Anoka-Hennepin considers first school closures in 50 years

Sandburg Middle School
Sandburg Middle School in Anoka is being considered for closure by the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
Courtesy Anoka-Hennepin School District

More Minnesota schools are slated for closure Monday night when the Anoka-Hennepin School Board decides which buildings to close, a rare move for the state's largest district.

In fact, Anoka-Hennepin hasn't had to close schools since the '50s, when it consolidated some one-room schools into larger buildings.

But changing population trends have forced the move.

Monday night's vote comes just days after another large district, Minneapolis, voted to close schools. St. Paul and Robbinsdale did the same earlier this year. Those moves showcase the trend that Minnesota is getting older. Even in places like Anoka County - where the overall population is stable or increasing - the number of school-age kids is shrinking.

Anoka-Hennepin has 2,000 fewer students than it did five years ago, a loss equivalent to one elementary school a year. In terms of money, the loss of students directly translates into a loss of state funding. Anoka-Hennepin had a multi-million dollar deficit to fill this year.

"It's huge for us and it's a big adjustment," said Chuck Holden, who heads district administrative services.

Holden said Anoka-Hennepin is one of those places where you're pretty much born knowing what high school you'll go to. And while no high school will close, those lower grade schools feed into those high schools - so it was important reconfigure in a way that maintains that high school identity.

"It's huge for us and it's a big adjustment."

The problem was that there were no obvious candidates for closure.

"When other districts have closed schools, they've had facilities that were run down, and that's not the case in Anoka-Hennepin," Holden said. "We have schools that are 100 years old and when you walk into them, they're beautiful facilities. They've been maintained, upgraded."

The school board will decide what to close based on public input from two recent meetings - and also from a 31-member task force that spent months studying the issue. Tom Miller co-chaired that task force, which he said focused a lot on numbers: population trends, costs for building upkeep, how other schools would be disrupted by a closure.

"One of the ground rules that we worked with as a group is to do no advocacy within our meetings - and that absolutely didn't happen," Miller said. "Nobody said 'I went to school X, keep it open.' We went strictly by the facts and the numbers."

That task force ranked all district schools, based on how well they met a set of criteria, and formed a list of 17 possible schools to close - those 17 are considered the top candidates for closure.

The actual number will likely be between four and six. The task force suggested some ways the district could go, suggesting Sandburg Middle and L.O. Jacob, Champlin, Washington and Riverview elementary as possible closures.

Champlin Elementary
Champlin Elementary is among the schools being considered for closure by the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
Courtesy Anoka-Hennepin School District

Sorteberg and Crooked Lake Elementary are also suggested as second-tier closures, if state funding falls off more than expected.

When parent Tracey Dittrich saw her child's school, Champlin, mentioned, she got the feeling the school will probably close. After all it's a relatively small school for the district, she said.

"I'm kind of torn because I understand the district's economic problems and declining enrollment," Dittrich said. "But I also think that these students deserve a good education, and that's what they get at Champlin. So, I am pretty upset that they're closing it."

The school board, though, can do whatever it wants. It can follow those task force suggestions or make up its own plan. The schools that are picked will close after this school year.

Anoka-Hennepin does expect to keep losing enrollment in coming years, but district officials said their hope is to close enough schools Monday night to prevent the need for any more for at least five years.

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