Minneapolis, Minn. — Interim Superintendent David Jennings says big changes are needed to keep Minneapolis students from transferring to other school districts or charter schools.
Enrollment in Minneapolis Public Schools has dropped by 5,500 students over the last five years. Projections for next fall show a loss of another 3,000 students. Jennings says the drop means the district would have about 800 more classrooms than it needs.
"This plan allows us to close about 340 of those classrooms, and to consolidate others into blocks of space that we can use more effectively," Jennings says.
The Minneapolis district, the state's largest, is projecting a $20 million budget deficit for next school year.
Jennings told school board members that his reorganization plan would help make the district more competitive by focusing resources. "We are now in our fourth spring of budget cuts. And we're on this cycle of enrollment decline, budget cuts, enrollment decline, budget cuts. We have to get out of that cycle," Jennings says.
Jennings' plan would close eight existing school programs. Fifteen schools would merge into seven sites, and another six programs would relocate. The reshuffling would leave nine school buildings vacant. Those sites are Cooper, Hiawatha, Holland, Howe, Kenny, North Star, Northrup, Pratt and Willard.
School board member Ross Taylor says the reorganization fits the mission of the school district.
We have some programs that are very competitive, very popular. ... If we could expand those programs and create more openings in those programs, more kids will stay in our district.
"Our mission in Minneapolis public schools is to ensure all of our students learn. It's not to run schools. And the students are the bottom line. So we have to do whatever is best for them," says Taylor.
But a lot of students aren't looking at Taylor's big picture. They like their schools, and take it personally when someone says the building is no longer needed. Jenna Lohnes, a fourth grader at Kenny Elementary, made her case to the school board.
"Please, please please, I will do anything to keep this school alive. Just please don't close the school. Thank you," Lohnes asked the board.
District officials call the plan a systemwide solution, but much of the criticism is school-specific. Julie Ball, a teacher at Loring Elementary, says her school is a top performer. She doesn't want her school merged with another and the students and staff relocated. Ball urged school board members to consider alternatives.
"I'm just asking you and urging you to look at a plan B. Even stadium proposals in this state, there's plan B and plan C, and we keep coming back to board. Look at what we're doing," said Ball.
Some residents are questioning the school district's process for developing the proposal. The Rev. Randolph Staten says he was shocked to learn his grandchildren's school, Willard Elementary, would be closed under the plan. He says the district's effort to involve the public or its own staff has been inadequate.
"I've talked to principals, for example, who say, 'We were never talked to about this, and yet our school is closed.' What kind of process do you have, when you don't talk to the people who are involved in this process at all? I've talked to teachers who say, 'We were never talked to about this, we heard about it in the paper,'" says Staten.
The proposal took many people by surprise. But school board member Audrey Johnson says it's actually been in the works for a long time.
"We've been having public forums and task forces meeting on issues around planning, and about what people are looking for in the future, for three years. And we've had them in different parts of the city," says Johnson. "Some of them have been very well attended. Some of them have not been very well attended. But we have not just done this out of the blue."
Still, parents like Janis Branstetter say they were caught off guard.
"We made our choices of what schools we wanted for our children, and you've taken that choice away from us. And it doesn't sound like it's going to be up to us anymore. It sounds like it's a done deal," Branstetter says.
The proposed closings and consolidations mostly affect small elementary schools. Fifteen schools would be merged into seven sites. For example, Hiawatha, Howe and Sanford would be merged into one K-8 school at the Sanford site. Another six programs would be moved from leased and dilapidated facilities into district-owned facilities.
The district would demolish the current sites of Northrup Urban Environmental Magnet and the Connection Center alternative high school. Five of the eight schools slated for closure would house relocated programs.
Jennings says the estimated savings the first year would only be $2.8 million. That's because little if any job loss is expected as a result of the plan. Long-term savings could reach nearly $10 million.
"If it were just the money involved, it wouldn't be worth going through the aggravation of having to do it and the grief that goes with it," Jennings says.
Jennings says the plan is primarily intended to slow the exodus of Minneapolis students to neighboring districts and charter schools. He says the reorganization provides each school with more resources, and expands the district's most successful programs, such as kindergarten through 8th grade buildings and all-day kindergarten.
"We have some programs that are very competitive, very popular. And that if we could expand those programs and create more openings in those programs, more kids will stay in our district," says Jennings.
The Minneapolis district has closed five schools since 2001. These additional proposed changes would affect about 14 percent of Minneapolis students.
Several school board members appear supportive of the plan, but chairwoman Sharon Henry-Blythe says no decisions have been made. She says the board will first listen to testimony at two hearings scheduled next week. The first is Feb. 18 at Washburn High School. The second is Feb. 19 at North High School. A board vote is expected on Feb. 24.