The cost of choice: District considers program cuts to rein in expenses

Its wide array of schools and specialized academic programs for years was a defining characteristic of Minneapolis Public Schools.

After years of budget deficits and student loss, that same level of choice is no longer sustainable, district leaders say. They are developing a plan that could close schools, redraw school attendance boundaries, cut bus routes and eliminate or relocate some academic programs by the 2010–2011 school year.

The goal is to create a leaner, more efficient school district. It would offer fewer program choices, but also spend millions less on busing and underused school buildings.

Still, many parents are wondering what, exactly, that district will look like, and how Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) intends to get there.

"Most people realize that the facilities, the school scenarios that we have today have not adapted with the times," Kevin McDonald, a parent of Windom Dual Spanish Immersion School students, said.

McDonald was one of more than 300 parents who attended Feb. 12 community meetings on school options planning. Parents were presented with three scenarios for reshaping the elementary school system, and another two scenarios for changes to high schools [see sidebar].

McDonald, like many others, left with unanswered questions.

"I wanted a little more substance on how these changes … will, in fact, improve student achievement," he said.

McDonald asked for more information on the potential cost savings of each scenario, as well as how savings might be reinvested.

MPS Executive Director of Planning Jill Stever-Zeitlin said more details would be made available at a series of community meetings scheduled for March.

Decisions on specific schools will not be made until the after School Board adopts a school choice scenario. That vote was tentatively scheduled for soon after the April 6–10 spring break, Stever-Zeitlin said.

Magnets attract scrutiny

The number and location of magnet schools are at the core of the district’s proposed changes to elementary schools. Those 21 magnet schools, each defined by a specialized academic theme or teaching style, are "the main vehicle for choice" in the district, Stever-Zeitlin said.

The district first introduced magnets, like Montessori schools, to accommodate unique student learning styles. Allowed to cast a wider net for students than community schools, magnets became a handy tool for encouraging desegregation by drawing families from diverse neighborhoods. They also offered greater school choice to families who didn’t live near a community school.

That choice has come at a cost:

• The district buses about 70 percent of its students to the tune of $33 million a year. Much of that cost is reimbursed by the state, but the tangled network of bus routes exacts a harder-to-quantify toll on the environment, as well.

• Significant enrollment declines over the past decade mean MPS has far more school space than it needs. Maintaining that extra space costs $4-–5 million annually.

For all of that, magnets have a mixed record of academic performance, the district reported. A lack of investment during eight consecutive years of budget shortfalls may have something to do with it.

"We have so many programs and, with very few exceptions, those schools get no additional programmatic money," Stever-Zeitlin said.

If some magnets are to close or relocate, what does that mean for a school like Windom near the border of the district? McDonald, who expressed faith in the merits of dual-Spanish immersion, took a wait-and-see approach.

"If Minneapolis Public Schools chooses to put that [magnet] in a better facility [or] in a different facility in a better location, I think I and other parents are open to that," he said.

Shifting boundaries

A redrawing of school attendance boundaries would accompany any significant change to the school choice system. Its potential impact goes far beyond magnet schools.

Jenny Bordon and her husband, Scott, live in the Kingfield neighborhood and bus two students across Southwest to Lake Harriet Community School. They have that option because Kingfield is a so-called "open area" with no designated community school.

Bordon said she and her neighbors wonder what might happen if the district eliminates the open area in a move to limit busing. Would their students be grandfathered in to Lake Harriet? Or would they have to choose another, closer school?

Parents of high school students have similar questions as they consider changes to their schools.

If a school remains open with no program changes, students can remain enrolled at a school even if the district ends busing to that school, said Jackie Turner, head of student placement services. In schools where there are program changes, some grades may be grandfathered in while others are not.

"We’d look at every single piece differently," Turner said.

That uncertainty means Bordon will consider all her options, including those that lie outside the district.

"I certainly feel just as the district has everything on the table, I suppose for us, now, everything is on the table, which is kind of a sad feeling," Bordon said.

School Board President Tom Madden said the district had, over the last 30 years, undergone significant change — a kind of district reboot — almost once a decade. Acknowledging the potential for short-term disruption, Madden said the goal was long-term stability.

"We’re trying … to build a strong academic base that we can sustain for a period of time with minimal disruption," he said.


Choice scenarios

At community meetings in February, Minneapolis Public Schools parents learned about potential changes to the district’s school choice system.

These scenarios are not the only options. The School Board could adopt a hybrid scenario, or opt for a more selective restructuring.

Planning is for 2010–2011, but budget pressure could force some changes as early as next fall.

Elementary schools

1. All community schools

All elementary schools are converted to community schools and most children attend the school closest to their home.

2. Centralized magnets

Magnet schools are reduced in number and relocated to a central zone.

3. Zoned magnets

The district is divided into zones with several magnet schools in each. The total number of magnets is reduced.

(In scenario 2 or 3, a "demagnetized" school could be allowed to retain its specialized magnet theme.)

High schools

1. Community high schools

Students attend the high school closest to home, except in the case of citywide specialty programs, such as All Nations at South High School.

2. Citywide high school choice

Students attend any school in the city. A lottery could determine which students get into high-demand programs.

(In both scenarios, all high schools offer at least the "Core 4" academic programs: Career and Technical Education, College in the Schools, International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement. Some high schools offer additional specialty programs.)

Middle schools

District administrators are considering changes to 6–8 middle schools that are similar to the first high school scenario. Possible changes to K–8 schools are a part of elementary school choice planning.

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For more information the scenarios and information on upcoming community meetings beginning March 9, go to the district website and click on "Changing School Options."