Southwest watches, and waits, for school closings

The Minneapolis Board of Education's plan to close schools and consolidate resources began on the North Side in March, but district officials said it won't end there.

Targeted to the part of the district facing the greatest challenges, the North Side Initiative set for closing this fall five schools on the North Side and Tuttle in Southeast. But more schools are likely to follow in 2008, District Operations Chief Steve Liss said.

&#8220It's very likely we'll see schools closing throughout the district because we've lost 25 percent of our students in the last five years,” Liss said.

That could include Area C of the school district, which encompasses Southwest.

It is too early to predict which Area C schools might close or be merged. But there are indications of what that process will look like based on the North Side Initiative and other planning efforts.

Board Member Tom Madden predicted the upcoming school closings will be handled much differently than in 2004, when 11 schools were shuttered around the school district. This time around, the Board aims to encourage a greater level of community participation in the process, Madden said.

At this early stage, he added, the community should focus on the future of the district, not individual schools.

&#8220The discussion should be, ‘What do we want and what do we need and how can we get it?'” he said.

But with a basic problem in the district of too few resources chasing too many programs, the discussion will eventually get down to which facilities are closing and when.

&#8220The reality is we're going to have to close schools in the district, and it's going to have to happen for the '08-'09 school year,” Madden said.

Based on that schedule, any Area C schools targeted for closing should be chosen by fall, Liss said.

No easy answers

Several factors are driving the decision to close schools, district officials said.

A report Liss delivered to the School Board in February said the district has hundreds more classrooms than it needs after enrollment dropped from about 50,000 students in 2000 to about 37,000 today.

At the same time, the achievement gap continues to grow between white students and students of color. With fewer school buildings in operation, the school district could redirect some resources into boosting the achievement of all students.

Making action even more urgent is the $16 million budget deficit anticipated next school year and projected to grow in following years.

Still, there is not simple calculus to determine which schools should close. It won't be as easy as targeting the schools with too few students or too many unused classrooms, Liss said.

&#8220We want to look at the area as a whole, rather than isolating buildings,” he said.

Area C Superintendent Craig Vana said the district also will look at where schools are located geographically, the condition they are in and the programming they offer.

When the dust settles, there are not likely to be many very small schools left.

A significant portion of school funding is tied to students who receive free and reduced-price lunch. A small school may receive too few of those dollars to provide a &#8220world-class” education, Vana said.

&#8220If you're going to have music (and) art, you can't have that in a 200-student school,” he said.

Agreement

Seth Kirk said the last round of school closings was the one experience, more than any other, that led him to become more involved as a parent.

Now co-chair of the Area C Working Group, Kirk recalled when it was proposed to close Kenny Community School and merge it with nearby Armatage, where one of his children was enrolled in the Montessori program. At community meetings on the proposal, &#8220parents were too divided,” he said, each fighting for his or her own school.

&#8220Parents weren't taking a big-picture view,” he said.

Kirk said that's the major difference this time around. Most parents understand the dire challenges facing the district and that sacrifices will need to be made, he said.

&#8220I think everybody agrees that we need to close schools,” he said. &#8220The question is how.”

Madden also sensed the shift.

&#8220That climate alone is very different than last time,” he said.

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com or 436-4391.