191 board wrestles with facility plans

Elementary parent
choice among
the proposals

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board continued to wrestle Oct. 4 with proposals that would force parents to choose their elementary school, close the Burnsville High School senior campus and add ninth grade to the high school.

Meeting in a workshop, board members didn’t appear completely sold on Superintendent Randy Clegg’s proposals, which include dividing District 191 into east and west zones of elementary magnet schools and compelling families to choose a school within their zone.

But with poverty concentrated in some schools and wide disparities in building utilization, change is needed, according to Clegg.

The board can adopt a “controlled-choice” plan or “bite the bullet” and redraw attendance boundaries, he suggested.

In early 2010, the board backed off boundary changes recommended by a board-appointed task force. The changes, which met massive parent resistance, could have sent up to 774 elementary students to different schools.

The Eden Prairie School District subsequently had its own boundary controversy, with an unpopular redrawing of school lines to diffuse concentrations of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals and to even out enrollments between schools.

“It cost Eden Prairie their superintendent,” District 191 board Chair Ron Hill reminded colleagues Oct. 4.

Clegg is recommending two zones of five schools, split by Interstate 35W, each with a different theme or magnet focus. Families would select three schools by rank order of preference.

The full transition to controlled choice would probably take five to seven years, preceded by consensus-building in the community, Clegg said.

“This is going to take a ton of conversation,” he said.

The district should start soon, “because you have a problem, and it’s growing,” he told board members.

Elementary school utilization rates range from 130 percent of capacity at the popular William Byrne STEM magnet to 81 percent at Marion W. Savage.

Concentrations of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals range from 69 percent at Sky Oaks Elementary to 21 percent at Harriet Bishop Elementary.

“The burning issue is, what are we going to do to create equity in this district?” Board Member Paula Teiken asked.

Controlled choice may not be the answer, she said.

The district has many parents who “don’t even speak English,” Teiken said. “We’re asking them to make a savvy decision on behalf of their student. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.”

She called for a look at options other than controlled choice.

“We’ve kind of taken redrawing boundaries off the table for many reasons, so what else can we do?” Teiken asked.

“For me, boundary changes aren’t necessarily off the table,” said Hill, who noted there haven’t been districtwide boundary changes in many years.

Even under controlled choice, many families will opt for their neighborhood school, Hill said.

“But if you can shave off 20 percent that are willing to move around, you’ve basically solved your problem,” Clegg said.

Clegg has repeatedly said that parents who might not  normally get involved in school are more motivated when asked to choose their child’s school.
High school

Clegg is also calling for closing the BHS senior campus, located at Diamondhead Education Center, after next school year.

He also recommends adding ninth grade to the high school, which would require a 40,000-square-foot addition, an estimated $12 million expenditure and a bond referendum.

Advantages of a nine-through-12 high school include enhanced learning opportunities for advanced ninth-graders and better post-secondary preparation for all students, Clegg said. Burnsville is the only school in the South Suburban Conference with grades 10 through 12.

“Best guess, five years would probably be really pushing it,” he said of the time it would take to make the change. “Ten is probably more realistic.”

The more immediate plan to close the senior campus will meet resistance, Board Member Jim Schmid predicted.

“There will be a contingent, I can tell you,” who would hate to see it go, he said, noting the advantage of small class sizes that his own son likes. Seniors spend half their day at the senior campus and half at the main campus.

“I would imagine most students love the setup – not all,” Schmid said.

“I’m not sure the parents do,” replied Board Member Robert VandenBoom.

Hill noted that the senior campus was an idea conceived when district enrollment exceeded 11,000. Enrollment has fallen below 10,000.

Clegg said the board should decide this school year whether to close the senior campus. He offered to have high school administrators give the board a presentation on how the re-merged main campus would operate beginning in fall 2014.

Clegg recommended forming a community task force to study nine-through-12 high school.

Clegg’s facilities recommendations grew out of an earlier board directive seeking information on the cost savings of closing schools.