After months of debate about looming budget cuts, St. Louis Park school board members are near completion of a policy to guide the closing of a school.

The district, a small but venerable west-suburban school system, faces a $1.4 million budget shortfall next school year. As declining enrollment weakens older metro-area school districts, the savings associated with operating fewer schools has become attractive to many districts.

"This is going to be more and more common in the future" as enrollment continues to decline in districts across the state, said Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Several other metro-area districts, including Hopkins, Minneapolis and Robbinsdale, have closed schools or considered it in recent years because of budget shortfalls.

State laws outline the process districts must follow, such as holding public meetings, as board members decide to consolidate schools.

"It's just one of those things we're getting prepared for," said St. Louis Park School Superintendent Debra Bowers after board members approved a second reading of their new closing policy at a meeting Monday night.

St. Louis Park officials have discussed seeking input from the community about a referendum to increase the district's operating levy, she said. Unlike several other metro-area districts, St. Louis Park did not ask residents for additional voter-approved operating funds in November.

Bowers said the district still hopes the Legislature approves an additional 1 percent funding increase for schools for 2008-09 before the current session ends.

Excluding capital and alternative teacher compensation, the district's general fund budget was roughly $37.6 million during the 2001-02 school year vs. $45.6 million this school year. But inflation has forced the district to cut more than $7 million in expenditures since the 2001-02 school year to keep its budget balanced, officials said.

Additional state funding would ease the need for cuts to the 2008-09 budget, Bowers said. But if cuts become necessary, the district for the first time will have a school closing policy in hand. School board members are expected to make some changes to the policy and approve it in a final reading later this month.

Residents who packed board meetings and budget forums the district held earlier this year chided school officials for planning to reduce music education, social worker positions and other programs.

Several residents argued that some cuts could be avoided if the district closed an elementary school or held a referendum to increase its operating levy.

St. Louis Park operates four regular elementary schools and a Spanish language immersion school. It has one high school and one junior high.

"I strongly believe that the root of the problem lies in lack of state and federal funding for our schools," St. Louis Park parent Juli Stucker said in an e-mail. "But our district needs to come up with a long-term plan to deal with our budget crisis that does not involve a constant degradation of our core problems ... and closing a school is a valid option."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395