State lawmakers are often portrayed as the bad guys when they force reluctant school districts to consolidate and close schools as a matter of fiscal efficiency.
But the roles have been reversed in Minnesota, where two legislators have drafted bills that would help reverse a controversial vote in December by the school board in the 10,000-student Mounds View district to close two of its eight elementary schools at the end of this school year.
“When the legislature gets involved in a particular school district, it’s always at the request of the board, and usually by unanimous [local] vote and for a one-time situation,” said Jan Witthuhn, the superintendent of Mounds View. “That’s certainly not the case here.”
Mounds View has seen enrollment decline by 1,500 students since 1997, and faces a shortfall of $3 million in its $84 million operating budget. So, despite opposition from some parents, the board took what it thought was the prudent step of deciding to close Pike Lake and Snail Lake elementary schools. It also voted to spend some $3 million from the sale of district-owned land to pay down the shortfall.
The closure vote was “a rational, inevitable decision,” board member Bob Sundberg argued in a commentary published by the Star Tribune newspaperof Minneapolis.
The district board’s actions, however, are under challenge from the two lawmakers, who are responding to parents angry over the planned closings.
Sen. Mady Reiter, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would channel the proceeds from the land sale to operating expenses to keep the two schools open. Rep. Philip B. Krinkie, also a Republican, wants to set up a trust account from the land proceeds for operating expenses to keep the schools open.
Though an advocate of local control, Sen. Reiter says the Mounds View closings raise too many questions in her mind, and she argues they can be avoided. She maintains the district’s population projections are far too conservative, and she blames the shortfall, in part, on decisions to put artificial turf on two football fields.
“I wrestled with it for some time because I know how I am about local control,” she said of getting involved. “But I decided it was the right thing to do.” She concedes that the legislature probably does not have the appetite for upending a local school board decision by supporting her bill.
She noted that state officials are studying what should happen when private land is taken through eminent domain and never used for its original purpose—as she said happened in Mounds View. “This is being looked at,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week