A year ago, the Robbinsdale school board backed off its plan to shut down as many as three district schools.

That probably won't happen Tuesday night.

Board members appear determined this time to close three schools -- two elementary and one middle school -- in an effort to save $2 million a year in operations costs. Board members have directed district staff members to present them with three different scenarios, all of which involve the three school closings, but with a different cast of characters.

The one that seems most likely to win board approval would close Sandburg Middle School in Golden Valley; Pilgrim Lane Elementary in Plymouth, and Sunny Hollow Elementary in New Hope. In the big student shuffle that would follow, the district's Spanish Immersion School would move from its current location in the Robbinsdale Middle School building to Sunny Hollow.

Since the three likely targets for closing were announced earlier this month, parents and teachers have crammed the district board rooms to take part in the school closing discussions. A forum held at Cooper High School in New Hope last Tuesday drew around 400 people. Another public hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, immediately preceding the 7 p.m. board session.

Some parents say they are angry at what they consider the school board's refusal to look at other options.

"The sense here at Pilgrim Lane is disbelief," said Plymouth parent Leslie Gentner. "Not disbelief that our school could close, but disbelief that there was never apparently a real desire to look at options to keep us open."

Gentner would prefer the board look at an option that would shift sixth-graders from the middle schools to the elementary schools, and close Northport Elementary in Brooklyn Center, Lake-view Elementary in Robbinsdale and Robbinsdale Middle School in Robbinsdale.

Northport and Lakeview were two schools that dodged a bullet last year when the board decided to make cuts that didn't include school closings. That option, say school and district officials, is the least likely of the three to win board approval.

District Superintendent Stan Mack had warned since last year's no-closings decision that the board was merely putting off the inevitable. Declining enrollment and a surplus of space in the schools led to findings by district consultants that three schools could be closed to make operations more efficient, and save a bundle of money, too.

Though district voters approved a levy request last year that gives the district $9.4 million a year over the next seven years, district officials said enrollment dropoffs and the uncertainty over state education funding this year dictated the need to cut some space, and avoid cuts to teachers and programs.

That doesn't make the decision to close schools any easier.

"It's really hard for all of us," said board chairman Tom Walsh. "We wish there were other alternatives, but, because of declining enrollment, this is something we need to do."

Reaction from parents

When districts lose students, they also lose the state funding attached to those students, contributing to the drain on district resources. Walsh said board members have gotten "dozens of phone calls" about the closings and as many as 400 e-mails, including 200 since Tuesday's public forum at Cooper High School.

Bruce Rader, co-president of the Pilgrim Lane parent-teacher association, said there's plenty of e-mail buzz among parents who are already weighing their options of shifting their children to other schools, either private or public, in other districts.

"The schools being impacted by this are schools on the borders of the district where parents are going to have the option of going elsewhere," he said. "There's a significant number of people thinking about moving their kids out of the district."

Tom Henderlite, Sandburg's principal, has overseen the start of the school's transformation into an in-demand magnet program for students who want to be a part of its rigorous International Baccalaureate academic program. While it will be difficult for Henderlite to give that up should Sandburg close, he knows the IB program will survive somewhere else. His teachers, though, will face a challenge.

"It'll be a toughie for the staff," he said. "They've worked so hard to build the program. To have to leave and start over, that's always tough."

For many parents and teachers, the loss of a school can't be measured in dollars and cents; it's personal and emotional.

Fifth-grade teacher Mary Jane Adams said closing Sunny Hollow would mean ending a chapter she began 14 years ago when she started there.

"I think our district is faced with some difficult choices," she said. "I can wrap my brain around those difficult choices. ... My head will be able to understand, but my heart will grieve. Closing a school is like losing something you love."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547