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Duluth Public School Enrollment Continues to Plunge

The enrollment at the Duluth Public Schools continues to drop. This year’s September enrollment was 228 lower than last year’s.  This is a continuation of the steady drop in enrollment in the schools that has continued non-stop from the 1970’s when there were 25,000 students in the public schools.  But this drop isn’t happening in other area schools.

The Duluth Public School Board meeting on October 20 was a short meeting with only two issues of any discussions:  1): a motion by Johnston/Welty to require the Superintendent to release legal and data requests to the school board (which was of course defeated by a 2-5 vote);  and 2): the decrease in enrollment numbers.

Enrollment numbers are a standard item in the business committee report.  This was the first month that enrollment figures were released for this year.  Like all enrollment reports given by the Administration, there was no analysis or relative comparisons to previous years’ data.  

Johnston is known to regularly bring up the decreasing enrollment and decreasing revenue and this month was no different.  This monthly discussion has long been a bone-of-contention with the majority board members and Administration cringing whenever it is talked about.

Unfortunately, this year’s enrollment figures are not rosie, but the discussion did last a record 35 minutes.

Johnston started out the discussion by stating, “This year our enrollment was 8365…This year we lost 228 students...  This is the largest loss we have had in over five years…when we look at the amount of money we get from the State at about $11,000 per student, we are at $2.5 million in lost revenue…[Enrollment] is how we bring revenue in.  This loss of students is not acceptable.”   

Member Harala acknowledged the loss and explained: “we need to invest more in better communication…we have to be telling our story more effectively…we have to tell our story proudly… we need to do something and get the communications out there and build relationship with our community.”  Her insinuation is that this is just a PR issue.

Member Meirnicki acknowledged the loss but attributed to it to a declining Duluth city population, but downplayed the significance:   “Student opportunities have increased, it is not a bad thing.  I’m concerned, certainly, but we have to look at this in a positive manner.”  He didn’t state what those positive things might be.

CFO Bill Hanson stated that declining enrollments are a concern and causes “…less revenue from one year to the next and makes it difficult to add programs.”

Member Welty stated that the board should delve into this more and give more attention to this matter by having a Special Meeting or Committee of the Whole meeting and that we should be conducting exit surveys for students leaving the District.  Of course only the Superintendent and Chair get to add such agenda items, and it hasn’t happened yet.

Gronseth acknowledged the enrollment problem and stated:  “the best retention tool we have is to have the very best programs…. When we have a decrease in students, there is also a decrease in expenses, like less teachers.”  But he than contradicted himself:  “But that does create another issue, that is creating a program issue in that we aren’t able to offer as much programming with fewer students.”   Parents in west Duluth would certainly agree with him on his latter point. 

Member Loeffler-Kemp stated her concerns about all school board members having accurate information.  She mentioned “accurate information” four times, but it wasn’t clear whether she was worried about the decrease in enrollment or whether she was scolding Johnston and the District’s numbers.

The 35-minute discussion about declining enrollment is a good sign that the Board may be acknowledging reality.  But how many times has there been this discussion?  What has been the result of those discussions, other than disdain to members bring up the topic and more enrollment declines?

The discussions have been going on a long time.  In a Duluth News Tribune article in August of 2010, former Superintendent Dixon was quoted: “ ‘One of the major reasons people were leaving was instability in the school district,’ he said. ‘We're still going through that period of instability to get to that stability.’  Dixon expects the enrollment drop to stop in the next few years and to reverse.”     Well, that was over five years ago and the buildings are done, but students are still leaving the school.

The Duluth News Tribune and two TV stations were at this latest school board meeting, but the next day, there was not a peep about the 35-minute discussion about the decrease in student enrollment and its financial impact. 

The lack of reporting on the decreasing enrollment was surprising, because last year in early October, the Duluth News Tribune had a lead article about how the Duluth Public Schools had an increase of “ten” students.  But a decrease of 228 students and $2.5 million in lost revenue apparently isn’t worth mentioning in a timely manner.

If you talk to parents that have pulled their children out of the Duluth Public schools, you will hear a much different approach than what the Board members and the Superintendent talked about.  You will hear about large class sizes, parents that want smaller schools, seven period days, better curriculum, and better graduation rates and test scores.   You will also hear about the lack of leadership on the school board and the Administration.  This is not a PR issue.  When these problems are fixed, parents will know, and then their children may come back to our schools.


Duluth Enrollment at a Glance:


·        Duluth Public Schools lost 228 students last year.  Nearly all other area schools have had enrollment increases.  (See accompanying chart).  If you add the increase in areas schools, nearly all of the Duluth school losses in enrollment can be matched with increases in all the other schools.

·        For the last ten years, there has been a loss of over 2,000 students in Duluth Public Schools.

·        Duluth gets about $11,000 per student in State aid, so this loss is equivalent to an annual revenue decrease of $22 million

·        Over the last twenty years, Duluth Public School enrollment has decreased by 39%.  This is much more than any neighboring district (see accompanying chart).  Proctor has had a decrease, but the Proctor Journal reported last week: “Enrollment Hits 12-Year High”.  All other area schools have had enrollment increases.

·        The Duluth Public School enrollment decrease in the last twenty years (and last ten years) is the largest decrease for any medium to large sized schools in Minnesota (except for the very small schools).

·        In twenty years, the Duluth Public School have went from the 9th largest in the State to 22nd.





10-Year Enrollment Change in Duluth Public Schools




K-12 Enrollment

Change from previous year




































2014   K-12 Enrollment

2015    K-12 Enrollment

Change in one year

Duluth Public Schools
















Edison Charter Schools (K-8)








Marshall (4-12)








North Shore Community School (K-6)




Lakeview Christian Academy




Harbor City International




St. James Catholic School (K-8)





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