Kenny closing postponed, but bitter medicine is coming

Southwest School Board directors say closings are inevitable when they vote again in October

Ask Minneapolis School Board Director Dennis Schapiro about his job and he’ll tell you that it’s not as tough as guarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but it comes close these days.

Schapiro and the rest of the Minneapolis School Board postponed a decision to close nine city schools, including Kenny, 5720 Emerson Ave. S., in the wake of public outcry. Interim School Superintendent David Jennings proposed the fall closings to cut an estimated $2.8 million from a projected $20 million deficit.

Schapiro, a Linden Hills resident, is ready to face the fire when closings come up for a vote this fall. "We are not putting this off indefinitely. By October, there is going to be a plan that is going to be dramatic."

He bluntly assesses the postponement as "sacrificing fiscal responsibility for the sake of having a community process," he said. "The political climate would not tolerate closing schools without discussion."

Could the October plan be the same one put forth by Jennings in February?

That remains to be seen. However, some school district officials say that by waiting a year to close schools, cuts may be more draconian in 2005-06.

School Board Director Colleen Moriarty said she never had any intention of voting for Jennings’ ballyhooed plan because it did not consider the community impact but is as stern as Schapiro.

"The School Board said that things were going to remain the same for a year, that we would wait a year to make people feel safe," said Moriarty, who lives in Tangletown. "But they are really not safe because we still have to make budget cuts for the fourth straight year."

If nothing else, Jennings’ proposal got the community’s attention. Five hundred parents showed up at the Feb. 18 public meeting at Washburn High School and several hundred more were at North High School the following evening. Three hundred people attended a City Hall rally Feb. 23.

John Sheehy, father of three Kenny students, said that if the district’s goal was to get more students back into the Minneapolis schools, they blew it because the process has been negative and will destabilize neighborhoods.

Sheehy was a media point person for the Kenny parent community who spoke at the City Hall rally and to TV stations. He said closing Kenny would only save the district $200,000 since the school already shares a principal and other services with Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56th St. It seemed like the wrong decision to him since Kenny students are doing so well academically.

In all, Sheehy claimed the Jennings’ school closing plan would only save $2.68 million — which, in a $600 million district budget, he said, is relatively insignificant.

Sheehy said many were disappointed that the Minneapolis legislative delegation, the mayor and the City Council did not take a position on school closings because the issue went beyond the School Board’s scope in its neighborhood impacts.

"People will be hesitant to send their kids to Kenny now, thinking that it may soon be closed," he said. "They have exacerbated the problem by setting this plan in motion without any community involvement."

Sheehy believes the proper response is to organize politically both within and outside of the city around public school funding. He criticized the state for not raising aid to schools, currently $4,600 per pupil, since the 2001-2002 school year, despite rising utility and employee health-care costs.

Economist Paul Anton has a 4th-grader at Kenny and was one of the first Kenny students when the school opened in 1954. For him, the district has two problems — budget deficits and declining enrollment. He opposes his school’s closing because it does not address the issue of declining enrollment.

"If the goal is to get students back, then this is not a good way to do it," said Anton. "By combining Kenny with Armatage, there would be no room to add kids from the neighborhood. A lot of young parents bought their houses in the Kenny neighborhood thinking that their kids would go to their community school."

Anton, who chairs the Citizen Financial Advisory Committee to the Bloomington Schools, was at the Feb. 24 School Board meeting where the closing decision was postponed.

He said, "$2.8 million is not a lot of savings for all the grief and pain it would have caused. But as I sat in that room and saw the look on the faces of people on the School Board and heard the timbre of their voice, I had a happy feeling and a sick feeling at the same time because I knew it was just postponing some hard choices."

If Moriarity’s comments are any indication, Kenny parents’ sick feelings are likely to linger. She said the money the district gets from the state does not cover the expenses of operating a smaller elementary school such as Kenny. The district pays a $387.37 subsidy for each of 354 Kenny pupils to ensure they receive state-mandated core programs.

"There has to be some realization that it is really too expensive to keep these underattended schools open," she said. "Are we going to put our money into running buildings or our money into programs and kids?"

Many parents challenged the district’s statistics and their reasoning on school closings. Asked if in retrospect she thought the district’s method and statistics sound, school district spokesperson Melissa Winter said, "Yes."

Schapiro agrees. "Jennings’ plan made sense for kids. It was about getting the most resources for the most kids."

Still, he acknowledges the next decision will consider more than dollars and cents. "There is a political aspect to it, too, and from the public’s response, we found that there are other priorities in the community."

The district plans to hire an outside facilitator to coordinate the listening and learning process for the community. It’s their hope that an outsider will have more credibility with parents than district employees.

The board formulated a process and a timetable for making budget decisions for the 2005-2006 school year.

By the end of this month, they will present a set of questions and documents to the public regarding the financial problems facing the Minneapolis schools. The board will host open meetings this April and May.

By June, board members hope to bring in finalists for the school superintendent position. This summer, a concrete school realignment plan will be offered. By Oct. 1 of this year, the School Board will make its final decision for the 2005-2006 school year.

Said Schapiro, "Our parents have a high rate of participation but a low rate of trust when it comes to their schools. This is an opportunity for a great community dialogue about our future."