Duluth School Board approves questions for November ballot

By Adelle Whitefoot

The Duluth School Board unanimously approved three referendum questions to ask voters on the November ballot during a meeting Tuesday night.

The first question voters will see from the district in November will ask for a 10-year renewal of its current operating levy, which is about $371 per student. This would not raise taxes if passed. Question two will ask voters for an additional $575 per student for 10 years. If approved, it would net about $5 million per year as well as raise taxes. On a home valued at $150,000, it would cost taxpayers about $8.64 more per month.

Question three will ask voters for an additional $335 per student for 10 years. If approved, it would net about $2.9 million per year as well as raise taxes. On a home valued at $150,000, it would cost taxpayers about $5 more per month.

If all three questions were passed by voters, on a home valued at $150,000, it would cost property owners just under $14 more per month. The voter-approved portion of the levy would increase from $371 to $1,281 per student.

If the renewal is voted down, questions two and three automatically fail regardless of the vote. If the renewal passes but question two fails, question three automatically fails regardless of the vote. Without the renewal alone, the district would be looking at a loss of about $3.3 million, which would mean even more cuts to the district’s budget.

If question two were to pass, the funds would be used to add about 25 teachers district-wide to help decrease class sizes and would increase discretionary funding available for each site. If question three were to pass, the funds would be used to provide electronic devices to all students and staff, upgrade current technology, training and technical support.

There was some debate on whether the funds for the third question should be used for technology upgrades or to make changes to the secondary education schedules to allow for a seventh period. Board member Nora Sandstad offered an amendment for the third question to focus on secondary education schedules.

“There is a cost associated with the secondary education schedule change; it’s not insignificant but it’s something we need to dedicate funds to,” she said. “I’ve been on the board three years now and never have we’ve been asked to dream big and think about what we would do with an extra couple of million dollars a year.”

At the beginning of the meeting Tuesday, during public comment, many East High School teachers spoke up saying they were in favor more for technology.

“Although I think the increased opportunities for our middle and high school students is really important, I don’t know that we are ready yet to move forward,” Greg Jones said. Jones served on the task force that presented five schedule change options for the School Board to consider back in February. “I think that the secondary schedules, although, is important, I think that it’s a little less important than keeping our technology up to date.”

Sandstad said even though the plan for schedule changes is not “fully cooked” right now, with work it could be in the future. She also said she brought forward the amendment because the referendum is for 10 years and if passed the district would have to wait another five to 10 years before they can ask for another increase.

Denfeld High School student representative to the board Maggie Carlos said if she had a choice she would pick technology.

“As a student I would like to see technology first and then the classes because there is so much you can do with technology,” she said. “There have been issues where the computer lab has been tied up and we’ve had to postpone what we were going to do and I feel like we’re wasting time in the class because the technology isn’t there to use.”

The amendment failed by a 3-4 vote, with board members Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, Josh Gorham, Jill Lofald and David Kirby all voting no leaving the third question funding to be used on technology.

In the past, when the district has asked three referendum questions on a ballot, it has not gone well. In 2008, the district asked for a renewal and two increases. The renewal passed by 67 percent of the vote, but both increases failed. In 2011, the district asked for three different increases and all three failed. Superintendent Bill Gronseth said last week despite that history, he feels confident going into November.