Schools plan delayed

Minneapolis School Board unsatisfied with district proposal

Minneapolis Public Schools families beginning to grapple with a major district restructuring plan will have to wait a little longer to learn what’s in store for their schools.

Members of the School Board poked holes in that plan, known as Changing School Options, during a marathon May 5
discussion meeting. Superintendent Bill Green said administrators would make revisions, but the process would postpone the School Board’s scheduled May 26 vote on the plan.

A delay was better than a likely “No” vote, said Board Chairman Tom Madden, who deemed the district’s original proposal “DOA,” or dead on arrival.

Madden and his colleagues systematically tackled a list of concerns about Changing School Options, a plan that would cut programs and change attendance rules to keep children closer to home and reduce transportation costs. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) leaders say the changes, scheduled for 2010, build a platform to tackle larger issues, like dwindling enrollment and a $28 million budget shortfall.

The Board’s suggested revisions could have major implications for Southwest schools. In particular, they instructed administrators to review a parent plan for a new dual-campus K–8 school shared between three Southwest neighborhoods.

They requested clarification of new attendance rules that will determine which schools families would have access to in 2010. About a third of the student population may change schools under the plan, and board members wanted more information on the racial and economic status of those students.

They also attempted to balance the distribution of magnet schools, specialized educational programs that draw students from a wide area. Changing School Options, as first presented, placed more in close proximity to Southwest than any other part of the city.

“These are big issues that are preventing people from not only being on board with the plan, but being excited about it,” Madden said.

A new neighborhood school

The first draft of Changing School Options proposed to make Lyndale Community School the designated community school for the East Harriet and Kingfield neighborhoods.

An organized group of parents living in those two neighborhoods argued Lyndale was too small. Instead, they said Lyndale should be linked to nearby Clara Barton Open School to create a new, dual-campus K–8 school.

School Board Member Pam Costain was among those who said that idea deserved a second look by district administration. She called the district’s original proposal a “short-term fix.”

Madden agreed, adding that the new school would relieve pressure on Burroughs and Lake Harriet community schools, two of the most requested schools in the district.

Many of those student placement requests come from East Harriet and Kingfield, one of the district’s so-called “open areas.” With no designated community school, families often bus students to other neighborhoods.

Jane Onsrud, an open area parent who sends two children to Lake Harriet, said she was excited to join with the Lyndale neighborhood to create a new program.

“We fully believe that we can create in these three neighborhoods a community school that will be desirable,” Onsrud said.

While the level of parent commitment swayed some School Board members, the proposal still faced multiple hurdles.

School Board Member Carla Bates asked what would happen to Lyndale’s special education and English language learner programs, which she said have thrived in the current environment.

The Open program at Barton would relocate under the proposal, a step Barton parents and staff had resisted. A statement from the Barton Leadership Council in March stated that group’s desire to keep the program in its current building.

Yet another alternative for the open area was presented to the School Board May 12 by a group of parents who said they represented Barton, Lyndale and Ramsey. Their proposal would leave Barton untouched as a K–8 magnet school. Lyndale, too, would remain as it is, a K–5 community school. Under this alternative, though, both Lyndale and Ramsey are community school options for open area families. Supporters claimed the proposal moved fewer students to new schools.

A new magnet plan

Changing School Options was intended to distribute school programs equitably across the district, but several School Board members said the plan fell short.

Administrators intended to give every family access to one designated community school close to their neighborhood, as well as four to five magnet programs that recruit students from a larger area. But some School Board members said the balance was tipped toward Southwest.

“Like it or not, Area C has six magnets,” Madden said, using the district’s designation for Southwest neighborhoods.

Board Members instructed administrators to work toward a plan that would place one to three magnets in each of three district transportation zones — if not in 2010 then soon after. That may leave fewer magnet programs than the district’s original proposal, which called for 11 magnets spread across the district.

Defining boundaries

The district held a series of community meetings in February and March as it developed Changing School Options. A common complaint at those meetings was that the district proposal lacked one key piece of information: the new attendance boundaries.

Attendance boundaries determine where students go to school based on their street address. The district planned to redraw those boundaries this summer, after the School Board was to vote on the plan. Board members instructed administrators to return with at least draft boundaries so that parents could better evaluate the plan.

More detail

Based on the School Board discussion May 5, a revised Changing School Options plan may be more detailed in other ways, as well.

They pushed for more details on the minimum size requirements district officials used to determine which programs close. They also asked for a clear definition of the three new busing zones that will divide the city.

And they resolved to develop a plan for high schools, which were left mostly untouched by Changing School Options. Madden has said the seven high schools are “unsustainable.”

Board Members Chris Stewart said it was not a small task the School Board handed back to district administration. “This is not a modification of the plan,” Stewart said. “… This is major surgery when it comes to the implications.”