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The Unpolished Truth: If Bill Gronseth isn't responsible, then who is?


While I was a school board member, teachers and school administrators frequently contacted  me. The numerous problems with the  Duluth Schools were becoming common knowledge,  and a frequent refrain was: “We need a new Superintendent,  please!” 

Denfeld now graduates the lowest number of students  since it was built—in 1926. One reason is that  under Superintendent Bill Gronseth, the expected transfer  of Central students to Denfeld never happened. 

The academic achievement gap between the western  and eastern schools is almost unbelievable. The percent  of students proficient in math at Denfeld is literally half  that of East. Reading isn’t much better. And it’s a similar  story in the middle and elementary schools. 

The western schools had not been given their fair  share of state money, called Compensatory Education  funds, which are supposed to help students who are not  performing at expected levels. Instead, Gronseth, without  school board approval as required by Minn. Statue  126C.15, pulled most of that money out of the western  schools—where the greatest need is and where those  funds are generated—and put it in the eastern schools. 

The situation for students of color is even more dismal.  Minnesota has one of the lowest graduation rates  in the country for students of color, and Duluth is  among the worst in the state. At the District’s Education  Equity Advisory Committee, community leaders of  color in Duluth have repeatedly asked, “Who is responsible?”  always followed by a deafening silence. Under  Gronseth’s leadership those gaps have not gotten better. 

Let’s talk about student enrollment. Under Gronseth’s  leadership since 2011, the Duluth schools have  lost about 1,000 students (over 10 percent), predominantly  from the western schools. 

Every student brings in about $16,000 per year in  total money. So with that student loss came an annual  revenue drop of $16 million per year. Unsurprisingly, in  the seven years since Gronseth started, the district has  had a budget deficit. Gronseth drained the reserve fund,  so many short-term, costly bonds had to be used to balance  the budget and pay teachers. 

It was so bad in 2013 that we should have been in  Statutory Operating Debt. Gronseth avoided that by  doing a one-time paper transfer of insurance and severance  funds to cover it up. But things haven’t improved. 

Selling Central High School could have boosted the  reserve fund. All the excess property sales were supposed  to bring in $26 million, and the Central site is  among the most beautiful in the city. But these properties  haven’t sold. Central has been sitting empty for  seven years. A $14 million offer was turned down, and  Gronseth didn’t even share other offers with the board. 

Per Gronseth’s recommendation, we’ve been paying  off building debts by robbing the general fund, which  pays for classrooms and teachers, to the tune of $38  million with much more to come. Gonseth has admitted  to me in private that taking money from the general  fund to pay building debt is a bad idea, but he refuses to  talk about that in pubic, and whenever it comes up, he  puts on his notorious blank stare. 

Lately, he’s been dishing any questions on finances  to his new acolyte, Chief Financial Office and secondhighest  paid employee, Doug Hasler. I don’t know  which is worse—the blank stare from Gronseth or  Hasler’s condescending mumbo-jumbo. One has a hard  time not coming to the conclusion that neither of them  knows anything about the time value of money. 

The general fund is supposed to be used for educating  students, not building buildings. When the Minnesota  School Board Association was asked about this,  their first response was, “Aren’t your teachers up in  arms?” Why aren’t our teachers opposed to draining  money out of the general fund? That’s a good question,  and one I’ve posed many times to the union. What do I  get as a response? A blank stare. I guess they learned  well from the superintendent. 

All these financial problems, declining enrollment,  and constant budget deficits have taken their toll, and  competent financial institutions are taking notice. Our  Moody’s bond rating is likely the lowest of any district  in the state and puts us in the “junk bond” category.  Though interest rates are at historic lows, the Duluth  Public Schools are paying too much interest—which  adds to the deficit in a nasty downward spiral. 

In talking to school board members across the state,  I think it is fair to say that any one of the above issues  would have been cause for a Superintendent to resign  or for the school board to fire him. So why is Gronseth  is still here? It’s time to move forward and replace him. 


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