The St. Paul school district has identified three elementary schools that it is considering closing for the 2010-11 school year, as it plans a major reorganization in the face of declining enrollment and ever-growing budget deficits.

At a meeting Tuesday, district officials recommended to the school board that it close Roosevelt Elementary West Side School of Excellence and the Longfellow Humanities Magnet school, and close Sheridan Elementary and use the building for another purpose.

The district is already planning to combine Humboldt Senior and Junior high schools into one school for the 2009-10 year.

"No one wants to make those tough decisions to close schools" that mean a lot to the community, said Michelle Walker, the district's chief accountability officer, before the meeting. But "we have to look at what we need to do to transform the way we do business."

The closing of the three elementary schools, and combination of the Humboldt schools, would save the district an estimated $2.47 million.

The recommendations came as part of wide-ranging plans for the district. If approved by the board, they will overhaul how St. Paul educates students, from changing the way the district decides where to send students to changing how teachers and staff are evaluated.

The St. Paul district is the second-largest in the state with about 38,500 students. It has made more than $93 million in budget cuts over the past nine years and is planning for at least another $25 million for the 2009-10 school year.

The district faces steep challenges. Only half its students are proficient in reading, and the achievement gap between white students and students of color is among the widest in the nation.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen is leaving at the end of the school year to head the Austin, Texas, school district, so there's no guarantee her successor will follow through on the plans that are more than a year in the making.

But, Walker said, "it is our responsibility as the current administration" to deliver the best recommendations it can for the district's future.

The decision is ultimately up to the board.

All three schools identified for closing are failing to meet both state and school district expectations for performance, and all three have a higher percentage of low-income students than the district average. Together, the three will have a projected 950 students next year, compared with their combined capacity of 1,500.

The closure recommendations were made after the district looked at a combination of enrollment trends, academic performance, location, transportation and what other services might be in the schools, Walker said. The district doesn't know yet where students at these schools would go.

Changes to 'choice' system

Administrators are also proposing to overhaul the district's current "school choice" system, which is a complex patchwork of magnet and neighborhood schools and city-wide schools that anybody can attend if there is space. Under the system, the district transports 89 percent of students to and from school, the highest rate for any urban district in the nation.

If approved, the plan would create three "regions" in the city. Students could be transported to any school within their region, as long as it's more than a mile from home. Students could still attend any school in the district outside of their region, but the district would not provide transportation. The plan could save the district an estimated $2.2 million.

Seven "city-wide" schools would still offer busing to students all over St. Paul. Those are Central Senior High School, Open School, Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet, L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion, Crossroads Science and Montessori, Four Seasons A+ Elementary, and the American Indian Magnet School.

Legislative factors

Action at the Legislature could affect the district's timing. If the Senate version of the education bill is approved -- including reductions in K-12 funding from the state -- the closings could be moved up to the 2009-10 school year to help deal with $10 million that would be added to the district's projected deficit.

Also included in the recommendations:

• Use of federal stimulus dollars to speed reform efforts and expand successful research-based programs to other parts of the district.

• Apply for the state "Q Comp" program. Q Comp, which stands for "Quality Compensation," is a state program meant to enhance professional development and give effective Minnesota teachers merit pay. It needs to be negotiated with the union. The district could receive $10 million from the state for the program.

Staff and the public can offer input on the proposals for the district at community forums on May 12 and 28.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460