Sioux trail Elementary

Sioux Trail Elementary is one of eight Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district schools operating significantly under capacity, according to a recent report by the district’s financial consultant that recommended closing several schools.

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district officials should close three schools at the end of next school year to save money as enrollment declines, according to an expert evaluation completed this month.

The district saw its lowest enrollment figure in a decade with 8,334 students last year, and the district projects the student count will drop to around 7,600 by 2023.

The review, completed by the district’s financial consultant, recommends closing two elementary schools and one middle school and also selling off the 140,000-square-foot Diamondhead Education Center.

A specific action plan regarding the next steps for closing one or more facilities is expected to go before the Board of Education next month.

“This is a matter of financial need and not academic decline or any kind of decline in our schools as far as quality,” Board of Education Chairwoman Abigail Alt said in an interview Tuesday.

The Educational Programming and Facility Review, provided by the Baker Tilly consulting firm, found underutilized facilities significantly contribute to the district’s financial strain.

The district’s unassigned general fund balance, which acts like a savings account for day-to-day expenses, shrunk by 42 percent from $17.5 million in 2012-13 to $10 million at the end of 2017-18 and is expected to keep falling this school year, according to the district.

District officials have cut the budget annually over the last several years to compensate. The 2019-2020 budget locked in $6.6 million in cuts and reductions, including teacher layoffs and cuts to sports before ninth grade and other programming.

Facing an estimated $5.5 million in cuts in 2020-2021, district officials are considering a referendum to ask voters to approve a new operating property levy that would generate around $1.6 million a year for general expenses.

“I know that this will be a difficult process,” said Superintendent Theresa Battle in a statement. “I’m committed to being open throughout and staying true to our values as a district, and I know that together, we can come out of this stronger and better able to serve the One91 community.”

Districtwide, the review found Marion Savage, Sioux Trail, Rahn, Vista View, Hidden Valley and Sky Oaks elementary schools and Nicollet and Metcalf middle schools “operate significantly under capacity” when compared to state standards of students per square foot.

The Minnesota Department of Education doesn’t collect any data on how often school districts close schools. However, Wendy Hatch, the department’s strategic communications advisor, said it’s not an unusual practice.

Last year, the Rockford Area Schools district sold land intended for a new elementary school to the city of Corcoran for $1.4 million as a last-ditch solution to their budget shortfall, according to a report by MinnPost, for instance.

When it comes to education, the review described the range of student opportunities at Burnsville High School as “highly impressive” and shared other praise for district programs.

Alt said the report confirmed the district offers broad and sophisticated programming, and the recommendation to “rightsize” facilities didn’t come as a surprise.

In conjunction with school closures, the review recommends officials create a plan to reconfigure grades at the elementary level and redraw attendance boundaries.

“Community engagement will be a critical part of our process and student success will be the guiding factor,” Alt said.

Christine Schuster is a reporter for the Savage Pacer.


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