Tough choices

Budget cuts force school administrators to draw the line

Facing a roughly $30-million funding deficit for the 2002-2003 school year, Minneapolis Public Schools is confronted with

a host of difficult cost-cutting measures -- among them, reducing school choice.

In an effort to decrease transportation costs, roughly 4,000 students will be returned to their attendance-area schools, unless their parents can provide transportation. Just who is affected?

The Southwest Journal spoke to Assistant Superintendent Kay McLean to find out.

q. How is school choice being affected? a. Just the simple questions. (Laughs) Well, I think the essence of the board's budget decision is there are approximately 4,000 students in K-5 and K-8 schools that are out of their attendance area, either in a community school or a magnet school; they're there for a variety of reasons.

q. What are those reasons? a. The student may have enrolled after the school year began and because of referendum class size, the school or schools that they could have gone to were closed, in a sense, because every classroom was at class size.

The child may have come in at 2nd grade and their attendance-area schools were full, and we placed the child in another school and said to the parent, 'Now, this is a placement for this year, but next year, we're going to move you back into your attendance area,' and either we didn't do that -- we missed them -- or the parent said, 'I want to stay there, and I'll provide my own transportation.'

Or the child may have come in, again, after the school choice time in January and been an ELL student. Even this year, we don't have an ELL program at every school. After the language program, class size also kicks in, so the ELL student has sort of a double placement issue.

There may be students whose sibling was placed at a school, so now the 6th-grader or the 5th-grader has a kindergartner sibling, and our sibling preference applies, so then we have another five or six years of that child attending that school -- again, out of attendance area.

The other scenario is that a family had a child enrolled in an attendance-area school, and they moved during the school year, from the south to the north. Our policy was that the child could remain in that school for that school year but was then to move. Now, again, we didn't catch some of those kids.

q. Why is the district not catching these kids? Because there are not enough resources to track them? a. It depends how the child is identified. If Transportation picks them up as out-of-attendance-area, the parent may for a period of time say, 'I will transport,' and then, later, come back and say, 'I can't transport anymore, but you promised me that school.'

Sometimes, it's just a miscommunication with the schools. If the parent doesn't give the school their new pick-up address, often they just work with Transportation, and say, you know, 'My childcare has moved. Pick my child up at

this address.'

q. As I understand it, it's not that the district is creating new policies, it's just that it is enforcing policies regarding school choice that were already in place? a. This is part of it. And what we're enforcing is when you're out of your attendance area, you have to move at the end of the school year or provide your own transportation.

You know, this is very complex. It's motivated by budget savings, and wanting to get kids into their community school so the parents and the students can participate in the full program. When we are taking children cross-town from north to south, it's very difficult. Parents can't get there for PTA nights.

The community overwhelmingly told us a few years ago that they wanted community schools, they wanted their kids going to school close to home. In our budget survey, the public told us, really overwhelmingly, this was a cut we should make instead of class size.

q. Are there any instances in which students who have been in a K-5 are going to have to go to a K-8, or vice versa? a. Usually, what we're doing is two like schools. If they were in an open magnet program on the north side, say at Webster, but they live south central, they would have Andersen Open. Now, the parent might say, 'Well, I don't want to go to Andersen Open; I'd prefer that you place me at another choice in that area, like a community school.'

q. If the district is returning kids to their community schools, does that mean there will be fewer spots at a community school like Burroughs for open-area parents in Kingfield and East Harriet? a. No, because there has to be give in every school because we will have late enrollees. These open-area parents have all made their choice, right? These are parents who made their choice through our process through January and February -- they're placed.

q. Is this shift in school choice something that unfairly impacts families who do not have the time or the means to provide transportation for their kids? a. Certainly. A parent that has the ability to hire someone or to drive themselves certainly has more options than a parent that doesn't.

We wouldn't be doing this unless we had lost significant dollars and had to make these kinds of budget cuts. We have the other financial pressures and funding issues that just absolutely -- we would not be doing this if we didn't have to. Nobody wants to do this. We don't want to disrupt families.

Nobody wants to be responsible for saying to a 2nd-grader, 'Gee, honey, you know, you can't go to school here next year.'

I've been in schools where kids move, and all of us know how hard it is on the kids and their families. We do this with the greatest reluctance. We know how hard it's going to be. We just don't have a choice.