Board against suspending variances next year 

As District 191 officials hear feedback on proposed changes in school attendance boundaries, they’ll have a related question to consider.

How will the district handle requests for variances allowing resident students to attend district schools outside their assigned attendance areas?

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board approved a new variance policy Jan. 9 that includes an option to temporarily suspend variances for a year or more.

Board members made clear they don’t want to suspend variances next year, when the district shrinks from 10 elementary schools to eight and three middle schools to two. Suspension requires a board vote by March 31.

But they do want to hear from parents during the boundary-change process before addressing other policy particulars, such as whether in-demand schools should tolerate higher class sizes caused by variances.

Discussion of new boundaries and variance practices were prompted by last month’s board votes to close Sioux Trail and M.W. Savage elementaries and Metcalf Middle School because of declining district enrollment.

The district unveiled boundary options at five public meetings this week (see related story in this edition). Variance questions were bound to come up, board members said Jan. 9.

“It’s going to be tricky,” Board Member Jen Holweger said. “I’m really interested in what the community members are going to have to say at these meetings.”

Under current district practice, half of a grade level’s vacant student capacity is set aside for students with variances, said Stacey Sovine, executive director of human resources. If requests exceed capacity, preference is given to families with siblings or staff members at the desired school, he said. There is also a lottery process, Sovine said.

Another option under the new policy is to give the superintendent authority over variance criteria and capacities, he said.

Under current practice and the new policy, a variance is good for a student’s entire career at a school without reapplication.

Boundary changes could complicate things. For example, if a neighborhood were switched from one school to another, some students might want variances to return to their old school.

That could raise a touchy situation in which those students have to apply for variances and could be turned down, but students already attending that school from outside the attendance boundary wouldn’t have to reapply, Sovine said.

Officials should be frank and ask families if they’re willing to tolerate larger-than-normal class sizes for the next couple of years in order to let displaced students return to their old schools, Board Member Eric Miller said.

Students who remain in their current schools under the new boundary plan might resist that, Holweger said. During the run-up to the school closings, officials assured families the closings wouldn’t raise class sizes, she said.

Administrators said they wanted this week’s public meetings to focus on boundary options, not variances. But Miller predicted variance questions would quickly arise.

Suspending variances next year would be “disruptive and probably frustrating” to families, Sovine said. Board members echoed that.

Some families choose variances because their child care is near the school. It would be “punitive” to remove that option, especially for the youngest students, Board Member DeeDee Currier said. “We don’t want that particular feeling out there.”

Families use variances for reasons such as a school’s proximity to child care, a parent’s workplace or a sibling’s middle school, Board Member Darcy Schatz said.

Board discussion of a final boundary recommendation is tentatively set for Jan. 23, with a possible vote on Feb. 6.

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