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Crosswinds acquisition battle hits Legislature

Crosswinds School, in the East Metro Integration District, is located on Weir Drive near the Tamarack Road, I-494 Interchange in Woodbury with 65 students from School District 833 attending.

Sides are being chosen at the state Capitol over the future of a school building in Woodbury.

Lawmakers got their first look last week at a bill that would fold Crosswinds East Metro Arts and Science School into a west-metro arts school's purview and preserve Crosswinds' unique integration offerings.

On the other side of the battle is District 833, which is poised to take over the Crosswinds building if the bill isn't passed by April 1. South Washington School District officials hope to acquire the school in a move that could free up space at several of its swelling buildings.

Crosswinds, a magnet school that draws on students from members of its 10-district East Metro Integration District governing body, will close this year due to funding shortfalls.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by a Northfield Democrat and in the House by a Golden Valley Democrat, calls for the Perpich Center for Arts Integration -- a school that enrolls students from around Minnesota -- to establish an interdistrict integration magnet program that merges Crosswinds with its program.

The legislation calls for the school to be turned over to Perpich, and its EMID staff - barring administrators - to become state civil service employees through Perpich, based in Golden Valley. Funding would be provided by the state by treating Crosswinds as though it were a school district, according to the bill.

Per-pupil funding would also come from referendum equalization aid from the students' district of residence, the legislation states. The school would also be eligible for integration aid funding, which is doled out by the state in an effort to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Supporters of the bill argue it will preserve the year-round school's mission to surround a culturally diverse student body with an arts- and science-based curriculum before it comes to an abrupt stop.

"If the Legislature doesn't approve Perpich, all of this just goes away and the state investment disappears," said Susan Larson, the parent of a Crosswinds student.

Backing her is Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, who is chief author of the Senate bill. He said the legislation "has pretty good support" and added that he is confident it will be passed in time to meet the April 1 deadline.

"I think it can be done," Dahle said.

His legislative aide said fiscal estimates have been requested through the state's education department but are not yet prepared, though Dahle called the bill "budget neutral."

The bill was referred to the Senate's Education Committee.

Woodbury Sen. Susan Kent sits on the Senate Education Committee and represents Senate District 53, which includes the South Washington County School District. She called the Perpich bill "interesting," but said fiscal uncertainties surrounding the proposal leave questions.

"Until I get some assurances, I'm still really concerned about the costs of this," Kent said last week.

Others in the Legislature were more direct in their opposition to the Perpich bill.

Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, said she was approached by Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, to oppose the legislation.

She said she's wary of a funding provision in the bill that allows for integration aid - a funding mechanism Kieffer said could be unreliable.

"I'm all for school choice," she said. "But they're asking for special funding for a school funding program that's not able to fund itself."

There are many unanswered questions about Perpich's plan for Crosswinds, said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, and it deserves more scrutiny from lawmakers.

Sieben said Perpich essentially wants to create "its own mini-school district" rather than just asking lawmakers to give it more state money to run a Crosswinds program.

That strategy may be easier to get through the Legislature in a budget-setting year, but it too has problems, Sieben said.

Perpich's proposal relies on state integration funding that may not be used the same way in future years, she said.

Lawmakers have been reviewing the state's integration program and any changes could affect the funding given districts for integration efforts.

"I am doing my best to raise those questions and concerns," Sieben said. "Obviously, Perpich has a very good reputation around the state, but I also think that what they are proposing is dramatically different from their current mission."

Perpich supporters say they have time to get their bill through the Legislature.

Sieben serves as assistant Senate majority leader but said she could not block the Perpich proposal from getting legislative hearings and, potentially, a floor vote.

Schoen said rank-and-file lawmakers are starting to hear about the Crosswinds fight. District 833 would lose state funding and student enrollment if Perpich is successful, he predicted, because Perpich needs to attract more students from surrounding districts to be viable.

Even then, Schoen said, he is doubtful that Perpich has a sustainable funding model.

To lobby for District 833 and against the Perpich plan, Schoen said he is telling lawmakers from around the state that they should consider what they would do if Perpich wanted to expand into their own school district.

"The only way for them to pick up their funding is for them to pick up students from other school districts," Schoen said.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was at District 833's Newport Elementary School last Friday, Feb. 22, for a reading event.

Asked about the Crosswinds issue, Cassellius said neither she nor Gov. Mark Dayton's administration has taken a position on whether the Perpich center should acquire Crosswinds.

Cassellius said the state Education Department is staying out of the debate over Crosswinds' future.

The commissioner is familiar with Crosswinds, as she served as superintendent of the East Metro Integration District prior to joining the Dayton administration.

Not everyone tracking the bill has picked a side. That includes Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury.

Ward called the Crosswinds bill "a tough one." Though she wants to see the Crosswinds program continue, she conceded that "there are also the needs of the school district."

"(District 833) needs the space," Ward said, adding that South Washington County Schools would likely have to construct more buildings otherwise.

No hearings for the Perpich bill have been announced so far in either chamber.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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