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Surging student enrollment is forcing school districts across the Twin Cities metro to scramble to remodel or enlarge their campuses, and in some cases, it is raising tough new questions on how they’ll pay for the growth.

Signs of the building boom are widespread as students return to class and administrators strive to minimize disruptions from all the construction.

In the Mounds View district, nearly every school building is either recently remodeled or under construction. Some Wayzata students are heading back to different schools than last year — the result of another round of boundary changes needed to accommodate newly built schools and a wave of growth. Meanwhile, construction projects in Prior Lake-Savage prompted the district to start the school year early for high schoolers.

And in White Bear Lake, where many schools are nearing capacity, the district is asking voters to approve a $326 million bond referendum to fund the building of new schools. If it’s successful, it will be the largest school funding referendum ever passed in Minnesota — and the start of another burst of construction.

Around the metro area, many suburban school districts are experiencing a wave of growth. The reasons are varied: new developments, housing turnover as young families buy houses from retirees, open enrollment. But in nearly all cases, the shifts are resulting in visible changes, some growing pains and a never-ending series of calculations for school administrators trying to prepare for what the future will bring. Chief among them: how to expand without disrupting students’ routines, how to make the right predictions about where and how to grow, and figuring out how to pay for it all.

“When you’re growing, it presents a whole set of challenges,” said Wayne Kazmierczak, superintendent of White Bear Lake Area Schools.

For all school districts, the first — and annual — hurdle is figuring out how many students have showed up for the year. In recent years, that’s become tougher to predict for a few reasons. Before the late 1980s, Minnesota kids generally attended school in the districts where they lived, unless they went to a private school. But for the last three decades, state law has allowed students to open enroll outside their home district, or to a growing number of public charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Twin Cities is seeing a variety of competing demographic trends: population growth, low birthrates, drops in housing stock and the swell of baby boomers moving into retirement, and potentially out of their homes.

“All these larger trends are going to play out differently in different districts, making it really difficult for administrators to plan for the coming year,” said Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower.

Charting the growth

Several — but not all — of the fastest-growing metro districts are in outer-ring suburbs, or just beyond, in the “exurbs.” In a Star Tribune analysis of enrollment data over the last five years, Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools was at the top, with the student population surging by nearly 19% over that period. Second on the list was the smallest metro district: Randolph Public Schools, where students coming from neighboring cities like Hampton and Cannon Falls have pushed enrollment up by 16%. Other districts with growth of 10% or more include Minnetonka, Wayzata, Mounds View, Waconia and Westonka. Brooklyn Center Community Schools also ranked among the fastest-growing districts over the last five years, but it has begun to see a decline in enrollment.

In some cases, open enrollment is the clear driver of growth. The Minnetonka school district, which has actively marketed itself to out-of-district students for a decade, has seen its numbers surge as a result. Students who live outside the district boundaries now account for one-third of enrollment. Half of the students in Randolph schools live in other districts.

Elsewhere, however, districts are bursting at the seams because of internal growth — and have virtually closed themselves off to outside enrollment. (Districts are allowed to cap open enrollment at 1% of their total enrollment at each grade level.) That’s the case in Wayzata and Mounds View, where school leaders don’t plan to open their borders unless they have a significant and unexpected drop in district growth.

Kristin Tollison, Wayzata’s director of administrative services, said capping enrollment doesn’t mean the district will stop growing at the same rate. A relatively small percentage of Wayzata resident students leave the district, and many families living elsewhere act to secure their own spots.

“Probably an unintended consequence of being closed to open enrollment is that people then chose to move in [to the district], and then we do take care of them,” she said.

This year, for example, Wayzata schools had expected to enroll about 920 kindergartners. With a few weeks left until the new school year, district officials had already revised that projection to 975.

Farther out in the metro area, districts are feeling the ongoing effect of new housing development in areas that had once been far less populated. To the south, the Prior Lake-Savage district has benefited from housing construction in both of those cities. On the other end of the metro, the Elk River district is booming — and anticipating growth of up to 20% in the next decade — because of rapid development in communities like Rogers, Otsego and Zimmerman.

In the White Bear Lake district, Kazmierczak said he’s seeing a combination of new housing and turnover, as empty nesters sell their family-size ramblers. As young families move into those homes, growth continues to come from all parts of the district.

Hazel Reinhardt, a former state demographer who now serves as a consultant to school districts, said that kind of turnover can be a big driver of a district’s growth — or a primary factor behind its decline. Aging populations that are slower to leave their homes explain part of the reason a smaller number of metro-area districts, in places like Burnsville and Eden Prairie, are seeing significant drops in enrollment, she said.

“Most people actually stay [in their homes] a pretty long time,” she said. “They’re more planted than we think they are.”

Meanwhile, the metro area’s two big cities have seen their populations grow but their school enrollment decline. Over the last five years, enrollment in Minneapolis Public Schools was down by 2%, while St. Paul enrollment dropped by 3%, as more students opted to attend charter schools or other districts. Around the metro, even as most traditional school districts have seen their enrollment grow or remain steady, charter schools have expanded. In the last five years, more than 40 charter schools saw their enrollment surge at a faster rate than the fastest-growing traditional district.

School building boom

In many growing districts, the impact has been hard to miss. Some schools have seen class sizes grow, or classrooms run out of space. In Mounds View, before the start of a districtwide construction project funded after local voters approved a bond referendum, some teachers had to keep their supplies on carts and move between classrooms. Students had to work on classroom projects in the cafeteria, or have orchestra practice in the hallway.

Now, the district is in the middle of a three-year race to remodel its schools, with much of the construction continuing into the school year.

In Elk River, Superintendent Daniel Bittman said school leaders have been able to dodge that level of crowding by rearranging attendance boundaries in classroom space, but they are starting to run out of options. The district will ask voters this fall to approve an increase to the local funding levy and a $113 million bond referendum that would fund the construction of a new middle school, among other projects.

In the Prior Lake-Savage district, a new area learning center is opening, crews have broken ground on a new elementary school and major renovations and expansion projects are underway at both middle schools and the high school. Superintendent Teri Staloch said the work will be apparent, but the district is aiming to minimize the hassle for its growing student body.

“Last year, we lost power for a little bit … people had to use this door instead of this door, but for the most part it didn’t disrupt learning,” she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790