Denfeld News

Jan. 10, 2010
Duluth News Tribune

School shuffle means major change for teachers

Known as "The Big Fill," the school district’s plan to reshuffle job assignments has many teachers preparing for a change of scenery.

Working in Duluth comes with its weather-related hazards, but Tom Tusken, a teacher at Denfeld High School, has been able to avoid a lot of them.

The 15-year social studies teacher lives close enough to Denfeld to walk to his job every morning.

“Right now I’m two blocks away,” Tusken said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s snowing or raining, I walk out my front door and I’m at work five minutes later. It’s great.”

Life won’t be quite as predictable next year. Tusken, like all middle and high school teachers in the Duluth school district, doesn’t know where he’ll be working.

In a process district employees are calling “the big fill” — for all the positions to be emptied and filled again — secondary teachers will be turned out of their jobs this spring. They’ll have to vie for the spots that remain in a district downsized to two high schools and two middle schools.

It will be the first time in the district’s history that such a massive reshuffling of jobs takes place at once. The result could mean many teachers will be pushed out of the schools where they’ve been working since the beginning of their careers.

“This is the building I’ve been working out of for 15 years,” Tusken said. “You start to think about all the stuff you’ve accumulated; you start to think about moving. It’s daunting.”

Leveling the playing field

The process is the best way to deal with a hard situation, district administrators say.

With Denfeld to shut down for construction next year and Central to close permanently the year after, it’s a time of significant change in the district, according to Superintendent Keith Dixon.

Middle schools are part of the shakeup. The district lost Ordean and Lincoln middle schools in the last few years. By the time the long-range plan is complete, middle school students will attend a new western middle school and a renovated East High School.

The district realized it would be unfair to uproot only staff whose buildings are being disrupted, he said.

“Instead of it being luck of the draw in terms of who gets displaced and who doesn’t, we decided it would be fairest to involve all of our secondary staff and try to level the playing field,” Dixon said.

The main advantage on the field will be seniority, according to Eric Kaiser, an employee of Johnson Controls and former district principal who is helping to coordinate the big fill.

All secondary staff will receive notice of their displacement in late March or April and then, as staffing needs become clear, teachers will be able to choose a spot based primarily on their years with the district, Kaiser said; teaching licensure will also be at play.

The Duluth teacher’s union helped shape the process.

“We knew we’d be facing a real challenge in that we’d need to find a way to staff all of our secondary buildings at a time when pretty much the apple cart is going to be upended,” said Frank Wanner, president of the teacher’s union. “It’s certainly a less-than-ideal situation but I think this it’s the best way to go about it.”

‘So many uncertainties’

“It’s the fairest process that has been determined by the district and the union, so what are you going to do about it? You go where you go,” said Tusken, whose philosophical attitude was common among teachers interviewed for this story.

It’s not going to be easy, though, said Stephanie Mickle, an English teacher who has been at Denfeld since her career started in 1997.

“We could be working with different staff members and maybe under different administrators — and change is hard,” Mickle said. “Students are anxious about not knowing where teachers are going to be next year, and I don’t know what to tell them. ...

“We haven’t been given a lot of specifics on how that day will look,” she said. “Will it be a public event where one teacher is forced to choose in front of her colleagues? We are resilient so I know we will make it work, but it’s hard with so many uncertainties.”

Ethan Fischer is a social studies teacher who has been at Central for 15 years. “It will be a sad day to watch those doors close for the last time and walk away from the people who have been my community for the past 15 years,” he said. “Of course, there is nervousness and apprehension around that; positively, I am trying to look forward to a fresh start and working with some different people — but there is always a fear of the unknown.”

Up in the air

To chip away at some of that unknown, the district is considering starting a “pre-fill” next month to give students and staff at least some sense of who will be where, Kaiser said.

That process would involve administrators making their best guess at student enrollment and course selection at a given school so that more senior teachers could start choosing where they want to be.

All teaching assignments are expected to be complete by the end of May.

The district is hurrying, meanwhile, to decide which principals and athletic directors will serve the new high schools. Those posts are expected to be filled later this month or early February, followed closely be the hiring of athletic coaches.

“Some teachers would prefer to work with certain leaders, and we understand that,” Kaiser said. “We are trying to give staff as much information as we can to make this easier.”

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