See more of the story

Even with all 225 students, most staff members and a handful of parents inside, the Nellie Stone Johnson Community School's gymnasium was far from packed during a recent assembly. Yet the space buzzed with the kids' excited whispers.

Such lively energy is heartening for the staff who try not to focus on the other empty, quiet rooms in the North Side elementary school, built as a K-8 building to accommodate more than three times as many students. The entire third floor largely goes unused during the school day.

Nellie Stone is one of the district's most under-enrolled schools, and it doesn't stand alone. Overall, the district has the building space to serve an estimated 45,000 students. Current enrollment hovers around 28,000, with further declines expected in coming years. That's prompting district leaders facing a looming financial crisis to ask about next steps — including the possibility of closing or consolidating schools.

"We, for the last several years, have been operating on a budget that does not align with the number of students we serve," school board Chair Sharon El-Amin said, adding that the "time is now" to start a conversation about the size of the district.

At the board meeting last week, El-Amin asked Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox and her team to prepare information about a school transformation.

Such discussions are fraught with complexity and guaranteed to elicit passionate emotions from families, educators and communities. That's one reason districts often push them off, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, a Georgetown University research center dedicated to education finance.

"It's a hard time for large urban districts," Roza said, who noted many have leaned on federal pandemic relief funds to balance budgets. "It seems like districts were able to delay their 'right sizing' because they had this extra cash."

With the 2024 sunset date of pandemic relief funds, "the window is closing to start making some of those decisions," for districts that have experienced sharp enrollment declines. Leaders may hesitate to use the words "consolidate" or "close," Roza said, but aren't often adept at communicating what else would need to be cut to keep schools open.

Denver and Seattle schools are struggling to balance budgets as they continue losing students in the wake of the pandemic. Facing public outcry, Oakland's newly elected school board in January voted to rescind a previous plan to close several schools amid declining enrollment and a budget shortfall.

Shrinking schools raise equity questions

Absent drastic cuts or revenue increases, Minneapolis Public Schools' finances are headed for the red by 2025, according to district projections.

The district also estimates enrollment will continue to drop by 5,000 students over the next five years.

Falling enrollment likely means more buildings will be classified as small schools, defined by the district as serving fewer than 250 students. School budget allocations are determined based on student numbers, and small schools often struggle to afford elective programs that wealthier, higher-enrolled schools can offer.

That raises key equity questions, particularly since those small schools — largely clustered on the North Side — also tend to have more lower-income students and students who need more academic support.

El-Amin said the board will have to take that into account: "What programs do we want our students to experience when they come through the doors? We can't give all our students that if we continue to spread ourselves so thin with all these schools that are under-enrolled."

This school year, 13 Minneapolis schools fell below that 250-student threshold, qualifying for a "small school subsidy" of $200 per student allocated by the district. By next fall, 15 schools — serving 11% of the district's students — will receive that additional funding, costing the district $588,000.

The subsidy "serves as a recognition that small schools may not be able to provide appropriate resources and opportunity to students" after meeting basic staffing requirements, said Thom Roethke, the district's budget director.

Even with that subsidy, budgeting at Nellie Stone Johnson becomes a complicated puzzle, Principal Kelly Wright said.

"It can be a struggle because when you're small, you can't always afford the programming you want," she said.

This school year, Wright tried to hire part-time staff for art and music, plus a media specialist. But finding and keeping part-time teachers proved difficult, and Wright ended up cutting the media position to make the art teacher role full-time.

Next year, Wright is using one-time federal pandemic relief funds to make all the positions full-time. And while there are benefits of having a small, tight-knit school community, Wright said she also works to keep staff morale aloft.

"Sometimes [staff] believe that our building is going to be closed because of our low enrollment," she said. "I'm challenging them that our mission is the same no matter what: Educate these children."

Ed Barlow, the music teacher at Anwatin Middle School in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, said his class once topped 50 students because the school lacks other electives. Anwatin has just over 300 students, less than 40% of its capacity.

He wants to see all the district's students have the same opportunities but worries that consolidating schools could accelerate the problem by driving more families away.

"We've closed schools before, and it clearly wasn't the magic bullet," he said.

The district already has three vacant school buildings on the market — Tuttle in the Como neighborhood closed in 2008; Willard and Gordon on the North Side closed in 2005.

One school needs more space

Urban districts in cities like Minneapolis also must be mindful of not shrinking their footprint too quickly, since predicting future needs can be challenging. If enrollment jumps or a school exceeds capacity, it's not easy to find or build new school spaces.

That's the struggle at the overflowing Emerson Dual Language School tucked in the Loring Park neighborhood. That school's programming — teaching in both English and Spanish — has proven a popular choice for families with both home languages. The school gained another 60 immigrant students this year, many from Ecuador.

District capacity numbers are not hard caps and are calculated based on enrollment, number of classrooms and class size. Emerson is the only school that exceeds them, with about 550 students, well over its estimated capacity of 431.

Emerson will add another classroom next fall, but Principal Jim Clark is unsure where it'll go — maybe in an empty storefront across the street? The staff lounge is already crammed in a meeting room, and lunches and recess times are staggered to avoid overcrowding.

Clark knows his space crunch requires creativity, but he's also grateful the high enrollment allows him to offer more. He's even adding a teacher for advanced learners and music therapy for students next year.

"It's hard for smaller schools to get even basic funding," Clark said, adding later, "I really believe our school is the perfect size for an elementary."