Denfeld News

June 20, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

Board says 'yes' to red plan, 'no' to referendum
Sarah Horner

The Duluth School Board — in its most significant decision in decades — has adopted a consolidation plan after years of indecision and uncertainty about the future of the district’s schools.

The board adopted the red plan in a 6-1 vote at a School Board meeting at Old Historic Central High School on Tuesday night. The board also voted 4-3 to authorize Johnson Controls and district administrators to proceed without a referendum. Only board member Tim Grover voted against the adoption of the red plan. Board members Mike Akervik, Laura Condon and Grover voted against the resolution to skip the referendum.

This is the first time in the district’s recent history that such a comprehensive facilities plan will be adopted without a public vote. Before voting on the plan, Grover asked board members to give more consideration to a three-high school plan, particularly considering the impact the red plan has on the Duluth Central High School community.

“We are talking about sweeping away the successor of this [Old Historic Central High] school. I don’t think we should do that lightly,” Grover said.

Board member Laura Condon also expressed her personal preference for keeping three high schools in Duluth, but said she would do what was best for western Duluth.

“I will make sure that, if we can’t have my three high schools, I will work hard to make sure the two high schools are as successful as I can,” Condon said.

Nancy Nilsen spoke in favor of the red plan and the board’s authority to move ahead without a referendum.

“I feel the plan put forth is a sound plan, is fiscally responsible and puts the educational component first …,” she said. “I feel I can support this resolution because of my participation in this process. I did my job as an elected official every step of the way, so I can make an educated decision.

Nearly 100 community members showed up at the meeting; about 35 addressed the board for more than two hours before the vote. The tone was civil and passionate, with about two-thirds of the speakers asking the board to postpone a vote on the plan until more questions about costs, programming and a perceived racial and socio-

economic divide could be answered. Several also asked the board to seriously consider a three-high school plan. Many of the speakers, as well as community members in the audience, wore stickers saying, “Table the vote.”

The remaining speakers commended the process and the plan and asked the board to act as community leaders and support it. All of the speakers were received with applause.

“Everybody seems to think this has happened pretty quick, when in actuality we’ve been talking about it for years,” said Chris Lane, whose children attend Lowell Elementary and Ordean Middle schools. “Don’t vote for what’s best for me. I’ve already graduated. Vote for what’s best for the kids now and the kids coming into the system.”

“There’s no need for this immediacy,” Miles Johnson, a recent Central graduate, said before the meeting. “All we can ask for is more time since we’re so easily dismissed by the community.”

The $257 million plan calls for creating east and west feeder systems on either side of the district and closing Central High School and several other schools across grade levels. The district will be left with two high schools, Denfeld and a renovated and expanded Ordean Middle School as the eastern high school. East High School will become the eastern middle school and a new western middle school will be built at a site to be determined. Elementary schools will be consolidated from 12 schools to nine.

By the end of the estimated five-year implementation phase, all of the remaining schools in the district will be new or like new.

The plan is estimated to cost the owner of a $125,000 home an additional $9 to $11 a month on property taxes, depending on how much of the operational savings gained from closing schools is diverted back into the project.

A final dollar amount will be available after the financing package is presented to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The boundary line dividing the district into the different feeder systems that was originally set at 14th Avenue East was left undecided in the board’s resolution because of community concern that the line could perpetuate a racial and socio-economic divide in the community.

“That is left to be determined,” Superintendent Keith Dixon said. “I think this boundary piece takes more thoughtful discussion, and we are recommending some community-inclusive process to try and think about that over the next few months.”

Dixon also emphasized his commitment to find a boundary that would create equitable spaces for all students. He allowed the board to add that commitment to the resolution supporting the red plan.

The consolidation plan is in response to years of declining enrollment in the Duluth School district. Several of the schools also are old and outdated.

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