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Friedell Middle School to close at the end of 2021-22

Rochester Public Schools will still use the building for other purposes starting in 2022-23.

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Friedell Middle School is seen Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
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After months of debate, the Rochester School Board voted on Tuesday to close Friedell Middle School and repurpose the building for other needs.

The decision was made with a 5-2 vote. Those in favor of the decision were Deborah Seelinger, Mark Schleusner, Jean Marvin, Cathy Nathan and Don Barlow. Those apposing the decision were Melissa Amundsen and Julie Workman.

The administration of RPS plans to use the space for its program called Rochester Academy for Independent Living (RAIL), as well as its gymnastics program.

There were multiple issues at play throughout the discussion leading up to the vote on Tuesday.

One component was the cost. By keeping Friedell open, Rochester Public Schools would have more than $1 million in additional costs. Compounding that is the fact that the district is facing a budget shortfall. According to the district, the "best-case scenario" is that there will be a deficit of nearly $10 million during the 2022-23 year.

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Amundsen reiterated her previous stance on the issue, saying she believes the question of closing Friedell should be held as part of a larger discussion about budget cuts. She said Friedell shouldn't be singled out. Rather, she said the district should compile a list of areas where it could reduce pressure on the budget, then prioritize those items.

"I think it's an inappropriate time to be considering this question," Amundsen said on Tuesday.

Schleusner also indicated he did not agree with the timing, even though he ultimately voted in favor of the decision.

Friedell Middle School serves two purposes. It houses a highly gifted program, but it also serves as a districtwide option for families who want a smaller middle school option.

There have been questions, however, as to whether Friedell reflects the district's standards of equity and diversity. The racial makeup of students at Friedell does not match that of the overall district. Friedell also has fewer students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, fewer special education students, and fewer students receiving English as a second language education than the district overall.

Seelinger referenced those disparities when coming to her decision.

"This model, while it's good for many -- good for some -- it's not good for all in terms of when we look at our 18,000 students," she said.

During previous discussions on the topic, Nathan suggested changing the process by which students are selected to the school to make it more reflective of the overall student body.

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In spite of that, she said on Tuesday that she doesn't know how to get past the perception that students attending Friedell receive an unfair advantage.

"I think we've heard both ways in the feedback about Friedell from our community. We've certainly people who love the middle school where they're at, and we have heard that people are unhappy with the larger middle school experience and have the perception that Friedell was getting something extra or special," Nathan said.

Barlow said the benefits of the small school setting in Friedell can be replicated elsewhere.

"Community isn't something that can only happen in a small school setting," Barlow said. "It is the result of the commitment and passion of staff, parents, students and community supports."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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