Wear and tear is routine for school buildings across Minneapolis Public Schools: lockers are slammed, glass gets smudged, floors end up scuffed. But when it comes time for school facelifts and fixes, recently released district data shows that North Side schools have taken home the most dollars per student for building projects.
For years, Minneapolis has funneled money into boosting North Side school buildings — nearly $24,000 per student over the past decade, which is roughly double the money spent on schools in southwest Minneapolis.
The Northeast and South district 3 neighborhoods tied for second-most: $22,000 per student funded over the past decade. These have the fourth and second highest shares of neighborhood enrollment district-wide, respectively.
Thanks to an enrollment boom on the North Side in the 1990s and projected districtwide growth a few years ago, the North Side schools are some of the newest buildings in the city. Yet they’ll only be half-used in the fall, compared to nearly 100 percent utilization for schools in the southwest neighborhood, according to district enrollment projections.
Minneapolis officials have to juggle different priorities within the state's third-largest district. Even though enrollment has boomed at schools like Washburn, Minneapolis can’t leave out kids who attend emptier schools.
"The kids who are there, who are choosing to stay in their community schools, should still have high-quality buildings and options within those buildings," said Suzanne Kelly, the district's chief of staff.
Over the last 10 years, the district has spent $561 million on capital projects. This might be regular maintenance or replacement, like a plumbing fix, or a renovation or improvement project, like updating a cafeteria.
The district is prioritizing air conditioning, as well as safety and kitchen upgrades, which is evident in many of the projects approved in the coming year’s $113 million projects plan that was approved in June.
About $25 million of that will be spent on North Side schools, including a new kitchen, lunchroom and air conditioning at Loring Elementary and air conditioning and flooring work at North High.
Other projects include a new kitchen and lunchroom at Marcy Open School, upgrades including a turf field at South High School.
This pot of money for building work is separate from the general fund, where the district found a multi-million dollar shortfall for the coming school year.
District data showed that while most of the district’s buildings have air conditioning, neighborhoods differed in both the share of buildings utilized and in average age since construction.
To figure out facility conditions, the district crunches data. It also takes into account community wishes, like the desire for rubber mulch playgrounds to be converted to wood mulch, which is on this year’s project list.
Twenty years ago, enrollment on the North Side was on the rise, meaning millions of dollars went to building new schools like Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary, Cityview Community, Lucy Craft Laney Elementary and the school that’s now Hmong International Academy.
“There was a phenomenal amount of building that took place to accommodate that tremendous enrollment growth,” said David Richards, who manages capital planning and project development in the district.
Then enrollment dipped. In 2007, the district closed five North Side schools and an East Side one. Student numbers soon rose again. In 2013, the district pitched reopening Franklin Middle School as part of several changes to work with projected ballooning enrollment district-wide.
Today, some of those schools are seeing climbing enrollment, like North High. Others are emptier as families flock to charter school and other traditional school options in the area.
The numbers reflect the district-wide issue of retention of resident children. One in three Minneapolis pre-kindergarten students doesn’t return to the district the next year for kindergarten, the district said at a recent board meeting.
“Part of it is a question of equity, making sure we have facilities and resources for our North Side students that are equitable for what their needs are,” said district chief operations officer Karen DeVet. She added that building repairs are based on needs, not geographic location.
DeVet added that when a committee reviewed district spending across neighborhoods, it found the dollars to be balanced.
Minneapolis schools needs to improve its enrollment management, Kelly said. A district-wide assessment to be released in the spring will include a review of district operations and programs.
"It's hard, when you're trying to market schools, to combat the external societal kinds of perceived notions about safety, about quality," Kelly said. "It's a very delicate balancing act that all plays into now what some say is inequity on the North Side, some say is inequity in other parts of the city."