Central High School would close. Middle schools would be reduced from four to two, and elementary schools from 12 to nine.

The remaining elementary schools out west would feed into one new western middle school, and then to Denfeld. Eastern elementary schools would feed into East for middle school, then into a renovated and expanded Ordean.

All schools would be refreshed, renovated or expanded to become what Dixon calls new or like new schools.

“I do believe that the best solution is a two high school plan,” Dixon said. “I think the community knew it, has known it … and I believe the community made the right decision.”

And racial or socioeconomic divide that occurs as a result of implementing the plan could be addressed programmatically or through other means yet to be explored by the district, Dixon said. No specific solutions have been named.

The cost to the district would be about $257 million, but additional savings gained from closing schools and selling off surplus properties, including Central High School, would be used to lower the cost. Owners of a $125,000 home, the median home value in Duluth, would see their property taxes rise between $8 and $10 a month, according to Mike David, account executive with Johnson Controls.

“We are excited about providing this district with a much, much needed overhaul bringing these schools to world-class levels, but doing it cost effectively,” said Bob Brooks, co-chair of the Citizens Group.

Eric Kaiser, continuous improvement facilitator for the district and former principal, said the changes represent the most global facelift he has seen in his 33-year tenure with Duluth public schools.

“This is the first time I’ve seen something this comprehensive and far-reaching for the district,” he said.

A similar attempt, though less extensive, occurred about four years ago when a group of principals, led by Kaiser, tried to pass a long-range facilities plan. Chester Park Elementary closed, but the rest of the plan never came to fruition.

A demographic analysis released a few months ago by Johnson Controls, the consulting firm leading the charge this time, found a 25 percent drop in enrollment across the district over the past decade. Numbers are expected to keep falling until 2013, eventually stabilizing at about 9,600 students in 2022. Schools were once brimming with more than 20,000 students in the 1970s. Today there are about 10,000.

A facilities condition assessment also found about 33 percent excess space in the district’s buildings.

It is still unclear whether the public will get the chance to vote on this consolidation plan. Duluth is not legally required to hold a public vote to pass a bond referendum, but the school board has not yet decided if it will exercise that authority.

Two community meetings are scheduled to discuss the red recommendation next week, before the first reading to the board on Thursday.

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