DULUTH — The money that flowed to Duluth schools during the pandemic paid for counselors, technology and innovative programs to boost learning.

But that money runs out next year, and schools face cuts to much of what was added.

That's the impetus, school officials say, behind two levy questions to be posed to voters Nov. 7: one about refinancing existing debt and one that asks them to fund a technology program. Together, they would offer an annual increase of $7.9 million for Duluth Public Schools for the next decade, totaling nearly $80 million.

"We've had a [major] infusion of money over the past few years," much of which had a "huge impact" on students, Superintendent John Magas said at a recent news conference. "That funding ends on June 30."

More than 20 jobs would be eliminated for the following school year as part of about $5 million in reductions, a trend that would likely continue for 5 years, Magas said.

Like all public districts, Duluth reaped the benefits of more state funding this year, but it doesn't cover all school needs, he said.

Owning a median-priced home in Duluth — at $289,000 — would mean paying an additional $142.20 in property taxes in 2024 if both questions are approved.

What additional money would pay for:

  • New technology staff and training for educators on how to use tech, Chromebooks for students with money to replace them as they age out, cybersecurity, up-to-date technology in classrooms and digital curriculum.
  • Counselors, academic interventionists and programs that help improve attendance, behavior and graduation rates.
  • More class choice in high schools, which could include reinstating the 7th period and new elective classes.

Voters rejected a technology levy in 2018 but did approve more money for teachers.

Because of that rejection, the district didn't have Chromebooks for every student at the start of the pandemic, which meant delivering schoolwork in paper form by bus as kids learned from home, Magas said.

"It was a Herculean effort by our staff," he said.

The Duluth teachers union hopes new money would help reduce high class sizes — some with 40 students in upper grades — a problem the district has struggled with for years. And changing the high school schedule is a priority, whether its reinstating a period or a different configuration of the school day, Duluth Federation of Teachers President Ethan Fisher said.

"What we currently are doing is the cheapest model that you can do for education, which I am going to just say is probably the worst model," he said of the high school's six-period day with a before-school "zero hour" that requires kids to find their own transportation to school for such classes.

The state doesn't reimburse the district for these because they are scheduled outside the school day.

It's inequitable for students without transportation, Fisher said, and money is "just going out the door" while students are offered less choice.

The seventh period in high schools was dropped in 2004 and in middle schools in 2012 to save money.

Denfeld High School counselors laud a program for ninth and 10th graders that closely monitors their progress, attendance and mental health, catching kids before they fall behind in an effort to improve graduation rates. Sophomores were recently added to it thanks to pandemic money, and the loss of it would be "catastrophic," ninth-grade counselor Lauren Mattson said.

"They have one shot at graduation," she said, and what Denfeld is doing is "making a difference."

Duluth, with an enrollment of 8,600 this year, is among roughly 60 Minnesota school districts asking for money in the November election.