Superintendent recalls 24 years of challenges


In his 24 years as a school superintendent, Robert Duncan said he’s only experienced two years where a district he worked in wasn’t facing budget cuts.

Duncan, who will soon retire from his job as St. Anthony-New Brighton public schools superintendent, said he is increasingly concerned about future funding for Minnesota’s schools.

“The trend has been, in recent years, that local taxpayers pick up more and more of the cost of public education,” he said. “That’s fine for those who can afford it. But for districts that don’t have the same tax base, it’s harder for them to make it. That’s the reverse direction it should be going. A free public education is one of the things guaranteed in our Constitution.”

Duncan, 59, has worked in St. Anthony for five years. Prior to that, he was the school superintendent in Fergus Falls for six years and the Thief River Falls superintendent for six years. He was a superintendent on the Iron Range in the Mountain Iron School District. Before becoming a superintendent, he was a special education teacher.

In St. Anthony, he started work in the last year of Governor Jesse Ventura’s term and soon faced the school budget cuts under Governor Tim Pawlenty’s administration.

Changes in education
Cuts happen, he said, because of declining student enrollment and the ebb and flow of the state’s finances. “I grew up in a family of eight kids; it wasn’t uncommon, not that long ago, for people to have six or more children. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon, not that long ago, for people to have six or more children. A few years ago, it dropped to four, now it’s two.” He said he began teaching during a very low economic ebb. “I started working [as a teacher] in 1982, when interest rates were 18 percent. On the Iron Range [where he was], you couldn’t even give your house away.

“Other things have happened to public education, going back to Governor Rudy Perpich,” Duncan added. “He felt passionately that families should have choices about schools. Families today, particularly in the metro area, have so many options. If a family moves to St. Anthony, it doesn’t necessarily mean their children will attend school here. There are post-secondary options, charter schools, private schools, home schools.

“In St. Anthony, it’s a wonderful place to live and people don’t move. You end up with fewer households with children. The possibility for younger families to move in is not there, the housing stock is not there. That can work against you, also, as far as getting support, when fewer families have children in the schools. In this community, however, that hasn’t happened; we’ve had strong support from the residents and the parents.”

The challenges
Duncan said he has felt a lot of pressure, personally, “to have schools that people will support. They want high academic rigor; that’s been true of St. Anthony parents and also the parents [from other cities] whose students come here through open enrollment.

“My biggest challenge has been trying to work with limited financial resources and still provide quality education for kids,” Duncan said. “There are, admittedly, disadvantages to being small. We can’t be competitive with some of the other high schools. There are limits to what we can offer kids, as compared to Mounds View or Irondale.

“There are 70 [high school] students who live in our district who attend another school or a charter school. The schedules can get tricky, here, for them to get everything they want. Maybe they [think they need to] go somewhere else for technology education or languages.”

St. Anthony does not have an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, but it does have a strong advanced placement (AP) program, he said.

Three years ago, in order to save money, the schools went from seven periods a day to six. “That was traumatic,” Duncan said. “There is definitely an advantage to a seven-period day. What we’ve been able to do, because voters renewed our operating levy last fall and the state finally kicked some additional money into the schools, was put back the seven period day for six through ninth grades. We were able to bring world language back to the middle school, and hired a couple of Spanish teachers.”

Although the budget has been tight, he added, “When everything is said and done, we’ve got the same number of teachers today, in relation to the number of kids, as we did before the budget cuts. But we still don’t have that seven period day for 10th through 12th graders.”

Voters, by the way, have been good to St. Anthony schools. Four years ago—before they approved renewing the operating levy—St. Anthony voters approved a technology levy and a curriculum levy, each good for seven years. (Why seven years? At the time, seven years coincided with curriculum review, Duncan said; the state recently changed the review period to five years.) That has given the district additional money to spend on technology updates and curriculum materials such as textbooks. “That money, which has been so helpful to us, runs out in 2009,” Duncan said.

Open enrollment
About 45 percent of the student body comes to St. Anthony through open enrollment, which means they don’t live in the district. Open enrollment has helped St. Anthony keep its student numbers up. “For next year, we’re peaked out, we’re full.”

In the 1987-88 school year, the district had 970 students. Now, he added, there are close to 1,730. “We’ve gradually tried to manage open enrollment over time. We have between 100 and 200 on a waiting list. Our resident enrollment has actually declined over that period of time [1987-2006].”
Duncan said St. Anthony has been working with its three state representatives (Barbara Goodwin, Mindy Greiling, Char Samuelson) and two senators (John Marty, Satveer Chaudhary) to change the way open enrollment is funded. Currently, when St. Anthony voters approve a levy, the money applies only to students who live in St. Anthony and attend St. Anthony schools.

The referendum money, in other words, can’t be used for the 45 percent of the student body that does not live in St. Anthony. “I can understand where people would say, ‘For my money to leave the district where my property is, isn’t right,’ but the state has ways to fill that gap,” Duncan said. “We believe the money should follow the students.” (In Minnesota, schools are partly funded by property taxes.)

Long time St. Anthony school board member Dave Evans said that working with the legislators has been one of Duncan’s strengths. “He opened up a whole new avenue for us. We have never been very active with the legislature. He and Mike Volna [another school board member] led the effort to get adequate funding for open enrollment. We haven’t gotten it as yet, but we got our foot in the door.”

Duncan also worked hard to get community support for the levy referendums, Evans added. “He has been the best of our superintendents at forging community relationships. For the levy, he got support from the St. Anthony Chamber of Commerce, the St. Anthony City Council and the New Brighton City Council. He’s good at speaking before groups, and he’s involved in things.”

The superintendent’s job
When asked if a superintendent’s job has changed over the years, Duncan said he doesn’t think so. “What is more complicated here is that the central office is sparsely staffed. I’m the curriculum director, the staff development director, the federal programs director, the human resources director, the building and grounds director and the communications director. In a larger district, those jobs would all be handled by a different person.”

Duncan said they have some, but not many, problems with attendance and discipline in the schools. “We don’t have high mobility amongst our students. Our principals are seasoned. We have a nice balance of staff between young, mid-career and senior career teachers. That helps with discipline, plus the fact that we’re so small everybody knows everybody. It’s harder for kids to get away with things.”

When asked his opinion on using national search firms to find school superintendents, Duncan said he believes that the pool of prospective superintendents is shrinking.

“School boards might feel that search firms have more access to candidates than they do. When I first applied for a superintendent position, I was one of 70 applicants. But that large pool has decreased.

“The traditional path was from teacher to principal to superintendent; but 15 years ago, the state legislature took tenure away from superintendents. It also put a limit on the number of years a school board can enter into a contract with a superintendent. They can’t have more than a three-year contract. And they can’t negotiate an extension until the last year of that first contract.

“Meanwhile, principals still have tenure. The salary differential between a principal and superintendent is not as large as it may have been at one time. If you’re a principal with a family, and have job security, you’d
likely think twice about giving it up and becoming a superintendent and risk being out on the streets in a few years [if things don’t work out]. I think that has had an impact on a number of people leaving the job.”

The Blue Print
Duncan said that when he came to St. Anthony, “It was time to come up with a plan. We developed the Blue Print for a Bright Future, an ongoing process. There was a task force that looked at 13 different areas of our school district. There’s a communications plan, a facilities plan. The most recent one is student activities and athletics. We’ve been co-oping a lot of our sports but now we’re bigger and have been put into a new conference. The citizens’ group felt we should look at doing our own thing.”

Staff views
Mark Gautschi, who has taught high school English and reading at St. Anthony for 28 years, said that Duncan “has done a good job for us” in his five years here. Gautschi, the chief negotiator for the teachers’ union and the members’ rights representative, added, “I have appreciated how accessible he is. He’s easy to talk to, honest and straightforward. He always has an open door. We disagreed a lot, probably most of the time, but I like him and I’ll miss him. He doesn’t hold himself above anybody and he’s not condescending. He’s easy to work with. He has also put a lot of time and effort into our curriculum.”

Kathy Knapp, St. Anthony-New Brighton director of community services and transportation, said, “I very much enjoyed working with Bob. He’s steady and even-tempered. He has lots of experience being a superintendent, so he could provide direction. He is also a visionary, always looking at least five years ahead.

“He has a wonderful sense of humor and he can be very funny,” Knapp added. “My staff really enjoyed working with him, and he earned their respect. Bob was a superintendent who was very inclusive in his work throughout the district. He is very respectful of all people. He got all the departments involved, the middle school, the high school, community services, the elementary school. He didn’t play favorites. He was the first superintendent to include community services in curriculum planning and development.”

What will Duncan do when he leaves St. Anthony? “I’m going to take some time off and let my mind wander, and get some separation from the career I’ve had. I don’t plan to retire. I’ll still be working in some capacity; it may be education. I’d like to find something where, at the end of the day, I can visually see that I have accomplished something. I grew up on a farm; when you plowed a field you could look back at it. Superintendents work hard, but sometimes you can’t see what you did.”

Duncan said that to many people, he appears calm, “but inside the motor is running. I want to feel I’m doing something of value to society, and I want to be helpful to people. I’ve really enjoyed all my years in public service and education. If I had it to do over again, I would. I hope that along the way I’ve made a difference.”

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