Cars, pickups and SUVs stream in by the score each morning to a side entrance at Minnewashta Elementary in Shorewood.
They carry students who live outside the Minnetonka school district but cross district lines to take advantage of an impressive variety of course and program offerings. At day’s end, the parents return — idling in long lines — to pick up their kids.
The district says nonresident students, and the revenue they generate, are vital to its operations, and it continues to advertise for them — even though they now comprise about one-third of the student population. That has fueled complaints from some parents about overcrowding. Soon, it also may spur action on the campaign front.
As a Minnewashta parent weighs a school board run on a platform of capping enrollment, property taxes come due beginning this week with the general-education levy costs associated with nonresident students hitting $9.2 million this year.
District leaders say the money paid by resident taxpayers doesn’t actually go to serving students who live outside the district. It receives more than enough state aid for those children, Superintendent Dennis Peterson says.
But Robert Porter, a retired finance specialist who worked at the state Department of Education, said students who open-enroll to Minnetonka sit side by side with resident students delivered by yellow buses, and “common sense” tells you that any benefit to residents from $9.2 million in taxes is diluted by their presence.
The $9.2 million translates to about $500 in taxes this year for a $471,000 home, he said. The district, holding firm to the position that no taxes go to nonresidents, declined to vet Porter’s estimate and said “the financial impact on our residents is about the same as it would be without open-enrolled students.”
The district also has exceeded the total capacity of 10,550 students it projected for this year when it made a successful pitch to voters for new funding in 2015. Total enrollment in 2018-19 is 10,970, with the number of nonresidents on the rise again.
The drive to fill seats comes with the blessing of the existing board — as evidenced by the reaction last fall to an annual enrollment presentation that put the number of nonresident students at 3,597, up 136 from the previous year. The administration painted a grim scenario of $30 million in cuts over 13 years if it began to close off kindergarten to anyone other than district residents.
“A pretty telling statistic,” board Chairwoman Lisa Wagner said. She is one of four incumbents whose seats are up for election this fall.
Wagner added that district leaders must continue to promote open enrollment to ensure that sufficient resources are on hand to serve resident students: “That’s what our taxpayers are expecting of us,” she said.
Some say, however, that it’s time to rein in the practice.
Earlier this school year a question was raised on a Nextdoor.com page about whether Minnetonka should serve only resident students, and it triggered a robust conversation.
Into the fray stepped Patrick Johnson, a Shorewood City Council member and Minnewashta parent. He said that the district had cut into the school’s media center this year because it needed classroom space, and that things simply had gotten out of hand.
“Open enrollment is not the problem if kept in check and capped at say 10 to 15%,” Johnson wrote. “But Peterson and the board have used this as a profit center, which is great if you are running a business. But this is not a business … it is education.”
In an interview with the Star Tribune, Johnson mentioned the possibility of running for the school board. He also provided a packet of his own research that included a “Superintendent’s Message” written in 2013-14 in which Peterson stated: “We are getting very close to the enrollment limit that has been in place for each school and the overall enrollment is about to reach the top.”
Since then, the district has added more than 1,000 resident and nonresident students.
Last week, Trevor Thurling, a banker and Minnewashta parent, said he was giving serious thought to running for the school board and hoped to announce by the end of the month. He considers himself a rational thinker not on the “extremist side of the fence” and was surprised to find himself eyeing a single-issue campaign to cap enrollment. Like Johnson, he mentioned the media space concern. He also thought his son’s first-grade class had too many kids — 26 or 27, he believed.
Thurling wants the district to be upfront about its school and class size targets and to hold firm to them, bringing in nonresident students only when space opens up.
“I think it’s resonating with parents and teachers,” he said of his message.
JacQueline Getty, a district spokeswoman, said last week that the district has sought to maintain and to not grow enrollment. But she acknowledged it aims slightly above its targets, and in turn, the district has moved beyond where it assumed it would be by now.
For the elementary grades, Getty provided a list of the district’s class size targets that range from 22 students in kindergarten to 28 in fifth grade, plus a Metro ECSU class size study for 2018-19 that shows the district’s kindergarten classrooms averaging 20.51 students — the middle of the pack among 28 districts — and its fifth-grade classrooms averaging 24.09 students — second lowest among the 28 districts.
Minnewashta is the district’s largest elementary school with a capacity of 984 students, and it now has 935 — 349 of whom are open-enrolled. There are 11 kindergarten classrooms, up from eight a year ago, and six first-grade classrooms with 18, 20, 21, 22, 25 and 25 kids, respectively, Getty said. The target is 23.
A message to Minnewashta parents before the start of the year mentioned the media center remodeling and described it as an enhancement for students “as we continue to move into more digital resources.” The note referenced, too, an annual parent survey that Peterson said revealed “several comments” about limiting enrollment.
At the Star Tribune’s request, Getty supplied a summary of those comments, and it showed 171 district parents citing “growing enrollment” as a concern. On the plus side for cap-friendly candidates: It was the top concern. Potential downside: The critical take was volunteered by 6% of the 2,861 respondents.
A campaign to cap enrollment would be a first for Minnetonka, Getty said.
“Our residents and parents generally understand the incredible value that open enrollment brings to the district and the positive impact our amazing school district has on the community,” she said.