Archive for the ‘School Closings’ Category

STEM Favored?

May 19, 2011

From the Sun Post on Thursday May 12;

If Robbinsdale District 281 Schools plans to expand its elementary program offerings in the fall of 2012, it’s pretty clear that a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program would be a safe bet.

Public feedback was taken on expansion program preferences in an April 27 meeting at the Education Service Center in New Hope. About 50 people attended the meeting.  73 percent of the people who registered their opinions in a straw poll at the meeting said they agree or strongly agree that a STEM program should be offered.  72 percent of respondents also agreed or strongly agreed that best practices of gifted education should be incorporated into a STEM magnet program, if one is offered.

While stressing that the School Board has not yet decided on whether to expand its elementary magnet programs, Superintendent Aldo Sicoli conceded that “STEM is very hot nationwide and statewide.”  “I want to be clear: I am not recommending this now,” Sicoli said. “It’s one option to put on the table with everything else. We may have a recommendation at some point.” In response to some questions from the audience, Sicoli said the open enrollment feature would have to be included to make a magnet expansion program financially feasible.  “It’s not financially feasible with only resident students,” Sicoli said. “When you open a building, there is an additional cost.”  One of the assumptions for any expanded magnet program would be that a portion of the seats would be reserved for open enrolled students from outside the district, according to Lori Simon, District 281’s executive director of education services.

Assumptions?  The estimate we’ve heard is that anywhere from 17% to 33% of the seats will be reserved for students who are not currently attending a RSD 281 school.

Six budget subcommittees have been studying ways in which the district’s revenue could be enhanced by increasing enrollment or by slowing the rate of decline, Simon said.  “We’re taking a proactive long-term approach,” Simon said. “It gives us an opportunity to bring in and develop magnet specialty programs to increase revenue and provide more choice.” The types of programs under consideration earlier were narrowed to two options deemed most viable: expand the district’s Spanish Immersion program, or create a STEM magnet.  The numbers of students not chosen by lottery to attend Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School have grown, Simon said. In the 2006-07 school year, 126 students were not selected; in 2009-10, 171 students were not selected.  Of the students who are not selected each year, an average of 45 percent leave Robbinsdale Area Schools and enroll in classes elsewhere, Simon said.

So if non-resident students get in ahead of resident students, these families are going to want to stay?

District 281 can either stand by and watch other school districts lure its students away, or “we can try to play the game more aggressively,” Sicoli said.  At a work session Feb. 14, the District 281 School Board indicated that if a new magnet expansion program is offered beginning 18 months from now, Olson School in Golden Valley probably would be the preferred location, rather than the vacant Pilgrim Lane School in Plymouth.  A subcommittee studying expansion possibilities earlier recommended that the district focus on the Olson facility for future expansion, though the decision doesn’t rule out Pilgrim Lane as another site for a program in the future, Simon said. “Olson is in very good condition and is ready for occupancy almost immediately,” Simon said. “Pilgrim Lane needs substantial work to be occupied by students. At this time, Olson is the most financially viable situation.”  Simon said earlier the difference in capital improvement costs between the two buildings is just under $10 million.

Good, now let’s sell the Pilgram Lane property! Anyway, despite the STEM program being “favored” residents were divided on the magnet idea as a whole;

One attendee who identified himself as a district teacher and resident, said he believes people are using the district’s programs in the primary grades and then enrolling their children elsewhere for secondary school.  “What percent of RSIS students leave District 281 after their RSIS experience is done?” he said. “What is our retention rate after grade five?”  Another resident said he believes the choice between Olson and Pilgrim Lane as the potential site for a possible magnet program “pits one group against another.” “This is not a fair and appropriate use of tax dollars,” he said. “Everyone should benefit.”  Another speaker agreed, saying, “I’m scared about the lack of opportunity for everyone’s kids. What can you do for everyone?”  Still another said, “The lottery scares me. We’re creating an elitist program.”

Sicoli said it is not the district’s intent to pit one group against another.  “The key piece is we’re trying to retain and recapture our students,” Boardmember Patsy Green said. “Area districts are doing a great job of capturing our students. There is definite interest from outside the district from people who want to come in. Why not be the district of desire?” One speaker said her son was enrolled at Meadowbrook School in the Hopkins district, and if he hadn’t been accepted for RSIS he would have continued his education in the Hopkins district.  Another speaker talked about a District 281 family that wanted their child to go to Zachary Lane Elementary, but received no guarantee his siblings would be accepted there, so the whole family open-enrolled into the Wayzata district.  “We could be more family-friendly,” Sicoli said. “We have that [sibling preference] at RSIS, but not at other schools. I will do what I can do to get that changed.” “We are in the kid business, and we need to help students,” Sicoli said. “I don’t care about a kid’s zip code. My hope is that every family here wouldn’t want to leave [District 281] for academic reasons. I want us to be so good that it wouldn’t even cross your mind to leave.  “We’re in education, not in the banking business. We have to provide the best education possible for all our kids.” Plymouth resident Aileen White said she believes District 281 needs to market itself better and “change the way people think about us.”  “Once people get into our schools, they love our schools, our PTAS and our staffs,” White said.

Market itself better?  Is that the district’s biggest problem?  And how do we do that?  We respect Ms. White’s opinion but we think the best marketing is to produce GOOD RESULTS, not come up with catchy phrases or mission statements.

Another parent said that it all comes down to parental involvement. Parents who are active in their children’s school generally have children who are successful in school, she said.

There you have it folks; direct your comments, questions, and concerns to the school board.

Talking 281

June 29, 2010

Please tune in to the Andrew Richter Show on Thursday, July 8 on Comcast channel 19 at 6 pm.  Vicki Lechelt once again serves as the guest host.  Joining her is divestiture committee member Ron Stoffel and 2009 school board candidate and author Andrew Richter.  The three of them discuss the  district’s back door referendum (sorry alternative funding), what the district is planning to do with their surplus property, the switch to even year elections, and the overall budget situation.  The show will replay on July 9 at 2 am and 10 am.  The show will re-air on July 15 at 6 pm and replay on July 16 at 2 am and 10 am also on channel 19.

Budget reductions approved, jobs cut, unnecessary programs stay?

March 11, 2010

The Sun Post reports that the School Board approved $3.8 million in budget reductions March 1 and seem reasonable:

Reductions at the administrative level next year will include 29.5 full time equivalent administrative and support staff positions, reducing travel and conference fees and moving school board elections to even years.

Cuts are needed because of declining enrollment and reductions in state aid to school districts, officials have said.

“This is an important decision you are making, but it’s not necessarily a final decision, ” Superintendent Also Sicoli said. “If there is anything you choose to remove, there is nothing to prevent the board from adding it back.”

Cue the “Hokey Pokey” song and dance after that last sentence. Further into the article, we found this:

Closing three school buildings in the spring of 2009 avoided a $2 million annual cost, and passing a referendum in 2008 enabled district officials to restore $5.6 million in programs and staff for the current year. In addition to reducing class size, preserving the arts, saving gifted and talented programs, partially restoring middle school activities and avoiding cutting media specialists.

Note the numbers and programs saved from cuts:

The total $5.3 million in reductions represents 4 percent of the district’s operating budget, Smith said.

He noted that 80% of the district’s operating budget goes to personnel costs.

The board agreed at a work session Feb. 8 not to cut most of the elementary programs on the list of proposed reductions, including full-day kindergarten, visual art specialties, instructional assistants all district choir, band and orchestra and elementary orchestra and band.

To paraphrase an old expression, some on the School Board fiddle while Rome burns. Students are failing AYP and in the basics, but they can draw and sing about it. 
Play on!

We are pleased that Tom Walsh said “we are maintaining a fund balance in case additional state cuts come down the pike.” The teachable moment here is that self reliance makes you stronger: if you can budget without state dependence you stay above water, not sinking in the sea.

We are interested in the school board’s discussion of moving school board elections to even years, saving the district money in odd year elections. This could mean board members agreeing to stay on a year longer (Tyrell, Basset and Van Heel) for a re-election vote in 2012 instead of 2011, and shortening others’ terms (Green, Walsh, Bomchill and Johnson). Putting them up in even years makes sense, when voters are paying attention. Despite parent and voter frustrations last year, a tiny percentage cared enough to come out to vote and change course.

Brooklyn Center as a Partner?

February 2, 2010

A few local residents have contacted us with the news they are working on a proposal to absorb the Brooklyn Center District  (ISD 286) with Robbinsdale (ISD 281).  Since ISD 286 has only three schools, and 1,800 students (30 % coming from Minneapolis), merging with us makes some sense.  In addition, it would help District 281 by removing Northport Elementary and the cost of renovation.  Here’s the breakdown…

If we merged with ISD 286 the benefits are:

*We could remove an entire administration saving hundereds of thousands of dollars.

*We could close Northport and send the Brooklyn Center kids to their elementary school (Earle Brown) and divide the Crystal kids between Forest, Meadow Lake, and Laveview saving taxpayers the $20 million to renovate Northport.

*We wouldn’t have to transposrt kids from Northport to Pilgrim Lane and then could divest out of that property.

Disadvantages would include..

*Both sides would have to approve a merger by referendum which would take time, a special election, and money.  People may feel reluctant to merge and create a bigger super district.

*We would have to redo our borders a year after already doing so.

It is an interesting possibility that we hope both school boards will consider.  Northport and Lakeview have to deal with their properties somehow, and if we can save $20 million especially in this economy that has to help.  Considering state spending is frozen for the next two years and our budget is already in the red next year (thanks to the fact we approved a Union contract we couldn’t afford), we have to have more creative solutions.  We welcome your thoughts on this issue.

Bleak Financial Situation or Golden Opportunity?

January 29, 2010

The Sun Post reported this week that “District 281 faces (‘bleak’ in print, or ‘dire’ online) financial situation.” Despite passing a referendum in 2008 and closing three schools, our district like others around the state are looking at serious budget cuts. 281 has to cut $5.7 million. The state may be dipping into districts with funds and Robbinsdale might be one source to borrow about $2.4 million. Remember, borrowing means it will be paid back eventually.

Dr. Sicoli advised the school board to “begin thinking about areas in which they are willing to make budget reductions.”

Turn to the editorial section in the Sun-Post and you’ll find an editor there making valid points on reform. Paul Wahl wrote,

The reason we need reform is because we’ve reached the end of what can be cut. It’s no longer a matter of doing more with less, it’s doing less with less.

…Reform might mean eliminating a department that isn’t state or federally mandated.

Think of the freedoms and money districts would have by chopping those unfunded mandated programs!

For schools, reform often centers around choice – charter schools, open enrollment and similar plans. Those many have started their lives as reform, but it’s hard to argue too strenuously either represents reform in light of today’s education challenges.

We’ll buy the argument with open enrollment, as we’ve seen the issues with security and mobility expenses “The Choice is Yours” program added to the budget – despite getting money ($12,000) for each student who enrolled. However, a charter school would attract district students back and neighboring students. And, a charter school decision is our choice – we set the rules, unlike CIY which was a forced government ruling from a lawsuit.

But what comes after the last budget cut finally severs the bone? When and how are we going to make the tough decisions that shape what schools and cities will look like 10 years from now? When do we start the conversation?

The divestiture committee met this week, and we’ll post updates. For us, selling unused properties is a glaring golden opportunity to get funds in. Allow a charter school here and bring back fleeing students going to other districts. Be brave, district leadership! Think outside of the box, beyond 2010, and government and union strong-arming which has drained too many district, city and state coffers. The choice is yours.

Check out Give2Attain’s article with links to the spreadsheet and comments:

Budget Reduction Announcement
Budget Adjustment Worksheet

Some things to remember when looking at the linked worksheet:

  • $1 million = ~83 student drop at ~$12,000 per student (09/10)
  • $3.6 million = ~300 student drop at ~$12,000 per student (10/11)
  • The 10/11 student reduction is an estimate which could easily vary higher or lower. (ie guesstimate)
  • This is why schools are interested in enticing the students back to the district, or pulling open enrollees into the district.
  • This is variation across ~12,000 students, so though the numbers are big, the percent variation is fairly small. (300 kids = 2.5%)
  • $5.7 million gap = $5.9 million fund bal goal – $ .2 million forecast
  • As DJ pointed out: apparently ~$3 million of the gap created when the latest contract was signed. (G2A S and L) Now is this labor or mgmts fault… Either way, all of us will pay in the coming years.
  • This is operating dollars, not capital… Selling facilities will not raise funds that can directly offset this. Though, it would result in reduced maintenance, heating, etc expenses.

Meetings on surplus schools and legislative advocacy

January 21, 2010

Two meetings to put on your calendar:

Jan 28 – The Robbinsdale Area Schools’ Divestiture Plan Advisory Committee invites the community to a public information meeting 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 28, in the media center at the Plymouth Middle School, 10011 36th Ave. N., Plymouth.

Superintendent Aldo Sicoli and Chris Gibbs, facilitator and community member, will provide an update on the work of the committee to date, and solicit input from community members on ideas for the appropriate use of surplus school property.

The divestiture committee is responsible for providing a recommendation to the school board by the start of the next school year for long-term use of surplus school facilities/property. The committee is made up of community members, city representatives, school district staff and school board members.

More information: 763-504-7998 (Sherry Tyrrell), or

Jan 21 – Advocacy forum (a.k.a. “Help us ask legislators for more money from taxpayers so we can spend more!”)

The Legislative Action Coalition of Robbinsdale Area Schools has scheduled an educational forum titled “Advocacy — YOU can make a difference” in preparation for this year’s legislative session 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 21, at the Winnetka Learning Center, 7940 55th Ave. N., New Hope.

The 2010 legislative session will begin on Thursday, Feb. 4.

If you are interested in learning skills on how to advocate effectively, or you want to become more involved in education advocacy in general, attend and learn more about how state policies and funding dictate much of how schools educate our children, and how you can help make those policies and funding most effective.

The Special Education Advisory Council is co-sponsoring the event.
Kim Kang, public policy director for PACER Center will be the guest speaker.
More information: 763-504-4087 (Andrea Wiley), or

RAS Facility Improvement Co$t Estimates

December 16, 2009

We’re working on a more detailed comment on Dec. 14 work session, and point you to Give2Attain’s blog article on the estimates of rebuilding vs. new construction:

The Agenda from tonight’s work session includes what to do with the Northport/Lakeview opportunity. Would a possible $39,000,000 to $48,000,000 bill get your attention and motivate you to read them ??? (14Dec09 Work Session Documents)

Here’s a screencap of the estimate (PDF):


Below the costs were notes including these:

4. The existing facilities have significant space discrepancies relative to current MDE guidelines. Compliance with MDE guidelines would require significant additional facility space. Additional facility space to address the educational adequacy issue has a significant influence on a project budget.
5. A new facility would be expected to address the issue of space programming for educational adequacy for consistency with MDE guidelines. The extent of that compliance would have a significant influence on that project budget.

What are current MN Dept. of Education (MDE) guidelines for space – and do they have the power to decide what could significantly increase those building costs to you?  We hope that our district can make decisions regardless of MDE “guidelines” (where they probably envision Tom Dooher mansion space on a group home budget).

While you recover from sticker shock, don’t forget the additional cost of transporting students and set-up of temporary schools during construction.

Marketing 101

December 6, 2009

“Effective marketing techniques paired with high-quality products is a natural formula for brand success.” – Entrepreneur Magazine

This article in the Star Tribune tells us that RAS is marketing its schools to local parents to help stop the bleed of students to other districts, charter schools or home-schooling:

Loss of enrollment is a concern to school districts because state education aid is allocated on a per-pupil basis; fewer students means less state aid.

Last year, Robbinsdale reported one of its biggest enrollment declines in a decade, totaling 477 students. At $5,174 in basic state aid per pupil, that equals a loss of at least $2.5 million in state funding. That was a major factor contributing to the closing of two elementary schools and a middle school at the end of the 2008-09 school year.

The district recently reported a loss of 567 students this year. Projections further into the future show enrollment levelling off.

For the most part, district officials said, those losses have been the result of fewer births and an aging population. But the district also is losing students to other schools.

Lesson learned: you can’t expect effective results without a quality product (as the old “lipstick on a pig” saying goes). Marketing one or two choices (like Spanish Immersion which has a waiting list to get into or IB in schools with student safety problems) will not bring kids in, but offering competition will keep students in our district. Sell some of our unused schools to charter or private schools: RAS earns money without state funding, students get a choice and stay here. It’s a win-win.

Attend board meetings on tax levy & buildings

December 2, 2009

Monday, Dec. 7: A “Truth in Taxation” hearing will be held at the ESC on 4148 Winnetka Avenue at 7:00 pm. It’s your chance to ask questions to the Board – such as “Why aren’t you selling unused properties?” or “Whatever happened to the Divestiture Committee?” The school board meeting follows at 8:00pm (see schedule)

Monday, Dec. 14: Work session at the ESC on 4148 Winnetka Avenue at 5:30 pm.  There is a planned discussion on northeast school buildings and use of current excess buildings. Bring your neighbors and hold their feet to the fire. Suggest that they sell off unused property! But leave the pitchforks home.

  • Download the November 16 work session “unofficial” minutes here.
  • Download the Strategic Action Plan here.
  • Read & discuss Give2Attain’s post on the recent PTA meeting with Sup. Sicoli here

The Dec. 3 Labor Negotiations Strategy meeting  is closed.

The November 30, 2009, Closed Meeting to Consider Labor Negotiations Strategy, including negotiations strategies or developments or discussion and review of labor negotiations proposals was continued to Thursday, December 3, 2009, 5:15 p.m., at the Education Service Center, 4148 Winnetka Avenue, New Hope, Minnesota.

281 officials “scramble” to get schools ready

August 31, 2009

1,500 students will gather at Robbinsdale Middle School this year. Too many kids, not enough classrooms. Then there’s the problem of resizing bathroom equipment, building kitchens and a security entrance, and other items in time for the start of school. The cost of the move is quickly adding up, according to this MN Sun Post article:

Renovations at numerous school buildings were underway last week, as workers scrambled to get things in place for the start of the teachers’ workshop week Monday, Aug. 31.

Much of last week’s activity centered on Robbinsdale Middle School, where moving vans were unloading the contents of classrooms and stacking them in front of signs in a gym listing each teacher’s name and room number.

The major retrofitting at the school, aimed at accommodating approximately 1,500 middle school students this year, includes the expansion and addition of offices, and installation of a security entrance at the front door.

RMS teachers were encouraged to unpack and put away items in their classrooms last week, Principal Tom Henderlite said.

The one-time cost of the district-wide transition from 17 schools to 14 – including moving costs — is estimated at $680,000, according to Dennis Beekman, District 281’s executive director of technology.

“To date, approximately $630,000 has been spent, and we believe costs will be very close to the estimate once all work is completed,” he said.

We’ll keep an eye out for the total cost of the moves, and how their promise of saving $2,000,000 a year holds up. PTSO volunteers  have been an enormous help in getting things ready, as RMS cut 2 custodians. There’s also word that teachers will now be adding cleaning to their daily load of duties at RMS – adding another dimension to “scrambling.”