Not since the early 1980s has the end of the school year brought such a large wave of schools in the Twin Cities area that will not reopen next fall.

This week thousands of students and teachers in at least 20 schools are packing up their desks and their memories and heading to new buildings next fall. Two of the state's largest districts -- Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul -- are experiencing their largest downsizing ever.

The shutdowns are due to a combination of demographic and economic forces, and a greater choice of schools.

Most acutely affected are those two big districts and Minneapolis, where fewer students have created "excess space" in some buildings. That slack, coupled with the bleakest education funding forecast in a generation, has left districts with little choice but to close schools and to expect more shuttering of buildings in coming years.

"It's like a family that has a house and a cabin and a time-share in Arizona," said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "When times get tough, they say, 'What can we do without?' And pretty soon they're putting one of them on the market."

The situation hasn't happened on this scale since 1982, when scores of Minnesota schools closed due to a significant drop in student enrollment and very tight budgets.

More choice, flat funding

Today's school closing wave is concentrated in the three largest school districts -- Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis. Unlike three decades ago, it reflects a more pronounced effect of competition from charter schools, open enrollment and other school choices.

Funding pressures figured prominently in the timing of closing decisions in Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park.

"In some cases, they're closing them a little earlier than they probably would have because of the funding shortages. That's accelerating the decision," said Scott Croonquist, head of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

Typically district leaders will postpone closing buildings as enrollment numbers fall because the decisions are so painful and unpopular, Kyte said. But when a financial crisis such as the state budget deficit hits, they can no longer avoid closing schools, he said.

In Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, the school closings involve eight schools. About 2,000 students could be affected and about 100 teachers reassigned.

The last permanent school closings occurred in 1952, when small rural schools were shut down as part of consolidating several small country districts into Anoka-Hennepin.

"You can say declining enrollment is the reason we closed those schools," said the district's superintendent Dennis Carlson. "That is absolutely only part of the equation. The fact that it looks like we're going to have five years of flat funding from the state is the other part."

St. Paul Public schools will close a record eight schools this year. The move affects more than 4,500 students who will move from one school to another or be joined by new students from closed schools.

Enrollment in the district has fallen from 45,011 at the start of the 2000-01 school year to 38,038 last fall.

Minneapolis is closing three schools -- Folwell Middle School, Longfellow Community School and Park View Montessori. The re-juggling is part of a reorganization for next fall that could affect 20 percent of the district's 32,000 students.

In St. Louis Park, Cedar Manor Intermediate Center is closing.

Demographic trends show the youngest members of the baby boom echo have now graduated from high school. State demographer Tom Gillaspy said last year's graduating class was the peak of that generation. In Minnesota and nationwide, secondary school populations are starting to decrease. Primary enrollments are rising.

"Enrollments have been for the most part relatively flat to declining this decade across the state," he said. "Some districts are growing a bit and other districts are declining a bit."

Ripple effect

Croonquist says shutting down schools tends to affect not just students at those ill-fated schools, but also students throughout the district. "It has a ripple effect," he said, noting that what often follows is tweaking or even re-drawing of attendance boundaries.

In Anoka-Hennepin, the school year for elementary and middle-school students will end Wednesday -- a day earlier than previously planned -- because of the decision to close schools. The change is to give teachers more time to close out the year and prepare for their transition to new schools for next year.

Large numbers of staff moves will occur before the next school year. Teachers not affected by moves will assist their colleagues in packing and other preparations for the moves.

Mark Bollinger, head of facilities for the Minneapolis Public Schools, said closing schools could mean larger class sizes. "You're hearing of room sizes increasing. Maybe 30 kids to a classroom, as opposed to something that would be more ideal," he said.

Do the moves between schools affect the educations that students receive? "Overall, I don't think so," Kyte said, stressing that some kids may struggle more than others. "I think kids adjust, and life goes on."

Often, it's parents who struggle more with the emotional aspects of losing relationships developed with teachers and staff, said Jackie Turner, director of student engagement in the Minneapolis school district.

Many families unhappy with the district's downsizing plan last fall threatened to leave the district, but Turner said that only about 10 percent have done that so far.

"They're very angry at us for closing their school," she said. "Once you work with them on an individual family basis and say 'I'm sorry we had to close the school, this is why,' ... they understand."

Late Friday afternoon, Carlson was recording his usual voice mail message to staff throughout the Anoka-Hennepin district. This time, though, he felt compelled to reflect on the historic school closings and what lies ahead.

"I just said to 4,000 staff members that this is by any measure an unprecedented year and a time of tough change," Carlson recalled. "But the toughest years are yet to come."

Staff writers Norman Draper and Gregory A. Patterson contributed to this report. • 612-673-4488 • 612-673-7460