During the last 20 minutes of a four hour retreat the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education held its first discussions with Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams about right-sizing district facilities to match its enrollment. The district currently has building space for 42,000 students, while enrollment is just under 29,000 students.

Operating the same number of school buildings with fewer students per building means the district spends more money per student on overhead, like principals, food service and transportation, compared to districts that operate fewer schools with more students per building, according to the district. Right-sizing its operations is one way for the district to reduce its costs and fix its ongoing structural budget deficit.

The school board has been calling the consolidation process “school transformation” since it first stated its intention to undertake the process last March. Since then, the board has discussed the topic several times, and in December 2023 passed a resolution directing the superintendent to begin developing a plan.

“I was a little nervous about bringing up transformation because I have heard the conversation with the board. ‘Why aren't you there?’” Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams said. She explained that planning has not started, delayed in part by the onboarding of a new superintendent, a challenging budget process, and lengthy contract negotiations with the district’s teachers and education support professionals.

Sayles-Adams said the district will begin planning for school consolidation once the 2024-25 budget is passed, but added that administration staff would  like to have some downtime in July.

Sayles-Adams told the board she heard from community members during her recent listening tour that they are ready for the district to begin the consolidation process.

“What we have heard from our community is go be transparent, rip the Band-Aid off. It is time to right-size the district,” Sayles-Adams said.

She also asked the board to choose a different term for the process because community members said “school transformation” is confusing and lacks transparency.

“I will tell you that I've had a lot of people approach me and they said that the word school transformation is confusing. Call it right-sizing, closure and consolidation but not transformation because people really don’t know what that is,” Sayles-Adams said. “Very clear language was something that came up again and again.”

The board had intended to spend nearly an hour discussing “transformation” but spent more time on other discussions, leaving just 20 minutes for the topic. Sayles-Adams encouraged board members to attend a Council of Great City Schools seminar on June 22 l focused on school closures and consolidations. It is a challenge facing many districts as enrollment in large urban public school districts has declined. This meeting is not open to the public.

Sayles-Adams also told the board that San Antonio Independent School District is a district doing school closures “the right way.” The district used building capacity, building condition and enrollment as the main criteria for selecting which schools to close, according to a handout given to board members at the meeting.

“I do not want to be the district where people say, ‘don't do what they did,’” Sayles-Adams said of the right-sizing process. She also asked the board to be her partners in the process, providing input and direction when requested.

The school board ended the discussion of right-sizing the district’s schools by sharing their ideas for which criteria to use as part of a consolidation plan, their values and other context they want included in future consolidation planning. Criteria ideas ranged from building capacity to whether schools have air conditioning. Some of the values shared included  providing mental health services for students and dual language programs. Board members listed facility conditions, neighborhood resources and integrated spaces for special education students among the characteristics they want in the schools that remain open.

School board members placed sticky notes in three categories related to the information they would like considered as part of any plan to right-size district facilities. The three categories were values: norms we embrace that are aligned with the board’s goals, contextual criteria: unique school characteristics to distinguish schools that remain open, and primary criterial: statistics used to evaluate all schools. Photo by Melissa Whitler

Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives Sarah Hunter led the board through selecting which of the 20 strategic plan strategies it would like to prioritize for the 2024-25 school year. This year the board selected five priority strategies. Hunter said the board will receive quarterly updates on its priority strategies and biannual updates on the full strategic plan next year.

Board members agreed to continue with the strategies for improving core academic instruction and providing anti-racist instructional practices. The board did not have a clear consensus for its other priorities, although access to culturally responsive mental health services and full implementation of the climate framework were frequently selected by board members for prioritization.

Sarah Hunter leads board members through an activity to select five of twenty strategic plan strategies to prioritize for next school year. Photo by Melissa Whitler

Betty Jo Webb, a North High School graduate who worked as a social worker, principal and associate superintendent in Minneapolis Public Schools, attended the retreat to follow-up on some of her earlier training work with the board. Board members said they would like to have additional training with Webb to improve their governance and communication. Sayles-Adam agreed to find a time for additional training with Webb for the board.