Hilltop Elementary School in Henderson

Declining open enrollment in the LS-H school district became an important topic at the facilities task force meeting. While the reasons for dropping enrollment are still unknown, there are a number of possible factors including the aging buildings and utilities. (Le Sueur County News file photo)

After six weeks of research, the Le Sueur-Henderson facilities task force took its first steps toward building the group’s final recommendation for an expected 2020 referendum.

At the Nov. 19 meeting, the facilities task force, made up of members of the Le Sueur and Henderson communities, discussed various issues including district enrollment and population and started brainstorming solutions for the referendum.

“That solution needs to organically be what’s best for kids …” Unesco consultant Brian Grenell told the task force. “But also what’s tolerable fiscally for taxpayers, because we can’t pass the referendum if the tax impact is too big … and then what politically or strategically can be passed.”

The ideas the task force came up with are still a mystery at this point, since they were tabled for further discussion at the Tuesday, Dec. 3 meeting. Some of the issues that will likely be addressed by these ideas are whether to close or renovate Hilltop Elementary, infrastructure and utility improvements to buildings in the district and potential changes to school learning spaces.

One of the issues facing the district that became a major point of discussion is the declining enrollment in Le Sueur-Henderson schools. Since 2010, enrollment in the district has consistently fallen year-to-year. By 2019, enrollment dropped from 1,183 to 1,026. Currently, a little more than 200 students in the district are open enrolled elsewhere and that number has only continued to grow.

The district wasn’t able to say why enrollment in Le Sueur-Henderson has dropped, but consultants from Unesco noted the most common reasons parents choose to open enroll their students outside of a district. These factors include the location of the school being far away or not fitting with a parent’s commute, programs offered by another district, special education opportunities, online school, and negative perceptions of the school district they’re exiting.

Unfavorable perceptions of schools are often driven by districts undergoing fiscal challenges, aging and deteriorating facilities and conditions, and/or growing demographic changes.

Four districts comprise around 75% of the total open enrollment outside Le Sueur-Henderson: St. Peter, Belle Plaine, Tri-City United and Sibley East. While the district hasn’t been able to pinpoint reasons parents open enroll their districts elsewhere, Henderson Mayor Paul Menne suggested new facilities were a factor, pointing to data showing spikes in open enrollment correlated with facility improvements in neighboring districts. St. Peter, for instance has opened a brand new high school, and New Prague also has upgraded buildings.

“New facilities brings open enrollment,” said Menne.

The discussion on declining enrollment drove questions on what to do with Hilltop Elementary. One of the paths the district could take to address its aging facilities is shut down Hilltop Elementary and direct improvements to Park Elementary and Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School. Task force member Megan Turek aired concerns that closing Hilltop would drive Henderson parents to enroll their kids in other schools.

“Henderson’s a pipeline to this district …” said Turek. “I’m very nervous about the pipeline should a recommendation go forth that does not include Henderson. You’re going to hurt our district.”

She continued, “Henderson will suffer. Our property values will plummet. We can show you stats. And when our community takes a blowback, you will lose students. You’re not going to get them all over here.”

Task force member Nikki Kiemele responded to Turek’s comments, saying that the task force should keep all options in mind.

“Our district has been the district of Le Sueur-Henderson for 20 years. I think if you ask the kids, what they want to see, it’s going to be different from what their parents’ want …” said Kiemle. “I’m not saying I’m not in favor of having a school in Henderson, but I came into this process totally open-minded to what is best for our district, and I don’t know that everyone is looking at that the same way.”

Reach Reporter Carson Hughes at 507-931-8572.

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