I’m running for a school board seat again, to add some perspective to the debate. I haven’t written anything in this blog since the 2021 campaign, and spotted an update needed in one article, titled, “Truth in Taxation.”
The “funky building” near the mall (“Radio Central,” on Central Entrance) did not become a school. Demands from the state made the move “untenable” to the district, which had planned to renovate and lease the site for the Area Learning Center and Academic Excellence Online. Both of these academic programs (technically high schools in the Duluth system) are instead now being housed in the Technology Village on East Superior St.
The ACL and AEO high schools needed a new location because Old Central High on East Second St. was closed and sold. Taxpayers are picking up about $1.25 million a year in leasing costs to make up for the loss of Old Central and other district buildings. Rent in the Technology Village costs $395,150.98 + $20,875.64 annual cleaning expense. Taxpayers are also picking up $702,667.50 a year in the United HealthCare building for Administrative offices and $107,004 a year in the Arvid Building for Adult Education. A few years back, a lease was also signed for space in the old Washington School because the CFO told the board “we have no other spaces in the center of the city.” That lease was for $14,366.40, with a 3% annual increase.
Obviously, academic achievement is the goal of any educational organization, but nothing runs properly without proper management of money. The public school district has made many questionable choices with tax money. A massive consolidation project the district invested hundreds of millions of dollars in about a decade back was pushed through by a man named Keith Dixon. Mr. Dixon was being pressured out of his previous job. When he came to town, at the end of fiscal year 2005, the district’s tax levy was $11.9 million. It is now 32 million dollars higher, having spiked from $11.9 to $43.9 million. The question Duluth taxpayers have a right to ask: What has been achieved from all the money spent?
The district’s tax hike has produced scant academic progress, and the facilities investment that cost so much money actually worsened the long-standing divide between the east and west ends of our town, leaving Duluth a more distinct tale of two cities: a 73% graduation rate at Denfeld and 92% at East. We were supposed to be left with “equitable education” across the whole city, but families are running east if they can, because parents naturally want the best for their children.
The public was also told the expensive facilities plan would be an enrollment magnet, but the plan instead led to a dramatic decline in student numbers–a decline that was compounded by the COVID pandemic. Enrollment was projected to “stabilize” at 9600 students in 2022, but is currently more than a 1000 students below that number. As soon as Mr. Dixon stepped into town, families starting running. During his six-year stint as Superintendent, open-enrollment to surrounding districts jumped. In his first year, 129 students open-enrolled into Duluth and 379 open-enrolled out. His last year, 88 students open-enrolled in, and 627 open-enrolled out.
All of this stems from poor investment of our tax money, poor planning, and we need our government leaders–both the bureaucrats and elected officials–to do a better job. Recently, however, I did thank the current Superintendent for one thing: He showed faith in our town by buying a house and paying some of the tax burden himself. We haven’t had a Superintendent own a home in Duluth for nearly two decades and the district’s last Chief Financial Officer lived in Two Harbors.