St. Paul Public Schools will begin to roll out recommendations on school closings next week as the district grapples with enrollment declines and disadvantages facing smaller schools.

Changes will come primarily at the elementary level and are geared to give students access to specialist teachers in every building — doing away, in turn, with a system of haves and have-nots between schools big and small.

But closings or mergers could stir heavy emotions for families at smaller schools. Parents have the ability to choose from a wide range of options and elected to put their children in those buildings, said School Board Member Zuki Ellis.

The rationale and strategy behind the moves were outlined by district administrators in recent weeks and are creating renewed pressure on schools like Galtier Community School in the Hamline-Midway area. Galtier narrowly escaped closure in 2016 and a former PTO president, Clayton Howatt, now is running for school board.

"I will say that the administration has little understanding of what is actually going on in our schools that are really struggling," Howatt posted on his campaign's Facebook page, adding he believed the plan "is bound to fail."

Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer, has said she expects "a minimal number of our elementary schools" to be affected by the changes. On Monday, she added the district would see greater inequities if it did not act now.

"To do nothing is not an option," she told board members.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said: "We've created a standard in St. Paul Public Schools that I believe is one we can stand by. The difficulty in that is that not every student gets to experience that in St. Paul Public Schools. So we know what it is, we know how to do it, we have just not been able to do it — and we want to make sure we can."

Board members also learned Monday that 16,058 of the city's school-age children attended charter schools or used open enrollment to go to schools in other districts in 2019-20. That's up from the approximately 14,000 resident students who chose not to attend district schools in 2017 — as reported by the Star Tribune in a series, "Students In Flight."

The top two destinations, Hmong College Prep Academy and Community School of Excellence, are charter schools serving student populations that are nearly 100% Asian.

District leaders set out to craft the reorganization plan as part of an initiative called "Envision SPPS" and have taken recommendations from a number of study groups. One reviewed its language immersion offerings and is recommending that the district merge its two Hmong Dual Language programs. One of the schools, Jackson Elementary in Frogtown, had 272 students last fall, just above the 250-student threshold the district says makes a school "unsustainable."

Turner said the district considers an ideal elementary school to be one with enough kids to offer three sections per grade, or a minimum of 450 students total. The school then has enough resources to hire teachers who specialize in areas like science, art, music and social studies, rather than having general-education teachers cover most subjects, officials say.

Kate Wilcox-Harris, the district's chief academic officer, said teachers aim to "ignite sparks" in students, and the more specialists that a school is able to employ in various fields, the better the chance of it happening. Citing the example of a fictional student, Wilcox-Harris said: "This is what's at stake ... our ability to cultivate her genius."

Howatt said he wants to see a rundown of schools that offer what the district is calling a "well-rounded education" and those that do not. He suspects that those that do, and are not facing a closure threat, are predominantly white. Galtier had 189 students in October 2020, according to district data, and 76% were students of color.

Districtwide, the student body was 31% Asian, 25% Black and 21% white at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Ellis, who voted against the Galtier closure in 2016, said she has fielded questions about schools now being described as unsustainable and has found one difficult to answer: "What could we have done differently?"

Turner said that after the board decided to save Galtier, the district provided three staff members to the school — a technology teacher on special assignment, a parent engagement coordinator and an intervention specialist — all of whom were funded with resources drawn from elsewhere. The school also was renovated two years earlier in 2014.

"So there were hundreds of thousands of dollars that were invested in that particular school," Turner said.

Looking ahead, the district is expected to face another budget shortfall in 2022-23, necessitating the need to examine those schools unable to operate without subsidies, said Marie Schrul, the district's chief financial officer.

"We have to do something different," she said.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109