The Anoka-Hennepin school board voted Monday night to close six schools -- five elementary and one middle school -- plus an early childhood center and a kindergarten center. Although two of the buildings will reopen with new functions, it is the first time since the 1950s that the state's largest district has acted to permanently shutter schools.

The move, which will take effect at the end of the 2009-10 school year, is an attempt to save money as the district grapples with declining enrollment and a daunting budget shortfall. The district says the closings will save it $3.1 million a year.

Two public board meetings this month drew 300 to 350 participants each, but on Monday there were only a few dozen people attending and no public discussion.

Board members considered a number of closing options before voting 5-1 for this plan. Board Member Scott Wenzel was the lone dissenting vote.

"Reading through this list, I almost felt we were reading an obituary, " said Board Member Kathy Tingelstad.

"There is no perfect solution," said Board Chairman Tom Heidemann. "We have too many empty classrooms districtwide. It does not make sense to fund empty classrooms."

Wenzel voted against the resolution, in part, he said, because the closings save the district $700,000 more than it needs to save because of declining enrollment.

The two schools that will get new functions are Park View Early Childhood Center in Champlin, which will reopen for the 2010-11 year as a regular elementary school, and Washington Elementary in Anoka, which will reopen as a sixth-grade campus for middle-school students.

Closing will be: Peter Enich Kindergarten Center in Anoka, Champlin Elementary School, L.O. Jacob Elementary School in Coon Rapids, Riverview Specialty School for Mathematics and Environmental Science in Brooklyn Park, Sorteberg Elementary School in Coon Rapids, and Sandburg Middle School in Anoka.

Symptomatic of change

Monday's board action is symptomatic of problems many school districts are facing: dwindling student populations after years of growth, and squeezed resources resulting in part from a freeze on state aid this year and next.

An additional effect of schools being closed is that attendance boundaries for those remaining open must be re-drawn.

Anoka-Hennepin officials have estimated that as many as 2,000 district students might have to switch schools. This will mark the first time in seven years the district has had to redraw boundaries. Those decisions will come later.

The $3.1 million savings will help the district address an $18 million budget shortfall projected for the 2010-11 year.

In addition to savings for the district from not having to operate closed schools, the properties can be considered for sale or lease.

With its action Monday night, Anoka-Hennepin joins two other large Twin Cities districts -- Minneapolis and Robbinsdale -- that have opted to shut down schools.

Anoka-Hennepin officials have said that, because of declining enrollment, there is too much unused or underused classroom space in the district. With a student population of 38,800, the district has lost 2,000 students since 2004.

All in all, 17 of the district's 50 schools were considered candidates for closing. Among the criteria used to pare down the list of candidates for closing were: the cost of operating a school, the cost to renovate a school in need of repair, building capacity, transportation costs and potential for a building to be reused.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547