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Viewpoint: Courting the affluent? District open to criticism

Two years ago, Liberty Ridge Elementary in Woodbury was excessively overcrowded due to population growth within the school’s attendance area. At the time, I suggested the attendance area be re-drawn, sending approximately 200 children to another building that had more room. I couldn’t justify expanding Liberty Ridge when we had room for up to 1,000 additional students in our existing elementary buildings.

My proposed solution was rejected. Instead, my colleagues on the District 833 School Board voted to spend over $5 million to build a kindergarten center across the street from Liberty Ridge. The board combined property tax lease levies with a long-term pledge of operating capital to build the center. The solution will affect our district-wide property taxes and operating capital budgets for the next decade. I sarcastically suggested that the board could have saved $2.5 million by drawing new boundaries, transferring 200 students to a school that was well under its ideal capacity and giving $10,000 to every family whose children were transferred to another building. Why raise property taxes and commit our future operating capital for an expansion of a building that wasn’t needed?

The board established a precedent when it voted to build its way out of an isolated overcrowded situation. Surely overcrowding at another building would be addressed with a similar proposal to expand the existing facility.

The Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras Elementary building in Cottage Grove is now well over capacity. I assumed the administration and School Board would once again use the district’s lease levy and future operating capital budgets to help alleviate the overcrowded situation at this school. While I objected to the initial attempt to build our way out of overcrowded conditions at a single building, the precedent has been established. What was fair for the Liberty Ridge community should be fair for the Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras community as well.

The overcrowding at Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras continues unabated. So far, the administration and board have not suggested an expansion of the building or the addition of a kindergarten center. Instead, district administrators have asked the Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras community to be patient and wait for the results of the long-range facilities task force that is considering the space needs for the entire district during the next 10 years.

Why was the district so quick to reject more economical solutions and build its way out of the overcrowded situation at Liberty Ridge? Why hasn’t a similar solution been proposed for the overcrowding at the Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras building? 

There are several plausible answers to these questions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to overlook the differences in the economic demographics of the families who attend the two schools. 

Although average family income data for each building is unavailable, we do have reliable statistics on the percentage of students in each school who receive free lunches. To qualify for a free lunch, a family’s income must be no greater than 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. A family of four with a household income of $30,615 or less qualifies for a free lunch.

Last year, 7 percent of Liberty Ridge students received a free lunch – the lowest percentage of free lunch recipients within our district. In comparison, 30 percent of the students attending Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras received free lunches. Only three schools within our district had a higher percentage of students receiving a free lunch.

The reluctance to use the district’s financial resources to resolve the overcrowding at Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras creates the perception that the administration and the board respond more favorably to the wants and needs of more affluent communities.

It would be naïve of me to expect an equitable solution for the Crestview/Nuevas Fronteras overcrowding. However, I do hope the long-range facilities task force does not repeat the mistake of giving our wealthiest communities preferential treatment over the concerns of other school communities. More specifically, any proposal to eliminate the district-wide enrollment option for the Valley Crossing Community School, to make room for more students from the Liberty Ridge area, should be taken off the table. Let’s not perpetuate the perception that the wants of the wealthiest within our district are given preferential consideration by the district administration and school board.

 Jim Gelbmann is a member of the South Washington County School Board. His opinions do not represent the opinions of the entire School Board.