Suburban school leaders see a problem in the farm fields and sod farms that surround their north and west metro districts: future development and the need for more school space.
A frenzy of home construction in some suburbs is boosting the population and overcrowding schools — prompting Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, and the flourishing Wayzata district to draw new attendance boundary lines.
But the prospect of changing schools is emotional for many young families in the affected districts.
“We moved here for the schools,” said Plymouth parent Marc Stephens, who has four children in the Wayzata district, adding that boundaries were changed a few years ago: “We didn’t know this would be an issue every three years.”
This month, Anoka-Hennepin is seeking public input on a plan that would shuffle 4,500 students, or 11 percent of students districtwide, to new schools in fall 2019.
The proposal aims to relieve overcrowding in some schools, while helping to fill open seats at two new elementary schools in fast-growing Blaine and Ramsey. It’s part of a massive effort to make over every school in the district after a $249 million school referendum — the largest in Minnesota history — passed last fall.
Meanwhile, Wayzata voters approved a $70 million referendum last fall, funding construction of a ninth elementary school and other projects. But now, in order to fill it and address overcrowding, the district is moving 500 elementary and 75 middle-school students in 2019, or about 5 percent of all students. The school board is slated to vote May 14 on the plan.
“Families love their elementary school so it’s never easy to leave a school,” said Kristin Tollison, Wayzata’s director of administrative services. “Any time you have growth or decline, you have to adjust.”
There are plenty of Minnesota school districts experiencing steep enrollment declines, budget cuts and in some cases, the pain of shutting down schools. But several other school districts are facing the same growth-related problems as Anoka-Hennepin and Wayzata schools.
Spring Lake Park school leaders approved school boundary changes that will take effect next fall to accommodate the opening of a new K-4 school in Blaine.
In Elk River, the school district rejiggered attendance boundaries this school year to address overcrowding and opened a new elementary. And in Woodbury and Cottage Grove, four middle school boundaries will shift this fall to ease overcrowding and accommodate a new middle school’s opening.
The 62 portable classrooms that resemble mobile homes outside schools are a sign of the growth in Anoka-Hennepin that began in the 1990s.
While enrollment dipped slightly the last few years, it has regained momentum, adding more than 600 kids to the district in 2016. Officials project another 1,200 kids will enter the district by 2021. The number of building permits doubled from 2014 to 2017, with nearly 900 permits approved in nine suburbs — shifting to new areas largely in Ramsey and Blaine.
“We’re not going to be able to do additions to get our way through this,” Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law said.
Even without new buildings, boundary changes are needed in the district to deal with overcrowding, Law said.
“We know how scary it is for parents,” he told a group at Champlin Park High last week. “We’re committed to that transition going well.”
One of the most controversial aspects affects two elementary schools — Monroe, which has 750 students, and Evergreen Park, which has 400 kids. One plan calls for splitting them up, making Monroe a K-2 school and Evergreen a third- through fifth-grade school.
A second proposal keeps the schools K-5 but limits open enrollment at Monroe, which has a popular STEM program, and adds a STEM program at Evergreen.
Some parents and teachers are outraged that young kids would have to transition to another school and be bused farther from their neighborhoods.
“You’re taking kids in my neighborhood and my kids and you’re breaking them apart,” parent Jeff Horstman told the school board earlier this year. “I’ve got to move because of this. It’s terrible.”
But officials say something needs to be done and no new changes will be needed for five to 10 years. Community meetings will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Anoka High and Thursday at Andover High School. The school board is expected to vote on a plan Sept. 24.
“These are growing pains,” Law said. Families “love their schools. And they’ll love their next school too.”
In Wayzata, it’s déjà vu for Molly and Josh Kramer.
The district reshuffled boundaries when it opened its eighth elementary in 2016 and the Maple Grove couple’s two kids moved there. But home construction didn’t slow in the 11,500-student district as families moved in from other cities, states or countries. More than 400 new homes were built in 2017 and the district expects another 1,000 homes by 2020.
Now when the new elementary school opens in 2019 near the border of Plymouth and Medina, the Kramers’ daughter will move to it — again.
“My daughter will be in her third elementary school — that’s in six years,” Josh Kramer told the school board recently.
One by one, parents gave angry, tearful testimony last Wednesday at a meeting, pleading with the board not to bus students from neighborhood schools and asking that their kids be grandfathered in. Some parents said they had invested money and volunteer time at their schools, while others asked leaders to draw boundaries based on current students — not on future students at homes not yet built.
“My heart breaks for these children who are being pulled away from their cohorts,” Medina parent Kari Pendergast told the board about students moving to a new middle school.
She and other parents threatened to move their kids to the Orono School District or to private schools if the changes pass.
Jamie Martin, a parent on a committee that came up with boundary recommendations, said that “not everyone is going to be thrilled, but at the same time it has to be done.” Another parent and committee member, Derek Plymate said the task was challenging and the group looked at 83 different versions of the changes.
“It’s exciting to be in a sought-after district,” Tollison added. “This [boundary change] is one of the downsides.”