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Crosswinds school closing, with chance for resurrection

The Perpich Center for Arts Education abruptly announced Friday, June 9, that Crosswinds Arts and Sciences School in Woodbury will not reopen in the fall. File photo

Mike Mitchell struggled to find a school that was the right fit for his daughter Madison until she enrolled at Crosswinds Arts and Science School last fall.

The Woodbury school's unconventional approach to teaching fit perfectly with Madison's love of art and her hands-on learning style. With just a few weeks to go in the year-round school calendar, Mitchell considers Madison's sixth-grade year a resounding success.

"The staff there is passionate about education," Mitchell said. "The way they are teaching ... she's still getting good grades and doing well on tests, but she is enjoying it."

Madison also appreciates Crosswinds' mission of voluntary integration that brings students of different races and ethnicities together.

But Madison may never get a chance to return to the Crosswinds program she loves. The Perpich Center for Arts Education that has overseen the school for sixth- through 10th-graders since 2013 abruptly announced Friday that Crosswinds will not reopen in the fall.

Although the Legislature had revoked Perpich's power to run Crosswinds and ordered the building to be sold, supporters of the school had hoped it would continue to operate until a new owner could be found. The order to sell the 43,460-square-foot building and the surrounding 36 acres was part of the two-year education budget approved in May.

Perpich, a state arts education agency, stepped forward in 2013 as a savior after the East Metro Integration District collaborative that started Crosswinds decided to no longer operate schools. But Crosswinds did not fare well under Perpich. The uncertainty leading up to the takeover and inconsistent management in recent years have led to staff turnover, lower enrollment and drops in test scores.

Then in January, the state legislative auditor's office, a government watchdog, released the results of an investigation that found mismanagement at Perpich.

Perpich hoped state leaders would transfer oversight of Crosswinds to another institution, but some lawmakers were convinced the school was a lost cause, paving the way for its sale. Now, if another district doesn't commit to resurrecting its mission, Crosswinds' focus as an arts and science integration magnet will soon be gone.

Permanent closure would be a disappointment not only to current students and their families, but to all who fought to give the school a second chance.

"It's a great format," Mitchell said. "It would be a disservice to future generations if it doesn't continue."

Two districts interested

Both the St. Paul and South Washington County school districts have expressed interest in taking over the Crosswinds facility.

St. Paul school leaders have said they would want to grow Crosswinds' integration program if the building were turned over to them. They haven't said if they would consider buying the building.

South Washington County has also expressed interest, with officials saying the school would likely remain an integration magnet but not in its current form. District officials also are interested in buying the building, but won't commit to a purchase price or future use without further study.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus wrote to state lawmakers in March asking to take over the school and underscoring district leaders' disappointment that the state chose Perpich to manage Crosswinds.

The education budget passed by the Legislature assumes $10 million in revenue from the sale of Crosswinds, but the state Department of Administration has yet to set a sale price.

Wayne Waslaski, director of real estate and construction services for the state Department of Administration, said several things have to happen before the state decides to sell or convey the Crosswinds property, including a decision about whether the property is still needed to carry out the purpose for which it was built.

Supporters of the school hope state leaders will decide voluntary school integration is still an important endeavor. Many favor St. Paul as Perpich's successor because they believe the urban district would be the best fit for the school's mission.

Eric Celeste, a parent of a former Crosswinds student and a longtime supporter of the school, said St. Paul taking over the program would be a unique opportunity to bring together students of different backgrounds from the city and the suburbs.

"That could be much better than any other solution we've had for Crosswinds in years," Celeste said. "I think it is very hard, in today's environment, to say integration and learning to live and respect one another aren't necessary."

Enrollment down to 129

One of Crosswinds' biggest challenges since the East Metro Integration District decided to step back has been the continued uncertainty about its future. Enrollment had been slowly declining, then plummeted and never recovered.

This school year, just 129 students attend Crosswinds, down from a high of more than 500 students a decade ago. The enrollment decline means Perpich had to spend $651,000 subsidizing the school's operation.

Also, Crosswinds students have struggled academically, with few scoring proficient on state tests in math, reading and science. School supporters note more than half of current students live in poverty and 24 percent qualify for special-education services.

Crosswinds staff and students learned Friday that they likely wouldn't have a school to return to in the fall. The sudden turn of events leading to the school's sale and possible permanent closure left staff, students and parents on edge.

"It's very frustrating," Nicole Rasmussen, the school's interim director, said earlier this month. "In addition, we are dealing with children's lives. It's unfair to them. It's very difficult when you are trying to move students along and help them develop."

Next steps

The legislation calling for the school's sale or conveyance allows the state to begin marketing the property on July 1. In the meantime, Waslaski says, the state will arrange for an independent appraisal of the property before deciding if it will be conveyed or sold.

First, the Department of Administration needs to decide if the property is no longer needed for the purpose it was constructed. Then the department will ask other state agencies if the facility would meet their needs.

If no agency needs the building, the property can be sold to a local government entity such as a school district or city, Waslaski said. The appraisal will set the minimum price the state would accept.

However, if the administration department decides the school is still needed for the purpose it was built, the building could be transferred in another way. There is no set timeline for these decisions to be made, but Waslaski expects things to move forward deliberately.

"Obviously, there is an interest in completing a transaction as soon as we can," he said.