07-28-2003 - Almanza proposes closing two high schools: Denfeld and East
Last Updated: Friday, July 25th, 2003 12:40:41 PM
Duluth Superintendent of Schools Julio Almanza proposed Tuesday closing two of the city's three high schools. However, except for one incumbent, there doesn't seem to be much support for the proposal among the candidates running for school board.
Most of the candidates said they would like to see two high schools maintained and one closed.
Almanza proposed after months of study and input that Denfeld High School and Grant and Chester Park elementary schools be closed next summer, and that East High School be closed no later than 2009-10.
The closings have been necessitated by declining enrollment. Almanza proposed the high school closings in order to keep more elementary schools open and to maintain the 6-8 middle school grade configuration.
Student enrollment for 2003-04 is projected at 10,779, but that number is expected to fall steadily to 8,749 in 2012-13. The capacity of the district’s buildings as they are used now is 12,288 students.
At the high school level, during the coming school year capacity is expected to exceed enrollment by 1,146 students at the district’s three buildings if ninth graders are included. If only grades 10-12 are in the three high schools, capacity exceeds enrollment by 2,191 students.
District projections show that if a 10-12 grade configuration is used, the students fill fit into two of the existing buildings beginning this year. Under a 9-12 grade configuration, the enrollment will be above capacity for a two high school set-up until 2007-08.
The school district recently cut 72 teachers to cover a $5 million shortfall this year but is facing a shortfall of at least that size next year. The move to close buildings is designed to cut the cost of maintenance and upkeep and use the savings to preserve educational programming. Almanza said that the savings on the closing of one high school would be approximately $1 million annually.
Almanza said that the reason for closing only one 9-12 high school first is because a building referendum will have to be approved by voters to expand Central.
He said he proposed closing Denfeld first because the geographic center of the student population is now near 21st Avenue East, between Central and East.
Almanza cautioned that nothing has been decided yet, and he has made the proposals to keep the discussion moving.
However, among the nine school board candidates running in this fall’s elections, only incumbent Robert Mars, Jr. has endorsed the one high school plan. “Duluth would gain in some kind of togetherness if there were one high school,” Mars said. “A two high school plan is divisive for Duluth.”
Incumbent Bob Nygaard said that he would be willing to put the one high school plan to a referendum, but that he personally favored maintaining two high schools, East and Denfeld. He thinks that two high schools will offer better co-curricular activities for students.
Ann Wasson, who is challenging Nygaard in the 1st District, served on the Vision 2007 steering committee. She thinks more discussion is needed about children falling through the cracks or leaving the district under a one high school plan.
She would prefer maintaining three high schools but could support a two high school plan if further analysis of the district’s financial and enrollment numbers warrant it.
Judy Seliga-Punyko, who is running against Mars and Mike Akervik for the at-large seat, has been the PTSA Council president for the last two years and also served on the Vision 2007 steering committee. She said she thinks a one high school plan would discourage parent involvement. “I am not in favor of going to one high school,” she said. “(I) absolutely (support) two high schools. That seems to be the most practical.”
More specifically, Seliga-Punyko said that she thinks the grade configuration should be changed to 10-12 for the high schools, with 7-9 junior highs that bring back some of the after-school activities that have been dropped in the middle schools.
Akervik was unavailable for comment.
Tim Grover, who is running unopposed in the 3rd District, said, “I absolutely do not support closing Denfeld.”
The one high school plan, “is ill-conceived, ill-presented and very poorly thought out,” he said. “It’s cruel to Denfeld.”
He said he would only support a two high school configuration if it included Denfeld and Central.
Second District incumbent Harry Welty said that Almanza did what the school board wanted him to do but that he doesn’t support the proposal. He called it “damn near delusional” to think that a $40 million bond referendum could be passed to expand Central under the one high school plan.
“The simple thing we can do is turn Central into a junior high school,” he said. “Politically, talking about closing Denfeld is doomed to failure.”
Welty said he would close Woodland Middle School instead, and maintain Ordean and Morgan Park middle schools. He has not yet decided whether, under his plan, Lincoln Park would continue to serve grades 6-8.
Tom Hustad, who is challenging Welty, said, “I’m not sure Duluth is ready for a one high school concept. I think most people would feel more comfortable with a two high school system.”
Hustad said that if previous controversies over the freeway routing, the Lakewalk and the Bayfront are any indication, it will take a long time to change the community’s attitudes toward a one high school plan. “I’m not sure it’s the purpose of the school district to unify the city,” he said.
Jim Payne, who is also running in the 2nd District, said that he would close Central and sell off some of the school district’s prime real estate, including the Central Administration Building. “As a taxpayer, I would not give them another nickel.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Almanza presented a time line to the school board that recommends that it adopt a long-range plan that includes one high school at its Aug. 19 meeting.
The time line also proposes that a special operating levy referendum be held this November. That vote would be unrelated to the closing of any buildings but would increase property taxes in order to preserve school programming.