Faced with a $15 million budget deficit and a large demographic gap, the Burnsville school district has embarked on an effort to potentially transform the district.

The dialogue, begun this past summer, could lead to the closure of a junior high, an expansion of Burnsville High School, the closure of some other district buildings and new attendance boundaries to provide new academic offerings.

"It's very transformational," Bob Nystrom, president of the Burnsville Education Association, said of the ideas being debated.

The discussion points come from Superintendent Randy Clegg, who is retiring at the end of this school year. Earlier this fall, Clegg presented to the school board some options on how to save about $5 million in each of the next three years.

Those discussions gradually evolved into how to address other issues including chronic attendance declines and a clustering of students from low-income households at some schools.

"The whole thing is a domino effect," said Ron Hill, chairman of the school board, who estimates the transformation could take as long as five to 10 years. "It's a matter of giving different opportunities to students."

High school changes

The idea of closing an elementary school never got much traction, but there does appear to be support for expanding Burnsville High School and closing the senior campus at the Diamondhead Education Center, which also houses adult education.

Under this idea, adding ninth grade to Burnsville High School would transform it into a 9-12 facility, which would help align it better with curriculum offerings at the junior highs and make it more competitive with other high schools in the south metro area.

"People have always felt we are at a disadvantage not being a 9-12 school," said Ruth Dunn, the district spokeswoman.

The biggest change, and possible benefits, would come by redrawing the district's attendance boundaries, which has not been done in at least 15 years.

Under a proposal from Clegg, the district would use Interstate 35W as the dividing line, creating two attendance areas with an equal number of elementary schools and an equal number of magnet schools for parents and students to choose from.

"Equity is what we are striving to achieve," said Lisa Rider, executive director of business services for the district. "We would like to achieve equity across all of our schools."

A number of concerns

The reason for this is borne out by the numbers, especially when comparing the district 10 to 12 years ago with today.

In 1999-2000, the district had about 11,500 students. Today, that number is down to about 9,500, a decline that has been steadily growing.

In 2002-2003, the white students made up 78 percent of the district; that number is now down to 55 percent.

Ten years ago, the number of elementary school students who got free and reduced-price lunches was 21 percent; now it's 53 percent. And the concentration of those students has increased at some district elementary schools.

Sky Oaks, for example, has 73 percent of its students under that category while Harriet Bishop is below 20 percent.

Hill said the district wants to address and balance out those concentrations. He believes one way to do it is to make some of those schools more appealing, drawing broader audiences from inside and outside the district.

"Changing where some of those programs reside would change some of their demographics," he said.

Although the board received Clegg's options more than a month ago, members decided to wait until this month's election to renew the discussions.

Hill, who along with three other incumbents was reelected to the board last week, said the group will likely talk about possible changes at a retreat in February. The earliest any changes might be expected is 2014, he said, because of the number of community meetings that would be held.

"That's going to take a lot of discussion," Hill said.

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281