A committee studying school closings in the Anoka-Hennepin district could recommend closing as many as four elementary schools and one middle school, a co-chairman of the panel said.

David McCauley, onetime Coon Rapids mayor and Anoka County commissioner, said members have not yet selected which schools to propose closing, but must come up with recommendations for the school board by the board's Aug. 24 meeting. After that would come two public hearings, on Sept. 16 and 17, and a board decision as early as Sept. 28.

Schools selected by the board would be shut down beginning in the 2010-2011 school year.

McCauley said the task force -- comprising school district employees, parents, and other citizens -- has narrowed down the list to less than half of the district's 31 elementary schools. They have not yet determined which middle school should be closed. No high schools will be recommended for closing. Anoka-Hennepin is the state's largest school district.

Factors involved

District officials determined that schools need to be closed because district enrollment is declining at the rate of about 500 to 600 students a year. In addition, officials have determined that, using the district's 27-to-one pupil-to-teacher ratio, they have too much school space available. Then, there are the savings, crucial for a district facing a potential $18 million budget shortfall for the 2010-11 school year if it can't find more funding.

Chuck Holden, director of administrative services, said the district can realize $500,000 a year in savings per closed elementary school and $1 million a year per closed secondary school.

"When we close schools, we save money, and don't have to lay off teachers," he said.

More schools could be closed if voters reject a district effort to renew a $6 million-a-year tax levy in November.

"Then, the number of schools we close would increase," McCauley said. "It could be six. It could be more than six. We call that the ugly option." Further deterioration of the economy could make matters worse. Holden said the committee, which has been meeting since May, has had a tough time determining which schools to put on closing short list.

"The schools in the district are all functionally in good shape, and working well," he said. "It isn't like we can go in there and pick the low-hanging fruit, and say, 'ah, there are several schools that are deficient.'"

Committee considerations

The committee created 92 criteria for deciding which schools to close, McCauley said. That list has since been whittled to 20. Top criteria include costs to operate the schools, the cost to maintain or renovate schools, building capacity, transportation costs, and reuse potential for the buildings.

McCauley offered an example of a scenario that committee members would look at.

"At one of our schools, 62 percent of the kids are walkers," he said. "If you close that school, would they be able to walk to [another] neighborhood school, or do you bus them?" Busing them, of course, would cost more.

Lesser criteria include student achievement, amount of technology in the schools, and geographic problems and traffic issues posed at the different sites. Committee members are also looking at the effect a school closing would have on the neighborhood. For instance, community sports programs that use a school's playing fields and gyms might be deprived of those facilities if the school is closed.

McCauley said the task force studied situations in other school districts nationwide -- Detroit, San Jose, Pittsburgh, and Dade County, Fla., among them -- where schools were closed. They also studied districts closer to home -- Mounds View, Robbinsdale and Osseo, among them -- which have had to close schools in recent years.

"I look at it as it's going to be kind of a heroic thing for the schools that are going to have to close," McCauley said. "We're asking [students] to make a tremendous sacrifice to leave a school they've grown up with."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547