When legislators approved funding for all-day kindergarten last year, schools across Minnesota began scrambling to find more building space to accommodate the influx of students.
In the Osseo district, the state’s fifth largest, the hunt for extra classrooms sparked a broader conversation about space needs, ultimately prompting administrators to propose a shake-up that could reverberate across the 20,000-student district.
That plan’s centerpiece? Reconfiguring grades.
Next week, the school board will consider a plan that would move sixth-graders to junior highs and freshmen to high schools beginning in the 2015-16 school year. To make that work, the district would spend $17 million to $19 million total to build additions at each of its three high schools and to renovate other buildings.
“This change is a significant change for any school district,” said Superintendent Kate Maguire. “What compels us to consider it is a comprehensive package of benefits at the elementary, junior high and high school levels.”
Osseo is one of a handful of Minnesota districts currently configured by grades K-6, 7-9 and 10-12.
Administrators say there are many reasons to move to the more traditional grade model. Among them: Sixth-graders and freshmen have better access to tougher and more varied course options. The model also aligns grade spans to state academic standards. And it provides easier access to athletic and activity programs for freshmen.
While the plan would have little impact on the district’s junior highs — gaining sixth-graders and losing freshmen is more or less an even swap — it’s a different story for Osseo, Maple Grove and Park Center high schools.
To accommodate the new crop of freshmen, administrators are proposing additions at each of the high schools, estimated to cost about $13.5 million. If approved, administrators estimate the construction would be complete for the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.
Initial plan abandoned
School leaders initially discussed changing school boundaries, which would have most likely sent students from Maple Grove High School to Osseo High School, where there is more building capacity.
But many Maple Grove parents lambasted the idea, saying that they bought homes in that city on the premise that they could someday send their children to Maple Grove High.
Following several community meetings last month, board members directed administrators to come up with a plan to realign the grades without shuffling students to different schools.
Teresa Lunt, the board’s chairwoman, said parents’ comments were compelling, as was a recent housing study that showed growth within each of the high schools’ boundary areas.
That growth, she said, justified the cost of building additions at each of the high schools — not just at Maple Grove, as some parents had suggested.
“For me, personally, I had no interest in mega high schools,” she said. “Larger does not necessarily mean there are more opportunities for kids.”
Tax hike would be involved
To pay for the additions, the district would tap its lease levy. If $13.5 million is financed, the owner of a $200,000 home would see an $18 annual increase in taxes.
The district probably would pay for the remainder of the project’s cost by either tapping operating capital funds, selling facility bonds or using an alternative facilities levy for deferred maintenance.
Even with a possible tax increase in play, many Osseo parents support the plan, especially now that boundary changes aren’t being discussed.
Bethany O’Dwyer, who has three sons at Basswood Elementary, has always backed the proposal. She thinks middle schools have more to offer sixth-graders, such as the opportunity to participate in debate or take an art class.
“I know it won’t be an easy decision, but I think it’s going to be good for the district in the long run,” she said.
If the school board does not approve reconfiguring the grades, administrators say they’ll have to make boundary adjustments at most of the district’s elementary schools in order to make room for all-day kindergarten.
It’s unclear which students would have to move, though an estimated 400-plus students would likely be affected.
Earlier this year, controversy erupted when administrators proposed moving about 100 kids from the popular Basswood Elementary, which has higher test scores, to Oak View Elementary. Parents complained the move was unnecessary, and ultimately administrators backed off the idea.
Reassigning students probably would have been the least expensive way to make room at the high schools for incoming freshmen.
But administrators say they can still be fiscally responsible and disrupt students very little by building the additions.
“This [realigning grades] will be a great benefit to our students,” Maguire said. “I’m about the outcome and open to the journey of how we get there.”