Facing budget crisis, Rochester proposes closing some schools, moving others

People fill a room during a meeting.
People fill the room before a Rochester Public Schools board meeting. Rochester Public Schools is announcing major changes to manage the district’s bloated budget. The board is expected to vote on the proposal early next year.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

Updated: 5:14 p.m.

A slate of significant changes will help manage Rochester Public Schools’ budget deficit, including closing some schools and retooling six districtwide schools where spots are awarded to students based on a lottery.

The proposal will require every school attendance boundary to be redistricted, even though RPS just completed this process a few years ago, said Superintendent Kent Pekel, though most kids currently attending a school in their neighborhood won’t be moved.

The changes are framed as necessary to accommodate new start times for all grades that have already been approved by the district.

The proposal focuses on districtwide schools that have traditionally bussed kids from all over Rochester. But the time and expense of moving kids across the growing city makes it impossible to get elementary students to school earlier and middle and high school students to school later. Continuing the district’s current transportation strategy would also cost an additional 30 percent more annually at a time when RPS’s budget is already strained.

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“We cannot make the new start times work, which requires much faster turnarounds between our bus routes, unless we cut off the very long routes that students get to our what we call districtwide option schools,” said Pekel.

Under the new proposal, students who live in new attendance boundaries for the districtwide schools or who can be driven to-and-from the school can continue to go.

Stephanie Macrafic just sent her son to kindergarten at Longfellow after winning a spot for him in the lottery. She chose that school for her son, who’s had some hearing loss, because of the good things she’d heard about how they support students. 

Longfellow, which is currently in session for 45 days and then off for 15 all year round, will also lose its district-wide transportation options.

Macrafic says she could get her son there and back each day if necessary. She’s more worried that the school will fill quickly with students from the neighborhood, and her son will be thrust back into the lottery with no spot guaranteed.

“Longfellow has been a family, they have amazing staff who take the time to really work with out child to give him the support he needs to be successful and be his best self,” she said. “It’s emotional for me given that I have a kindergartener and all the struggles he’s had.”

The union representing Rochester teachers says it was blind-sided by some aspects of the redistricting overhaul announced this morning.

“It was kind of shocking that the proposal included closing three schools. I am inundated with calls, emails, texts from members in those three buildings this morning. They are in full blown panic mode,” said Vince Wagner, president of the Rochester Education Association

Wagner says that these teachers aren’t just worried about their jobs. They also have strong emotional attachments to the schools that are closing. But he said that the bigger part of the proposal to eliminate bussing for districtwide schools in an effort to shift start times for all students has merit.

The union is in the midst of contract negotiations and asking for smaller class sizes, which Wagner said is that much harder when schools are closing or consolidating as outlined in the plan.

Rochester’s schools are facing a massive budget deficit after years when student enrollment did not keep pace with the district’s staff expansion. In the last two years, the district has cut $21 million and is on track to cut an additional $10 million after a new school levy narrowly failed at the polls earlier this month.

That levy would have created $10 million annually to be been used to improve technology in Rochester schools, but also would have freed up funding for other programming that’s currently being used to support tech. 

“The level of change that is called for in this plan absolutely was increased by the narrow failure of the referendum, but it didn't originate with that,” said Pekel.

“There is a structural need to address this issue that is not even about the budget. It's about kids on hour-and-15-minute bus rides across a 218-square-mile school district,” said Pekel. “The law requires us to treat every kid equally if they live within the Rochester boundaries. And so we have to have attendance areas that are equitably applied.”

Three schools will close due to under enrollment. Those include Pinewood Elementary in far southeast Rochester, Riverside Elementary in the center of Rochester and Mighty Oaks Early Learning School. 

Teachers at these schools will have the option to move into new jobs, said Pekel, but he expected the district’s overall staff roster to shrink.

Several other elementary schools will be moved or their missions tweaked to serve more students and more grades. For instance, an elementary school where kids attend for 45 days and then have 15 days off will be transformed into a K-8 school that follows the traditional school calendar.

Other changes include expanding after-school care and adding an alternative learning center for middle school students. 

The school board is expected to vote on the proposal early next year.