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Our View: Work ahead for district, voters

:In addition to deciding District 833 School Board elections, south Washington County voters will have big choices to make Nov. 5.

Three of them, actually.

The school district has planned a bold levy referendum plan for the fall election.

It’s bold because it asks district residents to continue paying for an existing property tax levy that generates roughly $4.6 million annually for school operations. On top of that, though, it will seek property tax increases to pay for school security upgrades, classroom spending and technology improvements totaling nearly $7 million.

Then, to address expected enrollment increases in the coming years -- in part the result of projected growth in both Woodbury and Cottage Grove -- the district will put an $8 million bond on the ballot. If voters say yes to that tax increase, the district would use the money to buy property for a new elementary school and a new middle school.

Altogether the plan amounts to about $19 million on the ballot.

The district generally has a good track record in recent decades of convincing local voters they should spend more to support their local schools. Successful operating levies and the large bond referendum that funded construction of East Ridge High School are but some examples. That is both a reflection of a community that values education and of a district that has demonstrated prudent fiscal planning, effectively sold a plan to voters and followed through.

Contrast that with districts in Minnesota that struggle to pass school levies, for various reasons, returning frequently to a skeptical voting public.

Still, District 833 faces a big sell this fall with its three-question measure, for a few reasons.

First, if voters reject the levy renewals on the first question, the requests for new money are moot.

Also, some residents will question the need for any increased taxes for education, though of all possible uses, school building safety is a valuable use of taxpayer dollars.

Of course, voters also might wonder why the district needs to build yet more buildings when some schools are not fully occupied.

A recent public survey showed strong support for a levy renewal and for school spending in general, but the district referendum could serve as a broader barometer of public support for the direction of a district that has seen significant changes and grappled with tough issues in recent years:

- Administrators and School Board members have struggled to balance school budgets with spending cuts that don’t negatively impact students in the classroom.

- The popularity of the district’s Spanish immersion program has put stress on some building space and pitted the program against some parents of traditional, neighborhood elementary schools.

- There was an eyebrow-raising change in district leadership when Mark Porter was essentially fired and Keith Jacobus came on as the new superintendent in 2012.

- A push to acquire the Crosswinds school building in Woodbury fizzled.

Yet District 833 also is rife with student achievements and success stories, many of which are the subject of stories in the Bulletin throughout the year. There are fascinating, inspiring things happening in local classrooms each day.

School district leaders, with Jacobus at the helm, should make their pitch this fall, clearly articulating why they are seeking more money and how it will improve students’ academic experience.

District 833 voters have an assignment of their own over the coming weeks and months. They should tune into the school levy discussion, ask questions and do their homework before heading to the polls this fall.