Jan. 10, 2010
School shuffle means major change for
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
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
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
“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
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