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District 833 shows interest in taking over Crosswinds school

While only in preliminary discussions, South Washington County School Board members said they see that the Crosswinds school building in Woodbury could become a fifth District 833 middle school.

The District 833 School Board is interested in taking over the Crosswinds East Metro Arts and Science School building in Woodbury.

Although early in discussions, board members said last week they see that the Crosswinds building could become a fifth District 833 middle school. Should South Washington County Schools acquire the building, it would occur over a two-year period.

Crosswinds, located on Weir Drive near the Tamarack Road interchange with Interstate 494, is one of two schools operated by the East Metro Integration District (EMID), which is made up of 10 member public school districts. They include District 833, St. Paul Public Schools and others.

Crosswinds houses students in grades 6-10. Fifty-eight of the students live in District 833 boundaries but choose to attend Crosswinds, according to Superintendent Keith Jacobus.

Last year the EMID school board -- its members are from the 10 school districts -- decided to continue operating Crosswinds and the Harambee Community Cultures/Environment Science School for grades K-5 in Maplewood for another year, but the board now wants one or more districts to absorb the two schools.

Both schools, with Roseville Area Schools interested in taking the Harambee building, were built with state money. If a district agrees to take over a school and continue to operate it for education, there would be no cost to the acquiring district, said District 833 School Board member Jim Gelbmann. He also sits on the EMID board.

More than 10 years ago, EMID and another integration district for the western Twin Cities area were formed by the state as part of an agreement to avoid a federal lawsuit alleging that it fostered racial isolation in St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts. It gave the isolated districts, and those districts abutting them, funding to further integration. It also gave districts levy authority to add additional money.

District 833 receives about $2.4 million annually and gives $1 million to EMID, 60 percent of which goes to operate the two schools.

Since the two schools were built in 2003 to foster integration, the situation has changed. The Legislature changed the direction of integration to emphasize programs to narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color. EMID member districts in the past several years have wanted to keep more of the funding for in-house programs such as International Baccalaureate schools.

A year ago, EMID member districts reduced their contributions by 20 percent. The EMID board decided to keep the schools open and spend down their fund balance. But the current model is unsustainable, Gelbmann said.

Each student carries their state aid money to the EMID schools, but not individual district referendum money.

While students have a "wonderful environment" for integration, Gelbmann said a year ago, "it's also an expensive choice."

EMID spent $7,500 per student a year ago while District 833 spent $6,300, according to Mark Porter, the former District 833 superintendent.

The EMID board wants to know by Nov. 28 if District 833 is interested in opening a process to take over Crosswinds, Gelbmann said.

The school, built in 2003 to house 600 students, currently has 350 students and is in "beautiful condition," Jacobus said, but District 833 would have to alter the school's model, probably to a middle school.

It could also be a school for grades 6-12, District 833 School Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd said.

Crosswinds, which operates on a year-round schedule emphasizing art and science, has strong enrollment in grades 6-8 but falls off in grades 9 and 10, Gelbmann said. That is because parents are concerned about splitting up their student's high school experience.

Numerous decisions would be ahead if District 833 pursues building acquisition, including a two-year process for planning and transition.

The state pays to transport kids by bus to Crosswinds from the 10 member districts, Gelbmann said, and would have to agree to continue to do so because it's too expensive for 833.

Also, current teacher contracts would transfer to District 833 if the school is taken over. Those with seniority also have seniority in any of the 10 member districts, under state law, Gelbmann said.

When District 833 built East Ridge High School and changed attendance boundaries, the board knew there would be pressure on middle school space, said board member Ron Kath, who favors moving forward in the process to add Crosswinds. Cottage Grove and Lake middle schools are now closed to student transfers from within and outside the district.

Taking over Crosswinds is in the best economic interests of the district in the long term, Gelbmann said, even though there might be some short-term cost.

The board will decide whether to move forward at its Nov. 22 meeting.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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