From: Natalie Siderius
It is time to focus on a positive narrative, sustainable growth, healthy student habits, and real results for students, the district, and community.
Here are three reasons why closing elementary schools is not the answer to the district’s deficit.
First, enrollment declines are not the fault of the elementary schools. According to district data, 94 percent of the decline has come at the middle and high school levels over the last 11 years. Middle school enrollment dropped by 237 students and the high school declined by 421 students. At the same time, elementary school enrollment decreased by merely 39 students. When preschool headcount is included, elementary enrollment has even grown.
These trends highlight the district’s challenges in retaining students at the middle and high school levels more than recruitment problems at the elementary level. Closing elementary schools is not a remedy to the loss of students at the upper grade levels.
Second, it is important to recognize that managing the district’s $1.5 million deficit does not require closing any schools. Sufficient spending cuts can be achieved now by fulfilling the public promise to move technology spending from the operations budget to the voter-approved referendum. This alone frees up $1 million per year to apply to the deficit. It is also possible to scale back spending on support services, district marketing, and by returning special education spending to its previous shared services model. Reducing busing costs in the future and committing to a plan to enhance curriculum and upgrade existing facilities to attract families to the district would be a profoundly new and positive direction for Winona. The same strategy has worked for school districts around the country.
Third, despite claims by at least one School Board member who thinks that the increasing percentage of students receiving free and reduced meals justifies expanding non-classroom services in a way that makes elementary schools unaffordable, I would say look at the facts.
Comparing 2006 to 2016, only three additional students were added to the rolls of the free and reduced meal program. In relation to the total student population, the percent of students on this program has increased, but the increase is largely because total enrollment has dropped by 633 students over the same period. What is apparent is that affluent families are avoiding, or departing from, the district.
The district must focus on providing quality education and become the first choice of families from all walks of life. Today, there are 701 area students who choose charter or out-of-district schools and another 867 area students attending local private schools. It is great to have such choices, but for many families, there is no real affordable option. Closing elementary schools does not expand the options for any of our community families.
The public schools need and deserve taxpayer support, but the relentless push to close elementary schools and build new structures pays little attention to parental and community wishes, and will cost millions of dollars while leaving financial problems unsolved.
Once again, it is time to focus on a positive narrative, sustainable growth, healthy student habits, and real results for students, the district, and community.