A strong undercurrent of discomfort among board members directed at the idea of limiting open enrollment has kept the option alive and strong in St. Michael-Albertville school families. The school board decided Monday evening that open enrollment will remain unfettered at least for the next year, when board members plan to reassess the decision.
At some point, however, the school board will have to come to terms with the squeeze that is just beginning at STMA High School and will continue for years to come, until this fall’s grades K-3 are beginning to filter into their high school years. High school principal Bob Driver made the growing space crunch crystal clear at May’s first board meeting, explaining that the high school is already overloading classes when a new student arrives and that many class sizes are at the maximum that the classroom can physically handle.
“It’s amazing that in 2009 we opened the doors with 1,221 students at the high school, and this fall we will have 1,891,” principal Driver said. “We are growing, and we have some classroom concerns.”
Driver explained that next school year the high school anticipates having 11 open “slots” still available for classroom space. Each classroom utilizes 15 slots per year. This essentially means there is less than one full classroom still available for next year, and next year’s ninth grade class is only the first of six in this bubble of large class sizes to enter the high school.
The coming space crunch will impact all aspects of the high school, Driver said, from class sizes to food preparation. Even though the high school will still be a comfortable distance from the 2,000 student capacity next year, ninth grade classes will be especially difficult to fit everybody into the courses they must take.
Driver said they would soon be facing the need for creative solutions such as portables classrooms or a zero hour, which would get some students to school earlier than others.
How did the high school fill up so quickly?
Board chair Doug Birk said that when they developed plans for this school it was early 2005, and that they chose the size using the demographers’ best guess for student population 5-8 years out, which is the farthest they said they could accurately predict.
“They did a pretty outstanding job,” Birk said. “They predicted we’d have about 1,800 students in 2013-14 and that’s pretty much exactly what we had.”
Birk said the school board at the time wanted to be prudent and only ask for what they knew they needed, but they included a designated spot where six additional classrooms could be added on in the future, should high school growth exceed capacity.
Despite the scenario at the high school, school board members strongly feel that open enrolled students and their families are an integral part of the fabric of the school district. They said that making limits to open enrollment could also be a bad financial decision for the district, which faces looming budget deficits. Open enrolled students, Behle said, represent a net positive in income for the school district.
One big unknown for the STMA school board is how the Elk River school district’s new Early Childhood through grade 8 school in Otsego will impact open enrollment. The new school is currently under construction off 80th St. and Maciver Ave. in Otsego, close to the area where the majority of STMA’s open enrolled students hail from. The STMA school district currently educates 525 students who open enroll from the Elk River school district, out of 627 total open enrolled students. Superintendent Jim Behle said he could foresee a scenario where currently open enrolled families would stay with STMA even after Otsego’s new school opens in the fall of 2017, but that new families in the area may be more apt to choose the new school within their district when making the decision for their oldest child.
With all this in mind, the school board reached a consensus to maintain open enrollment at all levels for now, after superintendent Behle and principal Driver said they did not expect to enroll many more open enrolled students at the high school level at this late point. The board did seem concerned about high school crowding, though, and the issue will be re-examined next school year. At that point, the board said, the decision of whether to include a high school expansion into the potential bond referendum would be decided, not to mention that the outcome of the possible referendum itself will be known.