Sell Central

I didn’t leave many secrets about my opinion when the idea of a Duluth Edison charter high school first emerged a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve only studied under one of the state’s greatest critics of charter schools, Myron Orfield. While I don’t buy all that Orfield sells uncritically, his data only reinforces many of the points I tried to make at the time. As I said, I didn’t think there was any credible way to spin a new, large charter high school as anything positive for the existing school district. I still fear that the most likely result of a new Edison High will be a Denfeld even further drained of students, with dire implications for public education in western and central Duluth. The odds will be stacked against it, and its troubles would be troubles for the entire west side.

Now, however, the Edison has made a public offer for the Duluth Central site. The school board will meet Monday to hear community input, and may consider waiving its policy restricting the sale of buildings to other K-12 educators. The offer, a cool $14.2 million, is significantly more than the offer from a private developer that fell through last year. Central has long been an albatross for the district, which has struggled to sell a very large, somewhat difficult to access property with a giant school building on it. ISD 709 must pay to maintain the old building and the surrounding property, and revenues that were supposed to help pay off the Red Plan have never materialized.

The policy against selling buildings to potential competition makes sense. In any other line of business, it would appear crazy to dump off a facility like this. But as the charter-public “competition” dynamic shows all too well, education does not operate like a normal market. The “competition” is here, and now the question is whether ISD 709 can make some profit off its arrival. $14 million won’t plug up all the holes, but it will help pay down some debt and insulate the district from truly damaging cuts.

This all goes to show that there is only one logical and moral choice for ISD 709: sell it. Sell it now. The Edison high school is a fait accompli. Its leadership is committed, and the Duluth Central alumni base, not without reason, will note that this fills a hole in the center of the city. (Don Ness had quite the Facebook manifesto on the subject.) There will not be a better deal, or a better use of that site, in the foreseeable future. While Duluth is doing relatively well right now, it has not become a magical boomtown, and with a fair amount of apartment development under way, I’m not sure there’s a market for a giant new development atop the hill. Given the tepid interest to date, and the much lower single (known) bid by someone other than Edison, to go along with all the access-related and demolition challenges at the site, the signs aren’t encouraging. Using that old high school for its original purpose also serves the community in other ways, as it saves wetlands and spares traffic congestion around the corner of Rice Lake and Arrowhead, where Edison planned to construct a school from scratch.

The only reasonable counterargument claims that selling the building starts the clock on the high school’s opening sooner, which will only hasten the loss of funding that comes with a loss in students. Still, the price tag here appears good enough to recoup those losses, particularly if ISD 709 can negotiate an enrollment cap. And while I think the Edison people need to be more aware of the potential unintended damage of their new project, this need for mutual understanding goes both ways: the district, too, must respect Edison’s presence in local educational debates and engage the charter. For everything that divides them, they do have a common goal.

For too long in Duluth education circles, infighting, territorialism, and pettiness have kept the city from that goal. It’s time to start anew.


Denfeld’s Missing Students

Less than ten years ago, Duluth embarked on a controversial school restructuring plan. I won’t rehash the bitter debate here, but the decision to close Duluth Central High did bring one promise with it: the new, two-school arrangement would help make sure that one Duluth public high school wouldn’t seem to dwarf the other, as Duluth East so often did to Central and Denfeld, both in terms of enrollment and in academic and athletic achievement. Yet here we are in 2015: Duluth East’s enrollment has been climbing steadily higher over the past half-decade, while Denfeld’s has sagged. East now clocks in around 1,500 students, while Denfeld can’t scrape up 900. How on earth did things get so lopsided? I dove into some census data to find out.

First, though, I should start with the things that the census can’t explain in full detail. The first is the poverty rate, which, while imperfect, tends to have very strong implications for how likely kids are to finish school. I calculate the poverty rates at 14.0 percent for East and 21.3 percent for Denfeld, respectively; that’s a pretty substantial difference. Moreover, I suspect the data over-reports actual poverty on the east side due to its large population of college students; for example, the poverty rate for the Hunter’s Park and Hartley areas, which I would have guessed are among the most well-off in the city, is actually over 15 percent, or nearly triple that of neighboring Woodland. Unity High School, the District’s alternative high school option, almost certainly draws in more west side kids, further driving down the numbers. Transience, which is not well-studied, also plays a huge role, with the constant disruption in students’ lives preventing lasting commitments to schools. Simply based on its demographics, Denfeld is going to end up with fewer students than East, even if the lines are drawn to give east and west side schools the same number of students.

Moving the Line

The boundaries, of course, are not even. The current line, which heads up 6th Avenue East and Kenwood Avenue, gives a majority of Duluth’s land area to Denfeld. Even so, East’s attendance area has about 1,000 more K-12-aged kids (6,900 versus 5,900) in the area it draws from. This hardly explains the whole difference, but it certainly explains some of it. As one west-side politician frustrated with the imbalance once told me, just move the line east!

If only it were that easy. When the Red Plan was put into place, 6th Avenue wasn’t the dividing line. It was noticeably further east, at 14th Avenue East, and having it in that rough area would effectively equalize the populations (6,394 in the East area versus 6,427 in Denfeld’s). However, some people quickly noted that 14th Avenue East was the old red-lining boundary in Duluth—that is, the line used to enforce a racial zoning code that prevented minorities from buying houses on the east side. Understandably squeamish about harkening back to that legacy, the District moved the line to 6th Avenue. The neighborhoods between those avenues are among Duluth’s poorest, with poverty rates all in excess of 30 percent; the 6th Avenue line made East more diverse and gave it a greater number of low-income students. While reverting back to a line somewhere in the mid-teen avenues would perhaps be the easiest fix for the enrollment disparity, it would only exacerbate the have-have not dynamic between East and Denfeld, lowering East’s poverty rate to 10.5 percent and raising Denfeld’s to 23.6 percent.

The only alternative line-drawing method to equalize populations would likely have to go north, reaching into Rice Lake Township and perhaps beyond. It’s a bit of a gerrymander that would make for some long bus rides or drives, but it would still make some geographic sense, and has the added benefit of pulling from a fairly wealthy township with a relatively large student population. But exactly for that reason, it might prove less politically possible: hell hath no fury like wealthy members of a township who are threatened with possible contact with other types of people, especially when it comes from the dictates of an urban bureaucracy. This is the planner’s paradox, as they aim for both equity and public participation, and often find that the two are at odds.

Bad Projections?

The school district might also have incorrectly predicted future population trends. In my digging, I stumbled across a very detailed mid-2000s population projection requested by then-Superintendent Julio Almanza. In typical ISD 709 fashion, it was a total mess: upon receiving it he chose not to share it with anyone because it was “confusing,” which understandably had the School Board feeling a bit insulted, and everyone was left in disagreement and nothing got done. (Some related press clippings are at the end of the PDF.) The researcher expects a loss of over 30 percent of the school-age population in East’s attendance area between 2000 and 2015, while the rest of the city loses maybe 10-15 percent. If this seems baffling, well, it should: my calculations show that Denfeld lost slightly more between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, with both hovering around an 18 percent drop. The narrative does flip some if we use the (somewhat less reliable) 2013 ACS data; East’s decline rate increases a tiny bit to 20 percent, while Denfeld suddenly adds a few potential students thanks to growth in Duluth Heights, and its 2000-2013 decline rate is only 15 percent. Still, one data point that breaks from longtime trends is hardly vindication, and with the reports of overcrowding in east side elementaries, I remain a skeptic that this uptick in the Heights will lead to a sizable shift in high school populations down the road. Whether or not the Keith Dixon administration employed these stats in the making of the Red Plan, they do not appear to be a reliable guide.

I’m not trashing the researchers; their methods are standard and solid, and they hit all the right caveats. The thing they can’t account for is human nature. This includes internal migration trends, and the extent to which the east side remains the home of Duluth cake while the west side retains a Rust Belt stigma. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in school choice, where people flock to the “good” schools and flee the “struggling” ones. The fate of one’s own children is often where the faith of some of the greatest believers in equity goes to die—and, to an extent, I can’t fault anyone for that.

The Weakness of Boundaries

Still, if this is why East is gaining students while Denfeld sheds them, it must be coming from people who physically move; the District’s internal open enrollment numbers show only a very modest net gain for East. Marshall doesn’t seem a likely culprit for imbalance either, given its hefty price tag more easily paid by east side families. Charter schools might explain some elementary disparities, but Harbor City is Duluth’s lone charter high, and it too draws from both sides. Of course, that will change when the new Edison behemoth opens up on Rice Lake Road, most likely furthering the disproportionate whacking of Denfeld’s numbers. If it can make its enrollment projections (and this is no guarantee), it may be as large as Denfeld once the dust has settled.

The real cause of the missing Denfeld students has to be open enrollment out of ISD 709 and into neighboring communities. The only readily available numbers are from 2010, which was probably the top year for bailing on Duluth amid Red Plan upheaval, but they are stark. (I suppose I could ask for newer data, but considering the District’s record on data sharing, I might get it by 2047 if I begged really nicely.) The biggest beneficiary of open enrollment is affluent Hermantown, which is at capacity and building its own new facilities to accommodate more Duluth transplants. They alone gained over 200 Duluthians (grades K-12) in 2010, many of them from Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where some homes are closer to the Hermantown schools than they are to Denfeld. But there’s also open enrollment into Proctor, which is well over half Denfeld’s size despite drawing from an area that has at best one-quarter the population. It goes into Esko, the wealthiest municipality in northern Minnesota (yes, you read that right). And into tiny Wrenshall, practically kept afloat by Duluth flight. There’s a steady drain out of the District and into these neighboring towns, and demographic analysis has serious limits in this era of free school movement. By their nature, open markets create winners and losers; in Duluth’s case, the loser is obvious, and it is up to each person to decide if the gains are worth the costs that will be borne by the losers.

The Red Plan’s Shadow

I suspect Duluth would have lost kids regardless, but it probably didn’t have to be this way, and this hints at what is, ultimately, the most enduring damage of the Red Plan saga. It’s not the price tag; without re-opening the debate over the various plans, Duluth needed a fix, and it wasn’t going to be cheap. That, along with the refusal to put the Red Plan on the ballot, has largely blown over, as the results of recent elections show. It’s not the architecture, much as we amateur critics may complain. It’s not quite the decision to sacrifice Central, that ugly and inefficient box on an isolating piece of prime real estate, though that’s getting closer to the truth. It’s not in an exacerbated east-west divide; East’s shadow over the other high schools has always been long, and moving its boundaries further into the Hillside actually made East more economically diverse than it had been.

The Red Plan’s greatest damage came in the disruption it caused for so many students, fostering just enough chaos to drive many from it for good. The vicious cycle goes from there. It was school restructuring as shock therapy, as it took the axe to neighborhood schools and gave Duluth a bunch of pretty, hulking shells with large attendance areas. (What better exemplar of the trend than the new Lincoln Park, which lords over the west side at the top of its steep hill, nearly inaccessible by foot and drawing from Kenwood to Fon du Lac.) In a laboratory the new lines and divides would have been fine, but the Dixon Administration and its allies failed to account for how their drastic plan would disrupt families’ incentives. The old order may not have been sustainable, but the rollout of the new one was poor, especially on the west side, where students were jostled from Denfeld to Central and back to Denfeld to accommodate construction. But even now that the dust has settled, East has added students in recent years, while Denfeld dwindles. The damage has been done.

Still, the Red Plan happened, and it’s done now. Readers of my past ISD 709 stuff will know that there’s nothing I hate more than continued belaboring of that old, stupid argument. Duluth needs to hope that the surge was temporary, and not the start of a snowball rolling down a west side ridge. But more than hope, it needs action. There have been baby steps, from some of the events at Lincoln Park to the intense focus on Laura MacArthur. Perhaps if more data were readily available, it would help us amateur students of ISD 709 and lift the perceived veil of secrecy deployed by the District. Ideas like exit interviews and further studies get tossed around at Board meetings in the rare moments that people behave like adults, but those moments are frustratingly rare, and usually buried behind ledes about the dumb things people are yelling at one another. I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of perpetuating that, and would love to see other people who cover the local education scene focus on what really matters instead of the ongoing personal battles. I’m also not sure that either of those would help; while exit interviews wouldn’t hurt, I don’t think the reasons behind departure are any great secret for anyone with their ears to the ground, and the District definitely shouldn’t waste money on consultants when a lazy grad student can bang out an analysis like this in a couple of days.

What Next?

Even if the recent uptick in school-aged kids on the west side is a blip on the radar, its long-term prospects are probably the best they’ve been in a quarter-century. Duluth is shaking off its long era of decline and stagnation, and with an active focus on west side development and some large chunks of undeveloped land, there’s good reason to suspect the school-age population on the west side will grow in the coming years. The question is, in an era of high-volume student movement that is unlikely to change, can the west side schools stem the flow outward into alternative destinations? A bit more leadership from the top would obviously help, and there are certainly opportunities to better connect with the opportunity and raise test scores. There are no excuses for the District not doing everything it can.

Still, there are only so many top-down things the District can do. Fundamentally, it comes down to parents believing in Denfeld and investing themselves in a school that, traditionally, has overcome demographic destiny and built a solid community. If that goes, the school will fail. This is hardly a brilliant policy prescription, but I have some faith in it, and I think it’s the only one that can counteract the existing incentives. The solution must come from within. Otherwise, the steady losses will continue, the vicious cycle will feed on itself, and those who have the means to get out will do so. It would be a loss for the west side, a loss for any sort of belief in public education, and one could only pity the kids left behind.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel? Duluth School Board Notes, 4/22/14

Spring was in the air for the ISD 709 School Board’s April meeting; it wasn’t even dark out when things got going. (Hey, little things like that matter in Duluth.) A number of students were on hand to do their public meeting duties for government classes, and after a prolonged absence, Ms. Marcia Stromgren was back at augmenting her home video collection of school board meetings. The TV broadcast had some sound issues that required Chair Miernicki to stick a little sign up in front of his seat, but otherwise, it was a fairly routine night at Historic Old Central.

There was an unusually large amount of wrangling over the minutes, and things also got interesting when Members Johnston and Welty tried to get a review of several Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP) change orders on the agenda. Frustrated by their inability to do so, they had apparently resorted to a grumpy flyer distributed at the Business Committee meeting the previous week. An exasperated Member Seliga-Punyko tried to immediately call the question, saying the process was “déjà vu” of endless arguments over the previous five years, and that District practices had clearly been “examined by lawyers” and found proper. Only Member Loeffler-Kemp sided with her, though, freeing Member Johnston to say that he simply wanted a discussion in public, and that “people don’t have to agree with me.” Member Harala stepped in to say the Board needed to “sit down and decide how to get things on the agenda” and suggested they give the Administration time to be able to give a proper presentation on the question at hand. The Board agreed with her by a 5-2 margin, and after a brief back-and-forth with Member Loeffler-Kemp, Member Johnston decided to withdraw his attempt to discuss how things get on the agenda until next month.

Thus thwarted, Member Johnston took to the stand as a citizen speaker to explain his interest in these particular change orders. He said there were “at least five” LRFP change orders totaling at least $11.2 million that the Board never voted on, cannot be found in meeting minutes, and that six current and past Board Members were “unaware” of them. Of the $19.3 million increase in LRFP funding passed in March 2012 by the Board, he claimed that $8.7 million—a whopping 45 percent—went straight to Johnson Controls. Member Johnston announced his intent to bring these mysterious figures before the state auditor, the attorney general, and the state Department of Education. After he finished, the issue wasn’t mentioned again.

Otherwise, the early stages of the meeting were upbeat. The Board recognized the Duluth Aviation Institute for its support for science education in 6th grade classes, and Superintendent Gronseth told tales of his new acting career. He also said a survey exploring the possibility of late starts for weather delays will be going out soon, and there was some celebration of Earth Day by both he and Member Loeffler-Kemp. Member Harala took the Board and viewing public on a tour of the Education Committee report; highlights included a presentation on the District integration plan, whose funding cycle had undergone a large change; presentations on Head Start; and new policies on the process for adding athletic programs, though Member Harala lamented the lack of Quidditch among the proposed programs. The whole report sailed through without any real debate, though several Members recommended that citizens with any interest in the topics come to the committee meetings to learn more. (Okay, okay, I’ll get there someday.)

Member Welty introduced the HR Committee Report by saying they’d set a record by going for an hour and a half in the committee meeting, but with the teachers’ union contract pulled for further consideration, we were spared any such repeat on Tuesday. It too breezed through without any trouble, though one suspects that the special session to discuss this contract, tentatively set for May 1, will be a bit more of an adventure. (Member Welty, for one, has expressed some reservations.)

Two Business Committee items inspired the longest debates of the night. The first was a resolution to further re-zone and subdivide the old Central High School site so as to make it more marketable for sale. Member Johnston raised some doubts; first, he wanted to know if there had been any offers over the past three years (none, though there had been “many” conversations), and later, he worried the District might flush more dollars into the site in “pre-development” to make it more marketable. He recommended simply lowering the price to hurry the sale along. Supt. Gronseth countered that there was “no lack of interest” and that zoning and the recession were the biggest obstacles. Several Members thanked DEDA and the City for their support, while Chair Miernicki expressed optimism and pointed to BlueStone Lofts as a sign of how quickly a mixed-use development can take off and succeed. Member Johnston was on the fence until the end, but ultimately voted to support the resolution, and it passed unanimously.

Next, it was on to the monthly discussion of enrollment numbers, though this time it was more involved than ever before. Member Johnston, as usual, pointed out some losses, grumbled about the attitude of some in the Administration who seemed to not think it terribly serious, and insisted it should be an agenda item. Member Welty concurred on this last point, nodding to Mayor Ness’s goal for increasing city population as a similar ideal worth striving for. (Just so long as they didn’t cheat and try to annex something, Member Johnston added.) Supt. Gronseth pointed to some positive trends, including several projections the District had beaten and a preliminary OK for the District’s new online programs. Members Harala and Loeffler-Kemp emphasized the importance of positivity and focusing on the many good things happening in schools to draw people back, a point Member Johnston conceded, and said his goal of 9,000 students in five years was in fact an ambitious and positive goal. In a rare spurt of loquaciousness, Member Westholm talked of the cycles of enrollment, improvements in the lowest grades, and a “light at the end of the tunnel.” He also added that uncertainty over which schools would be open, not the quality of the education, was the primary cause of the “exodus,” particularly in his own Piedmont neighborhood.

Member Seliga-Punyko seized on this point to emphasize the instability of the last 20-30 years, with school closures being proposed all over the place, and said the LRFP would rectify these troubles now that no one was on the chopping block, and that facilities finally supported curriculum. Member Johnston then pointed out that the District has been slashing curriculum, and that it needs money it doesn’t have to fix this, while Chair Miernicki pointed out that something is always being cut, no matter what. Member Seliga-Punyko blamed the financial situation on unfunded mandates for special education; if the state and federal government put in a fraction of what they claimed they would, she said, the District wouldn’t be in this financial conundrum. (This freed Chair Miernicki to say that Jesse Ventura had once gotten something right as governor of Minnesota, in his demand that the federal government fund its mandates.) This rubbed some people the wrong way since it seemed to blame special education; while that was obviously not Member Seliga-Punyko’s intent, it’s worth pointing out that unfunded mandates, while awful and deserving of further lobbying at higher levels of government, are reality. It would be wrong to budget for this money when we all know it’s not coming.

After a brief discussion of a re-roofing project at Congdon Elementary, the Board wrapped up its business. Student Member Manning thanked the rest of the Board for its comments on curriculum and mandates, and there was talk of getting Board Members into schools whenever possible. Member Loeffler-Kemp also plugged a neighborhood meeting at Lester Park Elementary on April 29 at 5:30 to discuss the future of the old Rockridge Elementary site.

All in all, it wasn’t a very conclusive meeting. The pulling of the teachers’ contract left the Board without anything terribly controversial on its plate, and while Member Johnston’s accusations at the start of the meeting are certainly worth watching, it’s probably best to await the Administration’s reply before speculating any further on that front. That left us with an interesting talk on enrollment, though the talk has yet to really amount to much. After his flame-throwing at the start of the meeting, Member Johnston was in a relatively agreeable and constructive mood, while Member Welty held his silence more than usual. Most of the topics touched on tonight will be up again in the not-so-distant future, and perhaps for more newsworthy reasons.

This is life with the Post-Red Plan Board: there is still some clear lingering animosity, and everyone has their own theory on what caused recent financial troubles and enrollment declines. Still, there is also a sense from all sides that there’s a lot of other work to be done now, and there is an ongoing tension between acknowledging the difficulties and being the salespeople they all need to be to improve District enrollment. It’s a balancing act, and it’s easy to wobble off into woe-is-us moaning or smarmy blind optimism. As Member Westholm noted, there are good reasons to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and to therefore follow the track that has made Don Ness such a popular mayor: a positive, consensus-building agenda that brings many parties to the table in the pursuit of a somewhat vague but certainly brighter future. As with the Ness agenda, there’s a lot to be said for this; staying in the tunnel of backbiting negativity only increases perceptions of dysfunction, and no amount of yelling will magically turn on the lights. But positivity alone won’t get anything done. The District does need careful reviews of existing practices, due diligence on new proposals, and to make sure that, in the words of a famed philosopher, the light at the end of a tunnel is not in fact a train.