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Survival of the Biggest

These are not pleasant times for the Minneapolis Public Schools. In addition to a staggering dropout rate and a growing disparity in test scores between white and minority students, Minnesota's largest school district is still reeling from the loss of nearly 400 staff and teachers as part of a $25 million budget cut last May. And the hard decisions aren't over yet: Superintendent Carol Johnson and the MPS board are being criticized for its second wave of budget cuts arising out of increased healthcare and transportation costs and less-than-anticipated education funding from the state Legislature.

In late September Johnson and the board announced that they will close down three small schools and relocate at least two others at the end of the 2001-2002 school year. Now one of the state's most prominent education experts claims that the elimination of the small schools--defined as schools with fewer than 350 students--will deprive the district of one of the most reliable ways to improve the learning environment for Minneapolis students.

"The research is overwhelming that youngsters in smaller schools do better," says Joe Nathan, director of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. "Kids are safer, more satisfied, and have higher achievement and graduation rates. Parents are more satisfied and teacher morale is higher. The U.S. Department of Education says that the benefits of small schools have been, and I quote, 'confirmed with a clarity and a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research.'"

District officials don't dispute Nathan's research, and they point out their recent history of support for small schools and more intimate learning environments. Many of the small schools now facing elimination were created within the past decade, when there was more flexibility in the budget. The district also is implementing more "school within a school" programs, including "small learning environments" in high schools.

"Closing schools and relocating students is never our first choice," says Johnson. "But we find ourselves in the situation of balancing the educational needs of our students with the bleak realities of our current financial situation."

Johnson and the board maintain that a variety of circumstances and financial realities made their decision to close some small schools necessary, if not inevitable. All but one of the five schools being eliminated or relocated are operating in a leased building--an untenable expense, now that construction of several new facilities in the city has been completed and enrollment has gradually begun to decline. Most of the affected schools were accepting students from throughout the district and thus had particularly high transportation costs.

Of the two downtown schools being closed, Mill City Montessori was essentially doomed last year when its decade-long patron, Target Corp., pulled out of the partnership. And, in addition to its high lease and transportation costs, the downtown Chiron Middle School--organized around a unique program of getting students out into the community for more hands-on learning experiences--wasn't able to sustain enough business support to employ its community-service model.

Finally, some basic economies of scale can't be attained at small schools. "There isn't much of a cost difference between maintaining a school with 300 students and one with 500 students, in terms of your utility costs and your janitorial and engineering costs," says Kay Sack, the assistant superintendent for district support services at MPS. "And your administrative salaries, for a principal and support staff, are pretty much the same, at least the way we're operating now."

Put simply, there are plenty of good reasons for the school board's actions. But that doesn't mean education won't suffer, and at a time when the district can least afford it. Although Mill City Montessori's program will be shifted to Armatage Elementary, there will be a net loss of 50 Montessori slots for a program that already has a waiting list. In recent years Chiron has served as an oasis of stability for many students struggling with poverty and homelessness; that refuge will be at least temporarily disrupted when the school closes this spring.

Then there is the passion and affection that comes through when principals at Chiron, Mill City, and Brookside Elementary talk about knowing, more than just by name, every single student in their schools, a unity that's reflected in the glowing research regarding small schools that Nathan cites.

Nathan, who has helped to found charter schools and worked with Twin Cities public-education officials for 30 years, acknowledges that declining enrollment and increased costs have tightened the MPS budget. "[But] the Legislature did not cut funding for education," he notes. "Every school district in the state is actually receiving more money per pupil." Moreover, he adds, closing schools may be penny wise and pound foolish if it compels parents to abandon the district for private schools. If, for example, the closing of a building being leased for $100,000 a year results in the loss of 20 students funded by the Legislature at approximately $5,000 per year, then the saving is negligible.

MPS officials believe they have demonstrated diligence and flexibility in trying to make the best of a bad situation. The superintendent's original proposal was to close six schools and eliminate or break up most of the programs taking place in the affected facilities. But after holding two public meetings and soliciting feedback, Johnson and the school board made significant revisions to their plans: Shingle Creek Urban Environmental Elementary will remain in its current facility for at least one more year; and the Bottineau Early Education Center will be transferred relatively intact to either Holland or Pillsbury Elementary.

Still to be determined is the fate of the popular performing-arts program at Brookside Elementary. During the public hearings held by the board, Brookside received by far the most passionate community support. In response, Johnson and the school board decided to close the school--which is currently operating out of a leased building in St. Louis Park--but keep the performing-arts program alive by relocating it into two other schools, Cityview Community School in the north and Kenwood in the south.

The compromise did not mollify many parents, students, and school staff. "This is a Minneapolis school that is attracting people from as far away as Woodbury, one that parents and staff want to keep together," Nathan says. "I think it is sad that they are ripping it apart." According to school-board member Audrey Johnson, whose children also once attended the school, the administration and the board are considering other options. In any case, a decision must be made soon--the deadline for students to hand in their choice of schools to attend is January 15.

As important as the fate of Brookside may be to parents and staff, it's just a minor piece of a sobering financial puzzle that must be put together by the MPS administration and school board in the coming weeks. Having received voter approval just last year for additional monies to reduce class size in the schools, Minneapolis was one of the few districts not to put a tax increase for education on the ballot this year. With little or no additional money expected to come from the state or the feds in the near future, the district has to get more creative and more efficient with its resources. Still, all of the closings and relocations will save the district slightly less than $1 million next year, leaving another $8 million to be trimmed to stay within the budget. Some of that can be made up by the lower fuel prices for heating and transportation this winter.

To crunch the rest of the fiscal gap, MPS has been working with the well-respected consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., Inc., whose accountants and management personnel are going over the district's budget--free of charge--to identify other ways to trim its costs. The company's report will in turn be reviewed by a group of former and current Twin Cities CEOs, who will make their own recommendations. Progress reports and recommendations on the budgetary process will be given at the school-board meetings on November 30 and December 11. Whatever is eventually decided in the next few months will have a pronounced impact on all Minneapolis schools--big and small.


Editor's note: The author's son attended Brookside from 1993 to 1999, and the writer was among those who spoke in favor of retaining the school.

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