The Duluth School District is facing several opportunities, and challenges, which are coming to the forefront this November.
For months now, candidates for ISD 709’s School Board have been tackling those issues out on the campaign trail.
There are several seats up for grabs in November’s general election, including the Dist. 1 Seat, Dist. 4 Seat, and two At-Large Seats.
Topics dominating the campaign trail include finding solutions to chronic absenteeism, and promoting equal opportunities between East Duluth and West Duluth schools.
In this week’s Beyond the Headlines, Dan Wolfe sits down with the candidates to learn more about who they are outside of the race, and where they stand on the issues.
DISTRICT 1 RACE
District 1 incumbent Rosie Loeffler-Kemp is facing off against Dist. 1 candidate Kurt Kuehn.
Loeffler-Kemp says, outside of the race, she is a mom of four children, a partner to her husband of 32 years, and a social worker that works with fostered teens, among other things.
Kuehn is a father of four daughters, with 18 grandchildren, and served in the Air Guard.
When it comes to the issue of chronic absenteeism throughout the school district—affecting, in particular, students of color, and those utilizing the free and reduced lunch program—Loeffler-Kemp says the three issues that most impact absenteeism in ISD 709 are poverty, mental illness, and family issues.
“So, working with our community partners to address those, as well as to address to address transportation issues,” says Loeffler-Kemp, “because that’s another big one that ties into chronic absenteeism.”
According to Kuehn, very recently the district has begun addressing it with new software that helps us track when and where most of the absenteeism is happening.
“I think we’re finally getting around to doing.. the things we need to be doing—meeting with the parents, meeting in the home,” says Kuehn, “I think getting the parents involved is a big part of lowering the [absenteeism] rates.”
On the issue of promoting equity between East and West schools, Kuehn says the district needs to address a lot of the systematic inequities that are present.
“For instance, the compensation money we get from the state needs to stay in the schools where it was generated,” says Kuehn, “and doing that will help us to equalize course offerings, and address class sizes.”
According to Loeffler-Kemp, one of the issues that needs to be addressed is our enrollment numbers, because that impacts class sizes.
“With that, we need to be addressing boundary changes,” says Loeffler-Kemp, “particularly with our high schools and our middle schools. When we do boundary changes it impacts all grade levels.”
DISTRICT 4 RACE
District 4 incumbent Art Johnston is facing off against Dist. 4 candidate Jill Lofald.
Outside of the race, Johnston says he’s a father and stepfather with his partner, Jane. He’s also a foster father, and professional engineer.
Lofald says she’s a mother and wife of 41 years, and a retired Denfeld English teacher who still coaches speech and debate.
On the issue of finding solutions to chronic absenteeism in the school district, Johnston says one of the biggest things we can do is change our transportation policy.
“Right now, if you live more than two miles away from the school, you’re in charge of your own transportation,” says Johnston, “that is a hardship for people who don’t have good a transportation system, or not as good a relationship with the DTA as we should.”
Lofald says the district has started a new focus called “attendance first,” which is a nationwide program focused on teaching families, students, and the community about the importance of attendance.
“We have TAP,” says Lofald, “it’s Truancy Advocate Programs in our building [at Denfeld] currently, that work with families, and students, and teachers to make sure that we are making some connections, and finding out what’s the reason for the absences.”
Both Johnston and Lofald agree that promoting equity between East Duluth and West Duluth schools is a big issue for their district, in particular.
“We also have to bring back 7-period days,” says Johnston, “right now, we only have 6-period days. What that does, particularly in Denfeld… [is] makes it harder for our Denfeld kids to be able to schedule classes, because you don’t have as many kids to take classes.”
According to Lofald, bringing back 7-period days is part of the solution, but there are other ways to manage students’ days, whether that’s block scheduling, or something else that will be able to give students the opportunities to take classes in a wider range of hours.
“We really do have to look at course offerings,” adds Lofald, “our course books are the same, but our sections don’t always [stay] equal across the board.”
The At-Large races for Duluth School Board have four candidates vying for two seats: At-Large incumbent Harry Welty, and candidates Sally Trnka, Bogdana “Dana” Krivogorsky, and Josh Gorham.
Outside of the race, Welty says he’s a guy that likes to make snow sculptures, comes from a family of teachers, and loves history.
Trnka says she’s the parent of an 8-year-old, the executive director of a not for profit that works with federally qualified health centers, and an avid runner.
Krivogorsky says she’s a mother, a scientist that does research for a living, and a good friend and wife.
On the issue of chronic absenteeism, Welty says the district doesn't bus students to school from as far away as it used to, and it’s tough for kids without the right resources to make up for lost days.
“Our school district has a number of different programs that have been attempting to address that,” says Welty, “probably the most interesting is the one that brings the teachers to the families, and tries to make the families a part of the community, rather than have the school district be something that is foreign, and threatening to them.”
According to Trnka, the district needs to do a root-cause analysis, and find out what it is exactly that causes chronic absenteeism.
“I think we need to create really welcoming schools,” says Trnka, “I think there are times where students don’t feel safe going to school, they don’t feel supported. And so, what can we do within our schools to make sure it’s a place students want to go every day?”
Krivogorsky says the district really needs to connect with the community, and parents again.
“The research shows over and over again, if the parents are involved, children are not absent as often, and they perform better in school,” says Krivogorsky, “as a member of the school board, I think I would need to reestablish this trust, and this connection with the community, and with the parents.”
On the issue of creating equity between East Duluth and West Duluth Schools, Welty says the district hasn't done nearly enough, and the most glaring example is within compensatory education—money set aside to help children using programs, like free and reduced lunch.
“That money, in the spirit of the law, would follow those children, and the schools that they’re from,” says Welty. “Right now, maybe three quarters of a million dollars is being spent in schools that don’t have those high poverty situations. That’s grossly unfair.”
According to Trnka, we need to have some hard, honest conversations about what the needs are on the East side of town and the West side of town.
“How do we begin do develop community coalitions to work with families, parents, community members,” says Trnka, “to identify and address exactly what it is that those students need, that those families need? And then, really what we need is a strong strategic plan that we can communicate to voters that has clear metrics that school board members and the administration will be held accountable to.”
On the subject of equity, Krivogorsky says, first and foremost, dealing with compensatory education is the main reason she got into the race.
“I found it quite unfair that money generated by the free and reduced price lunches get pumped into the schools which are a little bit better to do.. so to speak,” says Krivogorsky, “in order to equalize the playing field, you need to put the money where the support is more needed.”
At-Large candidate Josh Gorham was not able to make this episode of Beyond the Headlines, due to an out-of-state hunting trip he had planned with his family long before we extended the invitation to join.
He did, however, respond via e-mail to the same questions we posed the other seven candidates. His responses are below:
Who are you outside of this race for Duluth School Board?
“Family is very important to me. My wife, Anne, and I have three kids. We all enjoy the outdoors, sports, and the many fun adventures available to us in and around Duluth. Personally, I enjoy mountain biking, photography, and being with my kids doing simple, everyday activities like making waffles or playing ‘Transformers.’ Professionally, I am a program coordinator with the St. Louis County Public Health Division. I also am board chair of the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative.”
Chronic absenteeism is an issue throughout the city’s schools—from elementary to high school—particularly impacting students of color, and those struggling with poverty. Where do we begin addressing that issue?
“I would start with changing the dynamic of the relationship between schools and families. The community schools model, already established at Myers Wilkins and now growing at Lincoln Park Middle School and Denfeld High School is a model that has shown success at the national level. As family engagement improves, factors like attendance will improve. The community school model is based on family and community involvement, and therefore is a better fit for the community. People support what they help create. I hope to see the district grow the model and continue to implement it more broadly.”
What are the biggest challenges facing the district when it comes to promoting equity between East Duluth schools and West Duluth schools?
“There are three areas to consider:
First is the issue of Disparities in enrollment: There is a geographic student density divide between our eastern and western schools. There are now nearly twice as many students attending East compared to Denfeld. This issue can be most immediately addressed by having school boundaries redrawn by an independent party to equalize student enrollment amongst schools.
Second is Funding: Funding is received via multiple streams. Each funding stream has different strings attached. Some of those funds come from the general fund, where 50% of funds can be spread across the district as needed. At present, the district prioritizes the use of general funds to keep class sizes small at the primary level (K-2) all across the district. Use of the other 50% of general funds is limited to the schools where they are generated, where the funds can be used in multiple ways. A recent resolution passed by the board will require that more of the general education funds be kept in schools where they are generated. The ripple effect may be that some schools have larger classroom sizes, while other schools have more money and program offerings. What I ultimately support is a budget committee that includes robust community engagement to strategically lay out a spending plan that is equitable.
Third is the disparity in course offerings primarily between East and Denfeld High School. The challenge is tied to the difference in number of students between East and Denfeld. It is difficult to offer two sections of an advanced class with half as many students attending Denfeld High School. This, of course, means, that there are fewer options for students at Denfeld. Solutions include looking at bringing back a seven period day and redrawing the boundaries to equalize student populations. Tele-classrooms are another option.”