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Published in Print: March 17, 2004, as Minneapolis Board Delays Vote To Close Schools

Minneapolis Board Delays Vote To Close Schools

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The interim superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools is pushing hard for major changes to the district, but so far the school board has not taken action on his most controversial ideas.

The 44,000-student district has about 800 idle classrooms, projects a $20 million shortfall in its $460 million budget, and has seen enrollment drop by about 5,000 students over the past five years.

"Facing up to the increasing demands of policymakers and balancing the budget demands doing something differently that we have not done historically," David M. Jennings, the interim superintendent, said in an interview last week.

David M. Jennings

A school board vote scheduled for March 2 on closing 10 schools and consolidating others—part of Mr. Jennings' district reorganization plan—was delayed after some parents and community members expressed anger at the proposal during hearings.

The board will meet with parents this spring and summer to discuss the restructuring proposals and will make a final decision by October.

"I would have preferred the school board to take action now," Mr. Jennings said.

The plan calls for closing 10 schools with excess capacity, merging smaller programs in neighboring schools with demographically similar student populations, moving programs in leased space to district-owned buildings, and expanding popular programs such as all-day kindergarten.

The two-year plan would close a total of about 340 classrooms and provide estimated short-term savings of $2.8 million and long-term savings of $9.7 million in facilities costs.

Mr. Jennings is advocating the changes in light of a report released by the district last November. Projecting that student enrollment would likely drop by 3,000 students by next school year, the report said it would plummet to 32,500 students by 2008 because of increased competition from charter and suburban schools.

In Minnesota, students can attend any public school of their choice.

The district also needs to hire a superintendent to replace Mr. Jennings, whose contract expires in June. Last fall, the school board voted to appoint him to the position, but backed off that decision in the face of criticism from the community that it had not been involved in the selection process.

Among other proposals, he called for making teachers employees of a "union hall," operated by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, rather than of the district. He sees it as the natural next step in increasing professionalization for teachers.

Question of Focus

Dennis Shapiro, a school board member, and Sharon Henry-Blythe, the chairwoman of the board, did not return calls. But in a Feb. 24 joint statement announcing that the board would postpone decisions until October, they said that "we must realign our system, consolidate school buildings, and move forward with our limited resources focused on academic programs, not empty classrooms."

Louise Sundin, the president of the 5,500-member Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said she saw no particular reason to make major changes.

"You don't have to restructure the district in order to close classrooms or schools," Ms. Sundin said. "They are separate issues."

In the early 1980s, she noted, more than a dozen schools in Minneapolis were closed without making more sweeping changes to the district.

Ms. Sundin said her union was studying the interim superintendent's proposal for adopting the hiring-hall concept. Under that plan, teachers would be employees of the union, which would be responsible for teacher training and licensure. Schools would hire teachers directly from the union.

What disappoints teachers the most, Ms. Sundin said, is the burden they are bearing. Mr. Jennings has said that 220 teachers are likely to be laid off this year; last year, about 250 teachers were let go.

Barb Nicol, a parent whose 3rd grade daughter attends Lake Harriet Community School in Minneapolis, said she agrees serious changes are needed.

"Any time you close schools, it's painful," Ms. Nicol said. "But the connection shouldn't be to the bricks, but to the people and the kids. Being territorial about bricks isn't going to help kids."

There was tremendous opposition in her community a few years ago, she said, when two schools were merged to form the K-8 school her daughter now attends.

"Parents fought it tooth and nail," she said, "but now we're one of the best schools in the city."

Vol. 23, Issue 27, Page 11

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