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Minneapolis Officials Prepare for Massive School Closings

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Minneapolis--Public-school officials here are expected to announce this week the closing of as many as a third of the city's schools this spring.

The estimated 15 to 25 closings will be the most extensive the district has ever undertaken in a single year and could for the first time involve two or more high schools.

Because of the anticipated magnitude of the proposed closings, the next school year is likely to be accompanied by a reshuffling of boundaries, students, and staff members. For that reason, the planners--38 school officials who make up a "facilities planning committee" for the local school board--have remained tight-lipped about which schools will close.

Virtually every school boundary in Minneapolis may be changed by the time schools open next fall, officials have indicated. More students may be bused. Schools may accommodate different grades and academic programs than they now do. And a large number of principals and teachers may find themselves in different schools.

But while they will not yet discuss those changes, committee members have talked about the criteria--the "grading system"--on which they are basing their recommendations to the Minneapolis School Board.

The committee looked, members say, at each building's physical condition, energy-efficiency, operating cost, and capacity to accommodate various educational programs.

They also considered each building's safety, accessibility to the handicapped and to public transportation, and proximity to other community facilities such as parks. And they studied each neighborhood's history of disruption due to past school closings.

Which schools will close also hinges on the desegregation plan the school board has been developing since last spring. In following its new five-year plan--of which desgregation strategies are one part--school officials aim to locate boundaries and programs so that the percentage of minority students enrolled in each school will not exceed the districtwide average of minority students for any grade level by more than 15 percent.

These guidelines are designed to meet the requirements of a 1972 federal-court order and standards set by the Minnesota Department of Education.

In the past 10 years, enrollment in the city's public-school system has plunged by 25,000, to 39,000 this year. But school closings have not kept pace. The district now has 75 schools, including special-education facilities.

By contrast, one nearby suburban district--Anoka-Hennepin--educates its 30,000 students in 34 schools--that is, it has 77 percent of the Minneapolis student enrollment, but only 47 percent as many schools.

Not surprisingly, there are empty classrooms throughout the Minneapolis district. Its 75 facilities were built to accommodate 53,000 students, so currently enrollment is just 74 percent of capacity. Moreover, officials say that further enrollment declines in the next five years are expected to increase the excess space from one-quarter to one-third.

As enrollments in each building have spread thinner and thinner, so have course offerings. Schools that once offered four foreign languages and a range of upper-level math classes, for example, are no longer able to provide such a wide selection. In many cases, they offer one or two languages and only some mathematics classes.

Since 1924, 75 Minneapolis schools have been closed, about half of them in the last 10 years, while 44 new ones have been constructed. Most of the closed schools were located in the inner city, while many of the new facilities were built near the city's periphery.

About a year ago, when school officials first went to work on a long-range, comprehensive plan for the system, all agreed that school closings must be a major component of that plan. The facilities-planning committee is aiming for orderly closings that are fair and predictable--qualities that critics say have been noticeably absent from many past closings.

They want to make certain in particular, they say, that the closings do not favor affluent parents and neighborhoods. And they want to be able to tell parents with certainty what school their children will attend five years from now.

That is a sticky task, they acknowledge, given the number of uncertainties that can influence enrollments in future years. For example, committee members do not know whether the number of Southeast Asian students (a population that has swelled to 2,300 in only a few years) will stabilize or decline in coming years.

Nor do they know if a tax-credit or voucher system will be adopted that would provide parents with an incentive to send their children to private or parochial schools, a move that would further reduce the public-school rolls..

The first section of the five-year plan, approved by the school board last May, suggested closing 15 schools--two senior highs, three junior highs, and 10 elementary schools. Reaction from the community seems to have been relatively muted so far. Nor is there any indication that the letters and phone calls that have influenced officials in the past have had much effect this time around.

Says Kenneth Northwick, a regional superintendent and co-chairman of the facilities-planning committee, "There is an acceptance that schools must close. The politics and pressure groups are not going to be a major factor in determining which ones."

A number of parents, however, have written to complain about the effect of the school closings on the so-called Latch Key programs, which provide after-school day care to the children of about 1,800 working parents. The parents want the services to remain available near their homes.

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