A sweeping reshuffling of students and rebuilding of Minneapolis schools is being proposed to make the district more competitive and to handle an expected surge in enrollment.
The proposal could affect about one in every four students, either by shifting the school they attend or the academic program they’re taught. It would require the district to borrow an estimated $155 million for construction, mostly to renovate existing schools.
The plan is designed to accommodate enrollment gains over the next four school years, when the district is expected to grow by about 3,400 students, half of them in southwest Minneapolis, where space for high school students is especially tight. That’s about 10 percent growth.
“This is a very complex plan. It is going to get a lot of discussion,” board chairman Alberto Monserrate said before Tuesday night’s board meeting, where the proposal was presented. The next step will be seeking community reaction, which he said will be important before the board acts later this fall.
Changes could occur across the city and include adding middle-school capacity in the eastern half of south Minneapolis. Among the highlights are a proposal for an audition-only performing arts high school; additions to Southwest High School and Seward Montessori; the reopening of Webster and an expanded Cooper school, plus the return of Franklin Middle School and Tuttle to district use.
The space recommendations are accompanied by multiple changes in programs that are intended to make the district’s schools more appealing to parents, according to Michael Goar, the district’s chief executive officer.
“We are in a highly competitive environment, and we need to do better,” he said in an interview.
Data suggest that the district currently enrolls about 62 percent of the city’s school-age children who attend public school, with the balance in charter or suburban districts.
Growth strategy is a change
The proposal comes as enrollment has grown for the third year in a row, giving the Minneapolis district a chance to plan in a growth mode rather than reacting to shrinkage, as it has since 2000. Although kindergarten enrollment was down this year, an enrollment bulge is nearing the district’s high schools, especially in the southwest corner of the city.
The district’s growth strategy is long on renovation and does not involve building new schools, although it would expand three. That could serve the district well if enrollment trends reverse after 2017, the furthest out it has made projections. The district built four large K-8 schools on the North Side in the late 1990s, just before enrollment tanked there.
Although the enrollment increase is biggest in southwest Minneapolis, where parents have remained most loyal to the district, more North Side and Northeast students would see a change in their attendance patterns, based in part on shifting patterns for feeder schools that incorporate Franklin Middle School and program changes. Under one major proposal, incoming students enrolling from the downtown core would be shifted away from a path toward southwest schools and toward northeast choices and eventually Edison High School.
The proposal also includes changes designed to accommodate the district’s younger students. Early childhood programs would expand, creating 500 spaces that take advantage of new state scholarships aimed at low-income parents of preschoolers. The proposal also would make all-day kindergarten available at the five remaining southwest schools that lack it.
The next step will be community reaction sessions in mid-October. The proposal would return to the board later this fall for a vote.
Some room to borrow
Rebecca Gagnon, a school board member from southwest Minneapolis, has been prodding the district to add capacity for high school students there. The proposal would add 450 spots by expanding Southwest, another 200 by creating a combined campus for Washburn High School and Ramsey Middle School, and 500 more at the citywide performing arts high school proposed for the Wilder school building.
“It’ll be interesting to see their funding stream for this. I’m not really ready to buy into anything until you tell me we can pay for it,” Gagnon said. A budget proposal advanced by the district’s finance staff seeks to spend $40 million annually for the next several years to finance a capital improvement program, atop an existing repair and renovation program.
Monserrate said that he wants to sort through the options considered by district planning staff, but that the district seems to have some room to borrow for buildings under its current debt limits. “It doesn’t seem as grim as it did before,” he said. Board policy is to pay off 70 percent of existing debt within 10 years, with debt payments consuming no more than 15 percent of revenues.
Gagnon expressed reservations about the proposed arts high school, worrying that it could undermine what she regards as strong performances by students at the district’s seven large high schools. Such a school would potentially compete for students with arts-oriented charter high schools, the inter-district arts high school downtown and the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley.