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Ballot plan: 3 questions this year, then back in 2017

School District 833 is gearing up for a three-question referendum this November but planning to spread a levy increase over two elections.

After months of discussion, the South Washington County School Board has decided to ask voters this fall for some of the operating levy increase it says the district needs — and then ask for the remaining property tax increase in 2017.

Board members on Thursday also decided to put a two-part bond measure on the Nov. 3 ballot: one question funding middle school construction projects, the second for elementary and high school upgrades.

The combined effect of the three questions is a $418 annual property tax increase on a home valued at $250,000, according to district estimates.

District administrators and board members say a $900-per-pupil annual increase is needed to dodge about $3.4 million in budget cuts next year, stop deficit spending and begin building up reserve accounts that have been depleted in recent years. A $900-per-pupil increase would generate about $17.6 million a year for the school system, which has an operating budget of $198 million.

Board Chairman Ron Kath said there was support for the full $900-per-pupil increase this year. However, if that was approved, together with successful bond measures, property taxes would have risen about $600 annually on a $250,000 home. That one-time levy increase was unpopular in a survey of district residents in June.

“When you start crunching the numbers, all of the sudden reality starts to sink in,” Kath said.

Splitting the levy request over two elections — $525-per-pupil this year and an additional $375 in 2017 — is a reasonable approach that helps the district continue its programs, Kath said. It acknowledges the district needs the full amount but that it is too much in one year for voters.

Voters heading to the polling place this fall also will decide whether the district can bond for building projects.

The first bond question will ask for $96 million to fund construction of a new Oltman Middle School in northwest Cottage Grove; renovations of the existing Oltman Middle School building in St. Paul Park to accommodate Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion; and improvements to Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Lake middle schools.

The second bond measure is $46.5 million. It would pay for additions to Woodbury, East Ridge and Park high schools, as well as improvements to elementary schools.

The bond measures were developed through a long-range facilities plan, which considered existing building constraints and the amount of classroom space that will be needed to accommodate population growth in Woodbury and Cottage Grove over the next decade.

The three questions appearing on the ballot this fall will be linked. The first bond question for middle school construction can only pass if the operating levy passes. The second bond question can only pass if the first bond measure is approved.

“Without the increased operating dollars, we can’t afford to build the buildings and staff them and run them,” Superintendent Keith Jacobus said.

The board voted 5-1 for the referendum plan; Katy McElwee-Stevens was absent. Katie Schwartz was the lone no vote. She wanted to give voters the option of approving the full $900-per-pupil increase this year, while delaying the bond measure funding elementary school and middle school projects until 2017.

Administrators point to sluggish state aid increases over the past decade as a leading reason for the district’s budget deficits. They say the state’s school funding increases haven’t kept up with inflation and rising operating costs. District 833 has cut spending and dipped deep into its cash reserves to balance budgets.

“We’ve cut everything we can,” board member Michelle Witte said. “Anything else now will be at the muscle of what we do.”

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.

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