Should Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District close schools in the face of declining enrollment and imbalanced budgets?
Local residents will answer the question at a series of public meetings this month to gather input before a proposed plan goes to the Board of Education in November.
Around 50 residents, many with children enrolled in Savage elementary schools, gathered at Eagle Ridge Middle School Wednesday evening for the first discussion.
"I'm disappointed, but I realize it has to be this way," Michelle Batham, a Savage resident and parent of a Harriet Bishop Elementary student who said school closures seem necessary.
The district hired Roger Worner, an expert on facilities planning, to guide the process.
Worner's review completed this summer found underused facilities significantly contributed to the district’s financial strain, which has led to around $11 million in spending cuts in the past two years.
The report recommended closing two elementary schools and one middle school and selling the Diamondhead Education Center at the end of next school year.
During the event, Worner told residents the district lost over 1,500 students in the past 10 years and expects to lose over 700 more in the next five years.
The aging population within the district, a lower birth rate and open enrollment contribute to this trend, which results in major financial loss for the district. One elementary student brings over $6,000 in state aid; one middle school student carries over $7,500.
With fewer students, many of the districts schools are underused when compared to state guidelines and expensive to operate.
The utilities costs at elementary schools is comparable to Burnsville High School's utilities bill in terms of dollars-per-student, but Worner said high schools operate 50% more hours a day. Reducing facility costs could help the district maintain and expand programs and services and also prevent imbalanced class sizes.
After the presentation, residents were given an individual feedback form and asked to vote "yes" or "no" on whether or not the district has probable cause to consider the school closings.
The form also listed six pieces of decision-making criteria. Residents were asked to rank the three pieces of criteria that are most important during the process.
During small group discussion several residents shared concerns about increasing class sizes and wondered if the closures would guarantee the return of programs lost in recent budget cuts.
Others wondered what the district is doing to increase enrollment, and some shared frustrations with perceptions about the district, such as seeing Burnsville High School as violent, that have driven families to open-enroll elsewhere.
"What can make our district more desirable?" Batham said. "What does Prior Lake have that we don't?"
Jenny Thorpe-Wasmund, a local resident and parent, said she's concerned boundary changes will lead to longer transportation times for students and could affect the number of student support services and the availability of counselors.
But overall, she said she's hopeful school closures might be a fresh start for district families and a new chance to connect.
More focus groups are scheduled to take place the over the next couple of weeks:
- Metcalf Middle School on Oct. 7 at 6 p.m. for families from Metcalf, Sioux Trail, William Byrne, Rahn and Sky Oaks school attendance areas.
- Nicollet Middle School on Oct. 9 at 6 p.m. for families from Nicollet, Edward Neill, Gideon Pond, Sky Oaks and Vista View school attendance areas.
Focus groups will also cater to Spanish- and Somali-speakers. Those will be held at the Diamondhead Education Center:
- Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. for groups facilitated in Spanish.
- Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. for groups facilitated in Somali.
Residents can also give their thoughts online at www.isd191.org/facilities.
The Board of Education expects a recommended plan for closures on Nov. 14 before a final plan vote on Dec. 12. A public hearing on the proposal, required by state law, is scheduled for Dec. 4.