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 second-highest 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.
Art Johnston served on the Duluth School Board representing the Fourth District from 2010 to 2017.