Despite protest, St. Paul school plan moves forward

School plan protest
Students hold up signs at Tuesday night's St. Paul School Board meeting, protesting the move to close Arlington High school. The board ended the night by approving Arlington's closure, but members delayed a vote on whether current sophomores and juniors at the school would be allowed to graduate from the school.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The St. Paul School board will meet again Wednesday to finish its work on a reorganization plan that includes closing schools and making other moves to help solve a nearly $30-million budget deficit.

Superintendent Valeria Silva has suggested more than $30 million in cuts this month to deal with this year's budget situation. Most were approved Tuesday night after the board heard hours of testimony from students, parents and community members during a 10-hour marathon meeting that stretched into the wee hours this morning.

The only issue that's still unresolved is the fate of current sophomores and juniors at a high school slated for closure.

Most of the more than 350 people in attendance Tuesday night wore blue T-Shirts to show support for Arlington High School, one of the schools slated to close. The 14-year-old building will still be open next year because it will house students from a different program.

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That plan upset current sophomores and juniors at Arlington, who would have to move to other high schools in the city. Several of them told board members last night that they should be allowed to stay and graduate.

"Arlington High School is the most amazing school and you're making a great mistake by shutting it down," said senior Mariah Davis.

One compromise offered last night was to let current juniors graduate next year, making Arlington's last class the Class of 2011.

But current sophomores would still have to find a new school for next year, which is why students like junior LaDawn Morris were still upset even though she'd personally benefit and be able to graduate.

"We're still lacking the people who deserve this as well - the juniors deserve this as well as the seniors," Morris said. "They've contributed as much to Arlington High School as much as upcoming seniors have, so why do they have to get dropped?"

In the end, the board approved Arlington's closure but did not decide what to do with those current students. That's what Wednesday's meeting is for, and a vote is expected by the afternoon.

Superintendent Silva said families need this issue settled quickly so they won't be left in limbo.

"The one-day delay is probably as good as it could get," Silva said. "We have accomplished a lot tonight and I think we can get to the answer in the next 24 hours."

Arlington isn't the only school facing major changes. Last night's vote sealed the fate of five school buildings that will close after this school year. Students and teachers in those schools will move as a group to other buildings and, in most cases, share space with a second school.

Parents and community members also voiced sometimes emotional opposition to those moves. Roshelle Chavez has three children at Sheridan Elementary, on the city's east side. Sheridan is one of three schools along a mile stretch of White Bear Avenue that was slated to close.

"I don't understand why," Chavez said. "My question to you is 'why always there?' Why not in other areas of St. Paul? I didn't have a speech; I just felt I had to come up here and express that there's a lot of people feeling like this. That we love the east side."

In the end, one school got a reprieve. Hazel Park will not close, after all, and will instead house Ames and Sheridan students after those buildings close.

But even with some cuts restored district leaders note their backs are against the wall. Falling enrollment and stagnant state funding have created a nearly $30 million budget hole and the district has too many buildings. Officials say having programs share buildings saves money by using existing space more efficiently.

Not all of last night's impassioned speeches came from members of the public. Superintendent Silva took a moment early this morning to reiterate that these kinds of cuts wouldn't be necessary if students weren't leaving the district. The district expects to lose another 400-500 students next year.

"So when the community came in many, many different ways, I was extremely pleased," Silva said. "I'm proud of the kids, I'm proud of the community standing up, but the community stands up now, but when we have to recruit students, they don't come to our schools."

Silva's reorganization plan also originally called for middle school sports and elementary instrumental music to be eliminated. That was changed Tuesday night as well. Both were restored, though the music program will move to being only after-school instead of during the school day.