Counting change in Minneapolis schools

Looking for the impact of a district cost-savings plan

Classroom space was at a premium in some Minneapolis Public Schools in September, especially at a few sites in Southwest — an early sign, some said, that a district cost-savings plan was working.

The Changing School Options plan approved by the School Board in September 2009 redrew attendance boundaries to keep more students in schools closer to their homes. Under the plan fewer, shorter bus trips would mean less spending on transportation.

It may take time to measure the financial repercussions of Changing School Options — including the closings of four school buildings and several magnet school programs — but its impact on schools and families was coming into focus in September.

“The community schools are full, we think, because of that fact, that people are moving closer to home,” said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, the district’s project manager for Changing School Options.

Final school enrollment figures set for release in October may support Kiernat’s assertion. But it will take longer to tease out Changing School Options’ impact on the district’s budget, said Chief Financial Officer Peggy Ingison.

Ingison projected a $6.5 million annual savings from Changing School Options, but that may not be realized for several years, in part because the figure relies on the future sale of closed school buildings. Any immediate savings are hard to spot, since they are hidden among the wide-ranging cuts made to address a $19 million budget deficit, Ingison said.

“Savings related to Changing School Options got a little mushed-in with the rest of the budget process,” she said.

A path

Ingison said some parts of Changing School Options were not paying off as predicted.

“I don’t want to say that the transportation savings has been wiped out, because there’s still some savings there, but not nearly what we expected,” she said.

Grandfather clauses in the new transportation rules allowed some students to cross the new attendance boundaries. The district also purchased city bus passes for about 1,200 high school students who lost district buses to their schools.

Taking a big picture view, Ingison said the Changing School Options was about creating a more-efficient school system, one that spends less money on underused buildings and miles of tangled bus routes. A district with more students in fewer buildings uses staff and resources more efficiently, she said.

“The savings are, generally, a little more modest and, again, they’re longer-term,” she said. “This is about putting the district on a path for the future.”

Closer to home

A key objective of the plan was to educate students closer to home. But to ease the transition, the School Board allowed students who lost busing to remain in their current schools, as long as the schools had space and parents provided transportation.

District parent Mary Hanson said when her three children lost their bus to Seward Montessori School, she seriously contemplated driving them half-way across town to school for the next six years. Hanson eventually decided on Armatage Montessori School for her two youngest, who will bus to school, but plans to drive her seventh-grade son to Seward until he moves on to high school.

She said it was a “big disappointment” to lose busing to Seward, but also was pleased with her younger children’s new school.

“For all purposes we left a good school and came to a great school,” Hanson said.

Parents across the district weighed similar options, leading to mixed results for the closer-to-home initiative.

Kiernat said some Southwest schools, particularly Burroughs and Lake Harriet community schools, appeared to have high numbers of parents providing their own transportation. But influxes of new students at Lyndale and Jefferson community schools — both of which added kindergarten classrooms this year — may indicate more neighborhood families are choosing those schools than they did in the past, she added.

A new year

The financial impact of Changing School Options is still being measured, but its emotional impact registered last year when schools and programs — such as the community school at Armatage — closed in the spring.

“It was certainly a difficult transition for everybody, but it’s a new day, it’s a new year,” said Armatage Principal Joan Franks.

Franks said about 50 former community school students joined the Montessori program this fall, but others transferred to nearby Kenny Community School. Kenny’s student body was half new this fall, with most recent arrivals coming from Armatage, Principal Bill Gibbs said.

Count Kenny — pulled off the chopping block in a previous round of school closures —among the Changing School Options winners. At 379 students, enrollment was up about 140 students from last school year, and Gibbs added four new classrooms to his school.

Said Gibbs: “We’re just super-excited that we can give [students] a community school where the focus is on the community aspects of the program.”