Denfeld News

May 9, 2010
Duluth News Tribune

Duluth school district's ‘Big Fill’ leaves some teachers out
By Jana Hollingsworth

Popular Denfeld band teacher Sebastian Tackling became president of the Minnesota Band Directors Association and discovered he’s out of a teaching job, all in the same year.

A victim of the Duluth school district’s Big Fill, Tackling was left without any job choices by the time his turn came, despite working at Denfeld for five years. Tackling said he and his wife, a Duluth native, will probably leave the region and possibly the state for a new job, because there’s so little demand for band teachers in the area.

“We don’t want to leave; that would not be our first choice,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for us to figure out what our next step is.”

The Big Fill is the process the school district is using to determine which teachers will go where — and which will be out of a job — as the school district goes from three high schools to two next school year.

Every teacher interviewed for this story said they consider it the fairest possible way to whittle down the teaching pool.

“The Big Fill is a pool based on seniority,” Tackling said. “Some people have been here for decades.”

The district doesn’t know yet how many people will end up without jobs because it hasn’t begun the “stranding” process, where some teachers with two areas of licensure might be moved to an alternative teaching position, opening up a spot for a teacher with less seniority, said Tim Sworsky, manager of human resources for the district.

To start the Big Fill, all middle and high school teachers were turned out of their jobs.

Then, based on seniority in the district, teachers chose which school they wanted to work in next year: East, Central, Woodland or Morgan Park. Those toward the low end of the seniority list were left with nothing, or a job unlike their current one. It might be a position for which they’re licensed but have no work experience, or scraps of jobs that make one full-time position.

“Some people were forced into situations where they had to take a position because that’s all that was left,” Tackling said.

It’s unclear yet how many layoffs there will be, but some will be due to having fewer students and less government aid, and some to the Big Fill, Sworsky said.

Jobs sacrificed to the Big Fill come from “gaining efficiencies” by adding students to classes that can stretch in size, like band, and by reallocating desegregation money to “integration specialist” positions, which aren’t certified teaching positions. Sworsky said that move will take away about 10 teaching positions.

Teachers who chose Central will move back to Denfeld the following year when Central closes, and those who chose Woodland or Morgan Park middle schools will go to the new eastern middle school or Lincoln Park Middle School, respectively, when Woodland and Morgan Park close.

Elementary and alternative school teachers could have put their names into the Big Fill hat, but few did, Sworsky said.

Central science teacher Cheryl Kurosky will move to East High School next year. With 17 years in the district, she was among the second group of teachers allowed to choose.

“I thought things were well-organized,” she said. “I was happily surprised by how easy it seemed to go. For me, it wasn’t a bad thing.”

She chose East because she lives closer to where the new high school will be than to Denfeld, but she said she will miss her Central colleagues.

Denfeld social studies teacher Adair Ballavance has taught for 21 years in the district and was able to choose Central and her specific job. Although she loves working with Denfeld Principal Ed Crawford, who is going to East, she wanted to follow the students.

“For them, going to a new school is going to be harder than for teachers,” Ballavance said. “To have familiar faces … is a positive.”

She said the hardest part of the big fill was the human component: saying goodbye to some who will leave the district without jobs, and separating from teachers who’ve become friends.

“But your friends will always be your friends,” she said. “You don’t have to teach with them to have a relationship with them.”

East government teacher Cheryl Lien chose to stay at East. She also had enough seniority to choose her place of work, and her new department will work together to figure out specific teaching assignments. For her, the process was smooth, she said, but she feels apprehensive for those less fortunate.

“I’ve seen some really, really fine people in this building and others who have lost jobs that they’ve really worked on and have been very good at because they haven’t been senior enough,” Lien said. “And I’m not sure that’s always best for the kids.”

As for the influx of new teachers at East, Lien said the work will start over to re-create the existing positive environment among staff, which spills over to students.

“But change is good,” she said. “Maybe it will fire us all up a bit; give us new energy to meet people and try new things, teach a new class.”

And Tom Tusken, a 1990 Denfeld graduate and 15-year social studies teacher at the school, chose to move to East. He’s never worked in another part of town and wanted to uproot himself for a change of pace, along with learning a different system to give him more experience on his track to become a principal.

He’s anxious about how different East will be, he said, but appreciates the chance.

Without the Big Fill process, “would a lot of people, given the opportunity, make a big jump? I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s a rare opportunity that someone allows you mid-career to say: ‘What do you want to try now?’ ”

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