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Referendum recount? One effort is afoot, after growth areas help 2 of 3 questions pass

Growth areas help carry levy increase, middle school bond

By Scott Wente

Operating levy increase? Sure.

Middle school construction money? Yes — barely.

More money for other school projects? Not this time.

Carried by support in growing residential areas of Woodbury and Cottage Grove, South Washington County Schools passed a $10.3 million annual levy increase and a $96 million bonding package to build a new middle school and upgrade the other three.

The 10-year, $525-per-pupil levy hike passed by a comfortable margin of roughly 56-44 percent.

The middle school bond measure in Question 2 of the Nov. 3 referendum passed by just 19 votes out of 13,659 cast — 50.07 percent to 49.93 percent. That 0.14 percent victory margin could trigger a publicly funded recount if one is requested in writing by a voter and a 25-signature petition is submitted. At least one recount petition is planned.

The unofficial election results were: Question 1—7,694-5,988; Question 2—6,839-6,820; and Question 3—6,541-7,102.

A home valued at $200,000 will see a property tax increase of $293 annually, according to district estimates. The school portion of property taxes on a $400,000 home will rise by $600 a year.

Michelle Witte, a District 833 School Board member and leader of the Vote Yes 833 committee, said she believes the election provided a good snapshot of what people wanted. She said they want to support the schools, but may want more information about proposed construction projects.

“In the end I feel better than I thought we would feel that people really are supporting and understanding our budgetary needs because it was a resounding (victory) margin on the levy,” Witte said. “I feel that Question 2 will hold, and we’ll have to do a better job showing the need for Question 3, and that’s OK.”

Voter turnout across the district was 23.9 percent, according to unofficial figures from Washington County.

Cottage Grove led turnout with 25.7 percent. In Woodbury, 23.1 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Turnout was 22.6 percent in St. Paul Park, 19.5 percent in Newport.

Big cuts averted

District leaders say the increased property tax revenue approved in Question 1 is needed in part to avoid roughly $7.4 million in spending cuts for the 2016-17 school year. 

The district had identified more than $3 million in possible cuts next year if the levy failed, but would have needed to find $4 million more. Elementary band and orchestra were on the list, along with a grade-school reading intervention program and the possibility of contracting for bus service.

School Board Chairman Ron Kath said they cannot promise there will be no future spending cuts, but the levy’s passage “means that band will be there, Reading Recovery will be there, and other programs will be there.”

The approved $96 million in bonding will be used in part to build a new Oltman Middle School in northwest Cottage Grove, closer to where population growth is occurring.

“I’m ecstatic for our students and the opportunity for them to learn in a new school environment built specifically for middle level learning,” Oltman Principal Becky Schroeder said.

That bond measure also will pay for improvements to Lake, Cottage Grove and Woodbury middle schools. Those three buildings are near capacity.

The existing and aging Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park will be renovated and turned into the home of the district’s Spanish immersion elementary school, Nuevas Fronteras. The school shares space at the crowded Crestview Elementary building in Cottage Grove.

Witte touted the work of a citizens’ committee in changes to the Oltman construction plan. She called the process open and inclusive.

“There is no greater transparency than going to the voters and having to ask,” Witte said of the referendum.

The bonds will be repaid during a 20-year period. 

Question 3 called for another $46.5 million in bonds to expand the three high schools — East Ridge, Woodbury and Park — and to make improvements to district elementary schools.

Support varies

The strongest support for the referendum came in Woodbury and northwest Cottage Grove — both areas where growth has created school space constraints and where additional development is planned.

Those areas’ higher populations carried the levy and bond measure even while other areas, including Newport and St. Paul Park, failed to see more than 43 percent support for any of the three questions.

Demographics explain why there wasn’t as much support in St. Paul Park and Newport, Kath said.

“It’s just your population bases — they are older neighborhoods, less kids, lots of seniors,” he said.

The operating levy passed with at least 53 percent support in all of the district-combined Woodbury and Cottage Grove precincts. Most of those precincts also supported the middle school bond with 50- to 56-percent margins of approval.

Cottage Grove’s growth during the past eight years contributed to success of the first two ballot questions, Kath said. “We have a lot of new families in the district that are supportive of public education, and that’s starting to show.”

Kath, who lives in Cottage Grove, said development is changing the dynamic of District 833 elections. When he first was elected to the board 12 years ago, Kath said, “Woodbury carried everything, but that has started to shift.”

Similar levels of support didn’t exist for the third question, which was rejected by a margin of about 52-48 percent. With the exception of two precincts that include areas in the East Ridge High School boundary, no precinct saw support for Question 3 crack 50 percent. 

As they crafted the referendum earlier this year, School Board members combined middle school projects into one bond question and gave it a higher priority, acknowledging that middle school space concerns were not addressed in the district’s last large bond measure.

Board members also chose to split up the $900-per-pupil operating levy increase they say the district needs. This year’s $525 levy is expected to be followed by a request for another $375-per-pupil levy hike in 2017.

However, Kath said that plan could change, depending on the district’s needs and state funding during the next two years.

“If we truly don’t need it, we’re not going to ask for it just to ask for it,” he said.

Multiple campaigns

School administrators ran what was described as an informational campaign, holding community forums and more than 100 various meetings to discuss the district’s budget, its planned spending cuts if the levy was not approved and why it sought the bond measures.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus declined to be interviewed about the referendum after the results came in.

The district released a statement in which Jacobus thanked voters for supporting the district and called it a critical election in which passage of the referendum questions was essential for the district.

“Together we are taking the next steps to plan for the future and ensure we provide our students with an excellent education,” Jacobus said in a prepared statement.

Vote Yes 833 committee organizers and other referendum supporters gathered election night to celebrate passage of the two questions. The pro-levy committee had spent the campaign urging supporters to turn out at the polls and pitching to voters that, while big, the district’s request came after years of budget cuts, small state aid increases and no large local levy increases.

Witte said teachers played a big role in passage of the first two questions, and that’s a good thing “because they are 80 percent of our team.”

The referendum was opposed by the South Washington Citizens for Progress committee, led by School Board candidate Andrea Mayer-Bruestle. The committee was criticized by referendum supporters when it contracted with controversial, Iowa-based consultant Paul Dorr, who campaigns against public school ballot measures. The anti-levy committee had questioned the district’s need for the referendum and focused on what it said is excessive administrative spending and the ability to make other budget reductions without affecting classroom instruction.

Mathias Baden contributed to this story.