MPS looks to address Washburn overcrowding

Parents frustrated that approved projects never built

Washburn High School converted one of its two auxiliary gyms into four classrooms in recent years but kept the original gym flooring. The school and district leaders are working through ways to deal with overcrowding, as the student population continues to rise. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Wooden gym flooring sits under four classrooms at Washburn High School, remnants of the auxiliary gym from which the space was converted in recent years.

Further down the hall, two of 10 science classrooms sit without proper workbenches or running water. Science teachers coordinate with each other to ensure they have lab space when necessary. So do gym teachers, who sometimes combine classes or go in the cafeteria for instruction.

“It is a challenge,” said principal Rhonda Dean, whose school has gone from 972 students six years ago to about 1,640 this year. “Our teachers are rock stars that they’ve been able to make the appropriate accommodations and therefore not compromise the level of instruction.”

The teachers’ efforts will not be enough, however, as enrollment continues to increase. The district projects the school will peak at an addition 100 to 200 student by 2018, which is forcing it to address space concerns at the school.

Dean said the school would need another four science classrooms, including two by next fall. Plus, the school has additional space needs in regard to physical education, its nurse’s office, its counseling office and parking.

Dean and district leaders are working on solutions to address overcrowding at the school. But some parents have expressed frustration at the district’s response, noting that the district has not said when it would put about $16 million in already approved capital projects back in the budget.

“It is a school bursting at the seams, and so for the district to ignore that need right now is perplexing to us,” said Washburn site council co-chair Jeanne Massey.

The Washburn facilities discussion stems from the district’s five-year enrollment plan, which it passed in December 2013. The district at the time projected that Washburn would need capacity for about 1,900 students and planned to house about 450 of them at the adjacent Ramsey Middle School.

The district tabled the shared campus plan, however, and in June 2015 approved about $23 million in Washburn capital projects to be built in two phases.

The district completed phase one of the project, turning one of Washburn’s two auxiliary gyms into four classrooms and adding a total of seven classrooms. But it has not started phase two, which was scheduled to add 14 classrooms and remodel several science labs at a cost of $15.9 million.

The delay stems in part from a 2015 administrative directive to put enrollment-driven projects on hold. The administration made that directive so it wouldn’t overspend on capital improvements as student population declined 200 to 300 a year, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas said.

“When we rolled the numbers forward over the next five years, that trend continued in terms of a gradual decline,” Thomas said.

The School Board in September 2015 also decided to levy about $12 million less than its maximum authority for 2016–2017. The city, Hennepin County and the Park Board all levied increases that year, and the School Board did not want to raise property taxes too significantly, Finance Committee Chair Rebecca Gagnon said.

The board decided to sell $60 million less in bonds in its final 2016–2017 levy. That meant the district did not have the revenue to start projects planned for 2016–2017, including Washburn.

The district incorporated $18.6 million of those projects, including updates at Hall and Jefferson schools, into its fiscal year 2017 capital plan but did not include Washburn.

Meanwhile, attendance at the school has continued to grow. Thomas said that is in part to a bubble of higher elementary enrollment that is now evident at the high school.

The district expects Washburn’s enrollment to peak in about three years and then start to decline. But Dean said she would expect the building to remain full if it added capacity, noting that more students are open enrolling in the school and transferring from private schools.

The district and Dean are looking at ways to address the overcrowding by next fall, with Thomas and Superintendent Ed Graff having visited the school in November.

The School Board Committee of the Whole will discuss capital planning at its Nov. 29 meeting.

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  • Melissa Irrgang-Line

    It’s true Washburn has space for 1400 but there are 1650 kids squished in there each and everyday! The district promised money long ago for additions and renovations but now they are not making good on it. The problem is the big picture, the enrollment is only going to increase for quite some time. Where are these kids going to go….? My guess, not Washburn. Pretty soon they will start not letting people go to their community school like promised…You think your kids are going to go to Wasburn? think again, they will ONLY if they have an older sibling in Washburn to grandfather them in, otherwise, NO WAY are your kiddos getting in!

  • mi-jo

    Ed Graff and the school board are breaking a huge promise. The District promised if they prevented Washburn families from leaving the attendance area and Washburn families committed to Washburn, they would make sure there was enough space. Instead they watch twiddling their thumbs while kids and teachers suffer. Meanwhile they decide to build a $20 million adult education building with a $7 million parking ramp. Fund Washburn’s classroom needs now – Graff and the school board are accountable for this.

  • mi-jo

    So disingenuous for Graff and his team to use District-wide enrollment numbers to defund Washburn when Washburn’s enrollment continues to explode. Why in the world should Washburn kids and teachers get squeezed like sardines because OTHER schools are underenrolled?

  • Marcia A

    Washburn is a great school!

    But it badly needs classrooms, and science labs that work —- the MPS school district PROMISED to fund classrooms.

    Build classrooms and fix classrooms and solve the problem for students now and students coming next year and years after that.

    No band aids!

  • Diana B

    I sent my son to Washburn because we were told that the district had approved funds to address overcrowding and subpar facilities (science rooms without running water!). Now we’re told that the District is possibly pulling $15.9 million of the already approved funding. This is beyond
    outrageous! The District is in danger of losing engaged and active families like ours to private schools with these kinds of shenanigans. #keepyourpromise

  • Michelle Lee-Reid

    Every school is overcrowded. I am at an elementary building that has a kindergarten class in a “large motor play area” without direct access to the school hallway because is it between two other kindergarten classrooms. We have ELL and resource teachers sharing spaces and support people that see students in closets because there is not enough space. Almost all of the schools need upgrades and more space. But it is a better problem than shuttering schools and selling them off because the children are all at charter schools.

  • Mike W

    The problems you are describing are some of the big reasons people ARE going to the charter schools and/or private schools. The lack of upgrades and fixes will actually result in more people leaving and could end up with shuttering schools.

  • Michelle Lee-Reid

    The problem was partially caused by families coming back to the public schools because they found that the charter schools often weren’t as good as the public schools. They do need to upgrade the schools to attract and retain families. There is a “master list”, but all of the upgrades cost a lot of money, partially due to the age of the schools, so getting to the list takes a lot of time.

  • Mike W

    Actually I believe most people are coming back to Washburn because of the community support and the direction WHS has taken. It’s a far better school that it was. As for charter schools, some of them haven’t worked out, while many are flourishing. The district is still losing students both to charter schools and to private schools, but WHS is gaining students quickly (we’ve doubled our enrollment in only a small number of years and are continuing to grow rapidly) Students from South and SW are trying to get into WHS, people from suburban schools who want a more diverse atmosphere are trying to get into WHS. Building cost a lot of money, yes, this is not news to the district, so planning wisely becomes all that much more important. The money we are requesting was previously approved. The need was recognized, the process was worked through and WHS was awarded the money until last years budget shortfall of $60 million. At that time WHS”s money was taken back. We had completed phase 1 of a 3 phase project, much of which was to prepare for the remaining phases. We spent $7 mm to take one of the gyms and turn it into 4 classrooms. We would have never done that without the promise that a second story would be added where the gym was so that we could ad 4 more classrooms. We don’t have water in some of the science labs which is not OK. The district is not taking care of the needs of the schools though we are one of the most top heavy districts in the nation (meaning more money goes to pay administration per student than other districts) and we are thousands of dollars above average in terms of $ per student. The district has shown a ton of irresponsibility with the budget to the point where an outside audit raised major concerns about how money was accounted for. The curriculum debacle of last year where the district spent over a million dollars on racist books that were never vetted, there was also the embarrassing incident where the district forgot to fund things like the teacher retirement to the tune of millions of dollars. We are’t going at this without knowing what we are talking about. We’ve been extremely involved with the district and local gov’t for decades, we’ve met with district officials, and board members dozens and dozens of times, so we are not simply asking for money without understanding the totality of the circumstances. I guess what I am trying to say is that we understand the intricacies of the problem, but the district needs to pull it together, stop wasting money and start meeting the needs of ALL students, not just WHS, but WHS was determined to be a school with definite and immediate needs, and we want them completed. Sorry for the dissertation!

  • Michelle Lee-Reid

    I just had to reply to your comment on the reading program. It was a phonics program and I was trained in it. The only racist part of it were the little books that could be used with it. The teachers being trained never received any of the books–only the primary curriculum. It is a good curriculum and doesn’t need the little books. It is designed for students K-2 to teach phonics and it works. The worst part was that the community protested a program that most of them hadn’t even looked at, then the district lost all of the money that was spent on curriculum and training. There is a group (including many teachers this time) looking at comprehensive reading curricula and will hopefully find one that will be just as good as Reading Horizons was.

  • Deshaun Carter

    Your son needs to man up and quit complaining. He is getting an education provided to him free by the public. North High ins’t overcrowded at all. Send him there. He’ll have plenty of room.

    I’m sure everyone in the district is so scared to lose your son as a student that they’ll immediately get started on the improvements he so desperately deserves.

  • Diana B

    Thankfully, they did get started on the improvements. Not just for my son though, for all students, because Washburn is overcrowded. My son did not complain because he couldn’t find a chair to sit in in his math class, or because he didn’t have running water in his science class and so could not do experiments, I am the one who raised my voice. I urge you and the parent community at North High to do the same if you have a valid grievance. Good luck to you.

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