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Guest column: It’s time to fix our homegrown school budget problems

There have been way too many instances of financial problems at the Duluth Public Schools.  We need to acknowledge why we have these issues, and we must have the political will to fix it.  We can work together as a board, citizens, teachers, and parents to solve this problem.

So what gives?  Why are we facing these problems when other neighboring schools, the charter schools, and private schools aren’t? How can we start to solve these financial problems?

The symptoms are many:  We can’t afford to have seven period days; we have no money to stop the growing disparity between Denfeld  and East. We can’t hire teachers to lower class sizes; we’ve got a record low enrollment; we have low graduation rates; the achievement gap is among the worst in the nation. All of these are symptomatic of a general distrust toward our schools that are exasperated by budget deficits.  

We can’t even afford small, basic maintenance items like replacing playground mulch; and we have to take out loans to afford basic issues like remodeling of the Rockridge School.

Why do we have these endless issues?  Didn’t we just recently finish investing in some of the best school buildings to a tune of $315 million that was supposed to have been the solution to all problems? 

It would be easy, but wrong, to blame all these issues on the usual suspects, like too small a State formula, a Superintendent always applying for jobs in other schools, and past inept schools boards that ignored education issues to concentrate on fancy buildings. Unfortunately, those are issues that do impact many schools, including Duluth’s. But they certainly aren’t the main reason for the budget issues plaguing the Duluth Public Schools.

There is one unique fact about Duluth schools’ budget that can be addressed and fixed locally.

In a state like Minnesota, most of the funding for actual education (the classrooms/the General Fund) comes from the State.  But buildings are supposed to be paid for by local property taxes—except in Duluth.  In Duluth, we are paying for a significant amount of our building debts out of the General Fund, and making that even worse, we did a peculiar, expensive way of setting up the debts which contributed to our interest rates and payments being way, way too high.

Since 2010 in Duluth, $37 million of debt payments have been pulled from the General Fund. No other school in the State does anything comparable—for obvious reasons. This unacceptable drain will continue for 16 more years when $80 million will have been wrongly, I think, taken from the classrooms.  It is no wonder why literally everything is a budget crisis.

How did we ever get into such a horrible debt condition?  The past school boards and Administration have been repeatedly given poor financial and poor legal advice.

We need to first acknowledge the mess we are in.  Then, with credible, competent legal and financial advice, we can finally get out of the financial black hole we are in by improving our bond rating and taking advantage of the low interest rates by refunding (refinancing) or debts. This will lower debt payments so money will not be pulled out of the classrooms, and local taxes could even be lowered, if we act soon.

All this takes is an insistence by the Board, and public, that this happens.  Our schools’ education can’t afford to wait any longer to bring money back to the classrooms and bring back our excellent Duluth schools.  Now is the time to act—our schools can’t afford to wait.

Art Johnston

4th District School Board Representative

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