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.