Where’d those kids go?

Loren Martell

Everyone is aware of the decimation of print media. The durable Reader is one of the few survivors in the alternative media racks around town. One newspaper I really miss is the Zenith News. I had a great deal of respect for the journalism chops of the paper’s owner and principle reporter, Jennifer Martin-Romme.

When the controlling majority of ISD 709’s school board rubberstamped a new draconian data request policy a few years back, Martin-Romme described it as “so bad, a strict reading of it would make no information available to the public at all.”  

On 9/2/17, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an article titled, “Public Records Attorney Says Districts Need to Improve Their Response to Minnesota Law,” which underscored the entrenched problem of information-access I’ve encountered over the years with Duluth school district 709.

The newspaper quoted concerns from an attorney who specializes in data requests: “Monday’s forum drew about 40 people from seven school districts to hear Don Gemberling explain the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, a law enacted in the 1970s to open up government records. ‘Too many people just don’t know what their rights are,’ said Gemberling, a retired attorney.”

Before his retirement, according to the Star Tribune, this able attorney spent “more than 30 years at the Minnesota Department of Administration, (working) with government agencies to comply with the law and helping citizens understand their rights. Too many agencies,” the paper reported, paraphrasing Gemberling, “unreasonably delay information requests, attempt to overcharge for copies of documents to raise revenue and sometimes even fail to respond to requests – all of which are illegal. School districts are often the worst offenders…and that view is shared by many people. ‘They’re supposed to maintain that data in such a fashion that it’s easily accessible to the public,’ Gemberling said.”

Our school district has never been information-friendly, but back in the day I could knock on the office door of CFO Bill Hanson and ask him for a brief clarification. The same was true of the finance manager and the human resources manager.

Periodically, I would hand HR Manager Tim Sworsky a request to update the Licensed District Summary Report, which includes the number of teachers in a fiscal year, as well as the official enrollment number and the teacher/student ratio. Mr. Sworsky would say, “OK,” and I would have the updated report in a week or two.

I have that report going back to 2004, so this has been going on for a while. Recently I sent the district a copy of the report and asked it to be updated for fiscal years ‘18, ‘19, ‘20 and ‘21. The school district responded: “This request is not subject to the provisions of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The district is not required to create data that doesn’t already exist.”  

I replied: “For years Tim Sworsky (now retired) periodically updated the Licensed District Summary Report for me without voicing any complaint that I was asking him to create data that doesn’t already exist. Surely I can at least get the official October 1st enrollment numbers for fiscal years 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21.”  

The response I received: “Unfortunately (the district) is not able to provide the data requested, for the reason stated.”

Again, the reason stated was: “The district is not required to create data that doesn’t already exist.” ISD 709 was trying to argue that the enrollment numbers for these four years do not exist?

Unfortunately our school district was not willing to provide the data requested for a reason not stated. Government bodies, especially school districts, make information hard to get, and the reason they do this is obvious: They want to control the message.

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed,” George Orwell once said. “Everything else is public relations.”  

P.R. v. reality

Despite heavy media coverage of parents clamoring to get their children back in the classroom for in-person learning, provider applications to the Minnesota Dept. of Education for virtual learning doubled during the pandemic. This not only means more private competitors, but open enrollment options are expanding.

Home schooling took off, as well. The educational marketplace is tougher than it once was, and getting tougher. Educational venues have to be lean and well-run to compete.  

An antonym of lean is “Epicurean,” a word which evokes an image of soft, flabby self-indulgence, someone who enjoys luxury surroundings. I use it in my memoir of the Red Plan: “Just one 600-student high school Edison Charter has talked about erecting in Duluth would be like six hundred death arrows launched at ISD 709 – because, unlike Achilles, the giant doesn’t just have a vulnerable heel. Despite living large in expensive dwellings, the ISD 709 giant is pregnable from head to heel. The profligate and corpulent Epicurean is wearing no protective armor at all and very few clothes. If Edison Charter had the financial means to erect several of its sensible, Plain Jane buildings across the city, ISD 709’s huge garish palaces would soon stand virtually empty, like discarded temples of a collapsed civilization.”

During my decade-and-a-half-long observation of our public school district, some kind of drama has been ongoing. One crisis barely gets battened down, before another flares up.

I wonder sometimes how well our new Superintendent, John Magas, has been sleeping. I presume he started tossing and turning in his bed when the first tremors of a Minnesota teacher quake hit the Twin Cities metro area.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the St. Paul Federation of Educators unions filed an intent to strike notice with the State on 2/23/22. St. Paul managed to avert a strike, but the Minneapolis union started walking the picket lines on 3/3/22. It’s the first strike in Minneapolis since the 1970s.

Labor is getting feisty as of late. 300 members of AFSCME local 66 rallied on the steps of Duluth City Hall on 2/26/22, demanding fairer treatment from City Administration in their ongoing contract talks, and school district negotiations have been dragging on for several months. ISD 709 – the Epicurean that ran up a lavish bill of half a billion on buildings – will be shivering naked in the lake wind, if a labor agreement isn’t reached and a strike hits our town.  

Negotiations appear stuck on teacher pay and prep time. Runaway expenses like employee benefits don’t even seem to be on the table. It appears unlikely, whatever the outcome, the district will be able to funnel enough money into hiring new teachers, so it can significantly reduce class size. Class size is the greatest impediment to district 709 gaining more traction in the educational marketplace, and the district can’t fix its money problem without turning around its enrollment problem.

I requested accurate enrollment numbers from the district so I could take a close look at this underlying issue plaguing ISD 709. The October student count is used for the annual enrollment number, because late fall tends to be the most stable time period of the year.

To attain the official annual number, a citizen would seemingly just have to go back and check the October meeting for each year, but enrollment numbers are a sticky wicket.

Just try finding them without getting stuck

The cleverest way to feign openness is to dump a bunch of confusing numbers out into the public realm and say: “There it all is! Still can’t figure it out?  Too bad!”

As the data request expert, Mr. Gemberling, said: School districts are “supposed to maintain data in such a fashion that it’s easily accessible to the public.”

I won’t go into detail about how enrollment is tied to state aid, and what percentage of aid is held back every year, etc, etc.  I’ll just say the enrollment number for any given year is washed and tumbled in a tub of bureaucracy for several months before it is finally declared clean, official and final.    

Here’s the problem with just looking back at the October meetings: You can find the PROJECTED number and the BUDGETED number, but you can‘t be certain you‘re looking at the FINAL, final number.

If you examine the reports closely, you’ll find discrepancies. During the Oct. 19, 2021, Finance Committee meeting, for example, the final number for fiscal year 2020 is given as 8371.01. During the Oct. 13, 2020, meeting, after the number had been tumbled in bureaucracy for another year, it was given as 8369.11.  

These numbers are variable and nowhere near as “easily accessible” as they appear on the surface.    
One number in particular jumped out at me. The “preliminary” final enrollment number for fiscal year ‘18 was given to the board as: 8927.47. A year later, the final number for ‘18 was revealed as: 8215.37. This kind of discrepancy is the reason I wanted to verify all the numbers. I intend to resubmit my request, but for now I’ll work with what I have.

The demographics hubbub

During the last election, the Duluth News Tribune asked school board candidates: “The Minnesota Department of Education is predicting Duluth Public Schools’ enrollment to continue to decline over the next decade and even suggested moving to one high school. How should the district address declining enrollment?”

The vice-chair of the school board, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, responded this way: “Declining enrollment has many causes, some a school board can address, others (like changing birthrates) we cannot.” The parentheses around “like changing birthrates” were included by L-K.  

A former dominant figure on the school board, Judy Seliga-Punyko, once declared in the boardroom that ISD 709’s primary issue with enrollment was due to: “More people having less kids!”

In this paper, I observed that anyone who believed Judy’s statement was probably also a strong adherent to her “full theory of General Improbability: The falling enrollment in our public school system is due to more Duluth citizens having less kids, and this drop in the city’s reproduction rate has been traced to the factual discovery that citizens have become so gratified from watching school board meetings, they’ve stopped having sex.”  

According to U.S. Census figures, the 5-17 school age population in Duluth was 11,159 in 2010. In 2020, the number dropped to 10,837. The town lost 322 student-aged children over the decade.

According to the numbers I’ve been able to piece together from our reticent school district, the official enrollment number from fiscal year 2010 was 9,293. The final 2020 number given to the board was 8,369: a loss of 924 students from our public schools during the same decade.  

It is important to note that not all of the lost child-count from our town during the decade would have attended ISD 709. A fair number of the 322 would have gone to competitive venues.

Despite the claim incessantly repeated by the group that has dominated the boardroom for too many years, a change in the demographic makeup of Duluth is not the primary driver of enrollment loss from our public schools.

Almost from the moment Keith Dixon came to town, I predicted ISD 709’s enrollment would crash all the way down into the 7000s. The final number I found for fiscal year ‘21: 7862.

Enrollment was 10,772 when the cotton-topped hustler stormed in and started blowing our money like there was no tomorrow. Almost 3,000 students have been lost in a decade and a half, 1800 of them during the Master of Disaster’s six-year tenure.

In 2018, the district’s CFO informed the school board that Duluth (the fourth largest city in Minnesota) has a public school district that had fallen to 26th in size. The current chair, newly elected, asked incredulously: “What rank are we as a district? You said 26th, but we’re higher up in a city (referring to Duluth’s population.) So, where are we? Are we the 6th highest school district in the State? 10th? Are we 26th?”

The CFO responded: “26th.” “That’s our pupil count?” “Yes,” the CFO again confirmed.

Dixon’s most ardent disciple, former Superintendent Bill Gronseth, refused to connect all the cause-and-effect dots to the end. Completely unaware of the full meaning of his own words, Super Bill treated us to an extended parable about the educational marketplace during the April 2016 school board meeting: “You know – in 1925, the television was invented. And sometimes there was programming on and people would come to one house in a neighborhood to watch this little, tiny screen, to see the magic of television. And then, when I was a kid, I remember there was ABC, CBS and NBC and PBS. And we got up and we walked across the room, turned the channel, and, you know, it was black-and-white. And then I remember getting a color television. And as I became a teenager, then MTV started and cable channels, and there were much more options. And I didn’t watch ABC and CBS and NBC anymore; I watched MTV, because that was really cool! And, now, my kids, when they were young, we had – I don’t know – there was like 200 different channels. So ABC and NBC and CBS were three of hundreds of channels. And now – my kids go and have on-demand Netflix, and you have the internet and you have YouTube, and they’ve gone beyond watching television, to creating programming that they upload for other people to watch.”

Bill looked out at the audience: “Now, you might be saying, ‘Where’re you going with this?’ You know – in the beginning – there was public school. Communities got together and said, ‘We have to educate our kids, so let’s start a school.’ And then private schools came, and the parochial schools came, and then the charter schools came, and online schools came. And so, as there gets to be more and more choices in the market, we’re going to have – I’m not saying I want a lower number of students – but as more competition enters into the market, we’re going to have a less percentage of that market.”  

People often asked where Bill was going, but where was he going with this? He was predicting educational competitors would cause a steady erosion of attendance from our public schools, and the truth of that prediction is evident from the numbers.

Dixon’s brainchild was supposed to make our public school system a hot enrollment magnet, but after blowing a big wad of money on pricey buildings, our self-indulgent Epicurean is having trouble keeping customers and attracting new ones.

Despite spending so much money, and spiking its tax levy by 361%, our public school district has been losing its once near-monopoly grip on the marketplace.