The Wide Divide

by Loren Martell

Duluth was Mr. Dixon’s crowning achievement--or, more accurately, it was the cotton-topped hustler’s coup de grace. Nowhere is the divisive disaster created by the Red Plan more apparent than in the unfair divide the foolish scheme created between the East and West sides of the city. 
Every city is segregated by the means of its occupants. In Duluth that division is easy to see as any newcomer drives from East to West. The most cursory examination of the age, size and condition of the housing stock is proof enough that much of the city’s poor/working class resides in the West; the wealthy/professional class is congregated in the East. 

The Duluth News Tribune once described the divide as the “traditionally poorer, and more-diverse (western) end of town and the…eastern, traditionally more affluent and whiter side of the city.” Strife between the haves and have-nots of this east/west divide has plagued the city as long as anyone can remember and every competition carries extra implication. The same political candidate who triumphs in the West seldom curries favor in the East. Politically speaking, the best shot of winning as a rebel in the city’s Red Civil War was to stay West of the Johnston/Dixon line. The best chance of winning educationally was to stay East. 

Before he sold out his constituents and became Mr. D.’s right-hand man, former (so-called) third district representative Tim Grover infamously declared: “I believe Duluth’s geography virtually requires us to keep three high schools.” Running up a bill of half a billion dollars to eliminate all the schools in the center of a city thirty miles long was simply the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen any city leaders do, first hand. 

Duluth Central Hillside. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Duluth Central Hillside. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

The nonsense that led to this educational debacle was backed up full-throttle by our paper of record, The Duluth News Tribune, which touted that we were wisely building all the Red Plan’s multi-million dollar extravaganzas “smack dab in the middle of where most of the students live.” The $50 million dollar western middle school/palace the paper vigorously touted, and the editorial page editor happens to live a couple of blocks from, is now bordered to its west by a barren student desert. 

During the 5/8/17 Board Business Committee meeting, Superintendent Gronseth made a very trenchant remark in regard to Lincoln Park Middle School, which has an in-use capacity of 1089 students, but was looking at an actual enrollment of 668: “Lincoln Park, as you can see, has about 300 students less than Ordean East (Middle School) does, and at this rate, Congdon Elementary (with a capacity of 600, and an actual enrollment of 611,) could end up larger than Lincoln Park, if the pattern keeps going the way it is.”

An examination of the heat-density maps created by RSP, the firm that conducted a student population analysis for our school district last year, shows the highest concentration of students is immediately West of Mesaba Ave.; the second-highest concentration is immediately East. The school that is really “smack dab in the middle of where most students live” is Central High, sitting empty now for going on seven years. 

 
What might have been

In a 7/31/14 article, the Duluth News Tribune, which likes to condemn others who are audacious enough to suggest this town was misled, allowed itself to indulge in some fantasy. 
On its editorial page, the paper asked: “Should have an even tougher decision have been made? Should the Blue Plan have been adopted instead of the Red Plan? The Blue Plan called for renovating Central into one high school for the entire district…Would that have eliminated, or at least lessened, Duluth’s can’t-seem-to-shake-it east-west divide and its separation, whether real or perceived, of haves over here and have-nots over there?…” 

The paper further asked if putting up with the problems of one central school would have “been preferable to the realities that we’re dealing with now in Duluth, including that more than 57% of students at Denfeld High come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, while the percentage at East High is just 21.7%. Or that while only about 990 students attend Denfeld High, East High has about 1550, meaning, potentially, more classes and opportunities at East with funding based on a per-student basis…” 

Three and a half years have passed since the Trib took its fantasy trip, and the stark reality of what the Red Plan actually left us with remains unchanged, today. We were promised “educational equity” across the city. All the promoters repeated the phrase as they jammed the misguided adventure down our throats, but the actual wording in the plan’s Review & Comment document submitted to the State is perfect example of corporate charlatanry: “Sincere attempts will be made to balance other key concerns, such as equitable-sized enrollments to allow for equitable curriculum across the district.” 

Who buys sincerity from a corporation? The only thing corporations ever sincerely attempt to do is make as much profit as they possibly can. The citizens of this city were abysmally protected. How could our representatives let JCI and Keith Dixon get away with this kind of maudlin language while they were hustling this scam? 

The saddest part: I’m convinced the new school board about to take over in January would rubberstamp everything all over, exactly the same way, with the Superintendent again acting as sheep herder. 
 
Trying to salvage equal education

Before they leave their seats on the Board, after losing in the November election, Art Johnston and Harry Welty, with help from Alanna Oswald, called one last Special school board meeting on 11/28/17, in the hope of trying to alleviate some of the unjust mess the Red Plan created. They wanted to invite citizens who have been concerned about this issue, especially a group calling itself the Community-based School Equity Initiative, to come in and brainstorm with the Board. The primary focus of the discussion was intended to revolve around Compensatory Education Funding. 

Comp-ed, as educators refer to it, is a form of State funding based on how many children in a school receive free and reduced-priced lunches, in other words--this money is allotted to schools based on income. The western schools--having, on average, student bodies that come from poorer families than the eastern schools--are eligible for more of this type of State aid. About a year ago, through a series of events too lengthy to get into, district administration finally released the individual budgets for all the schools. Up to that point, even the Board did not have that information. 

The Community-based School Equity Initiative group started pouring over this information and discovered that not all the comp-ed funds being generated by lower income students was being directed to the schools with the need. District administration, when questioned about this discrepancy, argued that under State statute only 50% of funding had to go the school that actually generated the funding; the rest the district was free to direct towards any other need in any other part of the district. 

A lot of this funding, based on the needs of children in the western schools, was being funneled East, to help reduce class sizes. In effect, the district was engaging in a little wealth redistribution, redirecting money from the poor of town to the wealthy end. 
According to the numbers released at the time: in fiscal year 2017, East High, technically eligible for $136,555 of comp-ed funding, was allocated $518,212. Conversely, Denfeld High, eligible for $852,007, received $684,128. The western middle school, which generated nearly a million dollars ($973,192,) of aid based on student need, actually received $496,264, while the eastern school, eligible for $203,578, received about the same amount: $436,741. The same pattern held sway in the elementary schools: Congdon Elementary, for example, eligible for $95,567, received $400,548. 

Needless to say, in the wake of glaring inequities created between eastern and western schools by the Red Plan, western citizens were not thrilled to make this discovery. They immediately started lobbying to have all the money directed back to the schools with the greatest need. 
  Words tell the story

The division in the community was apparent in the boardroom. Before the public could speak, the Board debated at length about the parameters of the debate. Board member Welty pointed out to Chair Kirby and the rest of the majority that “for several months, a significant of us on this school board have been very interested in hearing the Equity group from the western schools come and talk to us, (but) have not managed to have a regular committee meeting where that was possible.” 

He suggested representatives of the group be allowed to sit at the table with a microphone in front of the Board, “where administration usually sits.” 
“Our policy, 8080, indicates that (speakers from the public) are not expected to enter into debate or actual deliberation with the school board.” Chair Kirby responded.
“If the policy says, ‘not expected to,’” Member Welty argued, “that is not a prohibition…”
“My interpretation,” the Chair countered, “is that they WILL NOT.”
The meeting went on for more than three hours and was intense. Of course, from the public podium, people from the West argued that the Board had to start redirecting all of the funding back to the western schools that had generated the funding, based on the needs of the schools. Citizens from the East argued that would unfairly hurt the kids in the eastern schools, who would see their class sizes go up. 

It was difficult to find a lot of empathy for the eastern position. The whole exercise was sort of like attending a banquet with a dividing line down the center of the room. On one side of the banquet hall, kids were sitting around linen-covered tables and servants were cutting them nice big slices of frosted cake; on the other side, kids were crammed around rickety card tables and were fighting over a few crumbs. The parents on the side with the lavishly-stocked tables were complaining: “If you jam more kids around these tables, just so those kids over there can have more cake, WE’RE going to get less! That’s not FAIR!”

One of the people from the well-stocked tables actually expressed some cake-eating guilt from the podium: “I’m a cake-eater who lives on the East side, part of the upper-middle class. We are louder; we are more powerful, more organized. But your jobs as elected officials is to do what is right, not just what the people who have more money try and convince you to do.” 

The situation in the West is quite serious, as a teacher from Denfeld expressed during his three minutes from the podium: “Why are we here (tonight)?” He asked. “Because we’re desperate. We need the city to come together on this, because it’s that much of a crisis right now.” 
In fairness, the problems in the East can not be completely minimized. The Red Plan, though unquestionably more devastating on the western end of town, was to some degree an equal-opportunity train wreck. 
District enrollment numbers are more than a thousand students below the numbers projected by the plan, and just look at how crowded Congdon Elementary is. The Board changed its transfer policy a few years ago, to try to stem the movement East, and the school is still busting at the seams. If the Red Plan’s demographic projections had held, Congdon Elementary would be encircled by mobile educational units by now. 

So many Duluth citizens running East hasn’t resulted in only a picnic for East High, either. Even with the school getting more comp-ed than it should be getting, some classes are jammed pack and overflowing. Two years ago, in December of 2015, teachers from Duluth East High sent a letter to the school board: 

“We ask for your support to funnel funding into the classroom. The following compilation provides a breakdown by class size over 30: class sizes 31-34: 143, class sizes 35-39: 121, class sizes over 40: 37. In other words, sections over 30: 307, sections 35 and over: 158, sections over 40: 37. Although there are large class sizes in a number of content areas, the following are areas with CONSISTENTLY LARGE (caps included) classes: math, science, physical ed.” 

During this meeting, Board member Oswald dealt with the comp-ed money issue straightforwardly: “To be one of those higher free-and-reduced-lunch schools, and know that our kids in that school generate this money, and then literally just have to watch it walk away: that’s the desperation many of our western schools experience…” 

Board member Loeffler-Kemp best illustrated the bureaucratic sludge the Board’s DFL-endorsed majority has buried the issue in, for more than three years--rambling on about all the city and county commissions “helping with/making sure as a community many pieces are happening; that we’re working as much as possible with other current processes that I know are happening with the city, as well as with the county, around equity.”

In the end, the Board failed to pass a resolution offered by member Johnston to begin moving the comp-ed money. The vote was a 3-3 tie (member Sandstad left early,) and a majority vote is required to approve an action. The three DFL-endorsed members, Kirby, Loeffler-Kemp and Harala voted against moving the comp-ed money; the three non-DFL-endorsed members, Welty, Johnston and Oswald, voted to make a Board commitment to redirect the money back to the western schools that need it. 

The view on the whole procedure from citizens on the western end of our divided community was best expressed by this letter sent to the Board, after the meeting:
“To school board members Annie Harala, David Kirby and Rosie Loeffleer-Kemp: again you expressed your preference to only supporting the needs of East High School students. Your vote does not surprise me, but you should be ashamed that you do not equally represent all of Duluth’s High School students…

The difference in attendance between the two high schools has been a major issue which you have not resolved…If you refuse to resolve, or are unable to resolve the attendance issue, please remove yourself from the position of a responsible school board member; we need members who want all students to have equal advantages and giving all schools equal footing can resolve most of our current issues and distrust… 

(It’s) time to open your eyes and see the city as a whole unit, not just who can be assisted the easiest. Denfeld is in crisis mode and you don’t seem to care…I see the scale of justice for all students very off-balance. To quote John Krumm (the East citizen who spoke on the issue)…the west side (is) ‘paying for part of our cake.’ I hope you do not believe you are pulling the wool over the eyes of the residents of Duluth, for you are not. But you should be ashamed for not stopping the injustice of it all. Our students deserve better representation than you give them.

To school board members Alanna Oswald, Art Johnson and Harry Welty: thank you for trying to address the injustice you see going on with our current school board. And for school board member Nora Sandstad, it was too bad you could not have stayed and showed us what side of justice you were on.”
All of this gives rise to two questions: (1) Why did any eligible voter from the western end of Duluth vote the DFL-endorsed ticket in this last election? (2) Why did so few of them show up at the polls to protect their own interest?