After weeks of packed public hearings, the St. Paul school board on Wednesday approved a leaner yet still contentious package of school closings and mergers for next year.
Gone were the more controversial aspects of the Envision SPPS consolidation plan — proposed closings of LEAP High School and the Wellstone and Highwood Hills elementary schools — and with it the broader systemwide reset that Superintendent Joe Gothard and his team had sought.
But the moves still will affect about 2,165 students, and Wednesday's eventual 5-2 vote weighed heavily on board members. While knowing there'd be pain and heartbreak for many in the community, Board Member Chauntyll Allen said the district needs to make changes to improve student outcomes.
"I'm not OK with sitting still," she said.
Board Member Jessica Kopp added: "We all know we have work to do. This is our chance to build a strong foundation to do those things."
Action on the Envision SPPS consolidation plan came nearly two months after officials first proposed closing and vacating five schools and merging several others in response to declining student numbers and a desire to give all elementary students a well-rounded education including art, science and other subjects taught by specialist teachers.
Elements of the plan that go into effect in 2022-23 include:
- Closing Galtier Community School and sending its students to Hamline Elementary — a proposal first rejected by board members in 2016. Galtier would be repurposed as an early-childhood learning hub.
- Merging the two campuses of L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion Elementary — and clearing the way for another early-childhood learning hub at the school's lower campus.
- Closing John A. Johnson and sending the students to nearby Bruce Vento Elementary, with a new building to be constructed at the Vento site in three to four years.
- Merging the district's Hmong dual-language programs by closing Jackson Elementary and sending the students to Phalen Lake on the East Side. Jackson's general-ed students would be steered to Maxfield Elementary.
- Discontinuing the Montessori program at Parkway Middle School and replacing it with a new Hmong dual-language program for middle-schoolers.
- Merging Cherokee Heights with J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School at the J.J. Hill site and reopening Cherokee Heights as a West Side community school, drawing students from the community program at Riverview West Side Community School of Excellence.
In addition to the 2022-23 changes, the district plans to close Obama Elementary in 2023-24 and reopen it in 2024 or 2025 as the new home for students at J.J. Hill Montessori while also expanding it to include middle-school students.
At a public hearing Tuesday, several speakers suggested the board should not be satisfied with its crowd-pleasing moves to pull LEAP, Wellstone and Highwood Hills from the Envision plan. The whole thing should be dropped, they said.
Jim Hilbert, who serves as education committee chair of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, said the group believes the district should use federal pandemic funds as a "bridge" to a more transparent and inclusive redesign process.
"The process should not be rushed, and all relevant stakeholders should be involved early and throughout the process," he said.
Board Member John Brodrick, who along with colleague Zuki Ellis voted against the closings and mergers, said the district should have listened to the NAACP and reopened the process.
"We can never expect to halt declining enrollment until we restore trust," he said. [This] proposal will only put a Band-Aid on this almost mortal wound of trust that afflicts us."
At this week's hearing, Vichheka Khiev-Clarke, a parent with two children at Galtier Community School, said the district should not be closing schools and displacing children, but looking at schools as diamonds it can polish by providing additional resources.
"Make it shine like the stars we are," she said.
Sai Thao, an East Side parent, said her oldest child went to Parkway after attending Nokomis Montessori Magnet School and she intended to have her fourth-grader go to Parkway, too. The district needs a Montessori middle school, Thao said.
"Invest in it. Grow it," she said. "We want you to make it the awesome school it can be."
The board's move to spare Wellstone scuttled a related move: Students in Wellstone's Spanish dual-language immersion program were to relocate to Riverview.
On Monday, Board Member Jim Vue said he wanted the district to work with school communities to build the strongest possible Spanish dual-language program.
Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer, cautioned that any uncertainty over the fate of schools could be a turnoff to parents with a kindergartner wondering if the program still will exist two or three years from now.
But the board also has a newly energized Wellstone community to draw into the conversation, said Stephanie Anderson, a parent who campaigned to save Wellstone.
"You can count on us to continue the fight … and work alongside you," she said.