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School levy, bond will be on fall ballot in District 833

District 833 voters can expect two school referendum questions on the ballot this fall.

South Washington County School Board members want the November election to include requests for a levy increase and funding for building construction projects.

Voters will decide whether to increase their property taxes to fund basic school operations through the property tax levy. A second question will seek additional property tax revenue to pay for school building construction and renovation plans that are part of the district’s long-term facilities plan.

“We need the money,” board member Katie Schwartz said Thursday. She was referring to the district’s budget deficit for next year, which is expected to be erased with program cuts and reserve funds, and its tentative plans for further spending cuts the following year if it does not receive additional funding through the Legislature or from local taxpayers.

At the same time, Schwartz added, she worries about seeking “so much money” at one time.

Six board members said they favor a combined levy and bond referendum. Sharon Van Leer was absent from the Thursday board meeting.

School Board Chairman Ron Kath said some residents want the district to seek whatever it needs through referendum now and then stay off the ballot in future elections.

“We did have a number of folks say … ‘Let’s set this up for the next 10 years,’” he said.

The district has not determined how much new revenue it will seek from voters. Those decisions will come through a series of public meetings yet this spring.

However, previous board decisions and discussions have established some parameters.

The district’s long-term facilities plan includes construction of a new middle school in northwest Cottage Grove, renovation of Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park and additions to a number of schools, including all three high schools and some elementary buildings. The facilities plan has an estimated price tag of $180 million. Of that, nearly $170 million could be paid for through voter-approved bonds.

Kath said administrators will provide a number of options, ranging from funding the entire facilities plan now to seeking money for only some of the projects and delaying others.

Voters already have approved levies to help fund basic school operations, but a maximum levy increase would generate another $18.4 million a year. The district’s annual general fund budget is about $194 million.

Administrators and board members laid out a tentative schedule of meetings to discuss the levy proposal and the bond measure. The May 7 board meeting will include discussion of the bond measure, including which long-term facilities projects to pursue. Board members will discuss the operating levy at their May 21 meeting. They’ll then discuss both questions at their June 4 meeting.

SURVEY REJECTED

As they plan for the fall referendum, board members last week turned down a proposal that the district contract for a survey, which would have cost about $15,000. The firm would have polled residents about their appetite for the referendum measures and their views on district operations, School Board performance and administrative work.

Board members said they received a lot of public input during budget discussions earlier this year and don’t need survey information to help decide referendum details. 

“I feel like we need to go for what we need,” boar member Michelle Witte said. “We just need to go for it.”

The ballot also will include three School Board seats. Kath, Witte and board member Joe Slavin said they are running.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

(651) 459-7600
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