An unclear future

Minneapolis Public Schools officials renew talks of schools closing to plug a budget deficit

The Minneapolis Public Schools District (MPS) faces a deficit of $15-$20 million due to rising costs and dwindling student enrollment, according to district budget predictions for next year.

At the School Board’s discussion meeting on Oct. 24, interim Superintendent Bill Green stressed the need to act fast to cope with the shortfall. He said school officials might have to consider closing schools, and he urged “courageous conversations.”

Board members, however, cautioned that school leaders should proceed cautiously and consider all of their options before closing schools. They criticized aspects of the 2004 round of school closings in which 13 schools were shuttered – the district’s most extensive round of closing since 1982.

Despite closing more than a dozen schools two years ago, the MPS eliminated only 378 classrooms, falling short of a consultant’s recommendation that MPS get rid of 600 classrooms. Seven schools that were originally slated to close in 2004 were saved, including Hiawatha, Jefferson, Kenny, North Star, Pratt, Waite Park and Wenonah community schools.

In the past five years, MPS has lost 10,000 students to private, charter and suburban schools in addition to demographic shifts in Minneapolis that have left the city with many households without school-age children.

Now that school leaders are faced with the prospect of closing more schools, School Board members said leaders need to pay more attention to the needs of communities of color. The school district has a significant achievement gap between white students and students of color, and the majority of Minneapolis families choosing schools outside the district are African American.

Plight of Southwest schools

During the 2004 round of school closings, Southwest’s Kenny and Kenwood community schools were considered for possible closure. Kenny was proposed to close, but in the face of intense community opposition, school leaders decided against it. On the whole, however, Southwest fared better than other areas of the city.

School Board Chair Joseph Erickson attributed that to the fact that Southwest schools boast high enrollments.

“It wasn’t political,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Southwest schools will remain unscathed as the district prepares to plug another budget hole.

“We need to keep looking at that. [School closings] will impact [Southwest] schools if we find out things are not as rosy or robust as we think they are,” Erickson said.

Before coming up with a firm plan, Erickson said school leaders need to consider many questions, such as whether the district can close the achievement gap without raising class sizes by closing schools. Another looming issue facing the district is a projected enrollment boom in 15 years.

Seth Kirk, a parent of a student at Armatage Community School, said there’s a recognition among members of the community that the district will have to take some bold steps to solve its problems.

“MPS needs to close some schools. We’re paying to keep stuff open that isn’t an efficient use of resources. On the other hand, Southwest schools are pretty full,” he said.

Although there’s still space at Kenny and Armatage Community schools, there needs to be room to grow, he said.

“I hope they [school officials] learn from last time that they should involve the community early in the process and not have surprises,” he said.

Kirk said that even though the district is starting the process early, the board’s discussion stirred little response on the online Minneapolis Parent Forum. “People have outrage fatigue. I don’t think it’s a good thing. It just shows that people think this is just more of the same,” he said.

To listen to the Oct. 24 School Board meeting or other meetings by podcast, go to the district’s website at www.mpls.k12.mn.us and type in “Board of Education.”

 

Anna Pratt can be reached at [email protected].