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Boundary, referendum issues bearing down on district

The South Washington County School Board’s approval of a nearly $180 million long-range facilities plan last month came on a simple yea-or-nay vote.

But that unanimous vote, itself the culmination of months of work, set into motion a complicated, years-long process that in one way or another will affect many District 833 schools and families.

District administrators and staff are beginning a multi-faceted planning process that looks a bit like several lines of dominoes that not only need to merge but in a particular order.

There are attendance boundaries to change, construction plans to finalize and a ballot measure to put before district voters. Complicating the efforts are a tight timeline, if construction is to occur as planned, and the need to simultaneously solve the largest annual general fund deficit in recent years.

Boundary work ahead

The first priority coming out of the board’s approval of the facilities plan is to begin redrawing attendance boundaries at the high school and middle school levels. There is an April 2015 deadline to define those lines.

“The attendance boundary is our next big task,” Superintendent Keith Jacobus said in a recent interview. “We want to make sure we’re out by the spring to make sure parents know exactly where the boundaries will be.”

Jacobus said the district wants to give families time to prepare for new boundaries that will go into effect in fall 2016 for most affected students — some East Ridge High School students will begin to be shifted to Woodbury High School in fall 2015 — but it also wants the boundaries settled ahead of a likely fall 2015 bond and operating levy referendum.

Administrators are beginning to look at the process they will use to develop new attendance boundary proposals, which will include community input. It will be the district’s first significant boundary change since 2009.

“What we really want to determine is what’s the best way to gather input from the public,” Jacobus said.

The $179 million bond referendum district voters likely will see in the 2015 election would pay for a new middle school; additions to all three high schools; upgrades and additions at middle and elementary schools; and other building improvements. The plan is intended to address the district’s anticipated enrollment growth of 2,700 students over the next 10 years, as well as solving current space problems at some schools.

‘Start right now’

When District 833 planned an operating levy and bond request in fall 2013, it rolled out its information campaign — literature, public meetings and other communication — in late summer or early fall.

The sheer complexity of the district’s request next year means it will have to begin explaining the referendum to voters much earlier, Jacobus said.

“Now that the information’s out there that this is what we’re considering, I think we start right now,” he said.

The district wants to provide information that is accurate, he added, but some of the financial details will not be available until late spring.

The bond referendum would be 833’s largest request of new local property tax revenue, and there could be historic implications beyond south Washington County.

Only one school district in Minnesota has asked voters to approve a comparable bond referendum in about the past decade, and it was rejected.

The Forest Lake district failed to pass a $179 million building referendum in May. That was the largest bond measure put to voters anywhere in Minnesota since at least 2006, according to state education data.

But District 833 also is planning to seek a levy increase to cover operating costs for the new and expanded facilities, bumping up the impact on taxpayers. Plus, the district may seek additional levy revenue to help solve a $7.7 million budget shortfall in next year’s general fund budget, further increasing the amount property owners would have to agree to pay.

Some district leaders say it’s an aggressive but exciting challenge.

School Board member Michelle Witte helped lead pro-referendum campaigns in 2005 and 2006, when voters approved district levy and bond requests. Witte said the community’s history of strong support for its schools is a good sign. The district has a positive story to share in its ability to plan for growth, she said, and the fact that it has held off for eight years on a large bond request and nearly as long between major school boundary changes.

While it is increasing the overall request of voters, Witte said she believes it is financially responsible to ask for an operating levy together with the bond referendum, since it will cost more to operate new school spaces after they are built. That’s being honest with the public, she said.

“I really trust our voters,” Witte said. “People can get this. We can communicate this that we really do have a long-term plan in mind that includes facilities but also includes revenues.”

Eyeing land

Parents who attended long-range facilities meetings this fall wanted to know details of the location of a new Oltman Middle School in northwest Cottage Grove. That information was scarce at the time, but now it falls to Mike Vogel and other administrators to get some of those answers.

Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations, said the district has identified a handful of potential sites along 65th Street in Cottage Grove for the new middle school. The district now will work with the city to get a better understanding of existing and needed public utility infrastructure in the area.

“Then we’re also looking to determine if we’ve got willing sellers,” Vogel said.

The district would prefer to find multiple landowners willing to sell, in order to negotiate a lower sale price. There should be some action on a possible land acquisition by March, Vogel said.

Meanwhile, administrators will begin designing the proposed additions to Woodbury, East Ridge and Park high schools, as well as the construction planned for some middle schools and elementary buildings. An addition at Royal Oaks Elementary to accommodate the district’s elementary autism program is a design priority, Vogel said. That is because the autism program is set to move to Royal Oaks from Liberty Ridge Elementary for the 2016-17 school year.

Once the district has settled on construction designs, it can fine-tune the cost estimate. Then, once that is known, it can finalize its bond referendum details. That needs to be done by late spring in order to meet Education Department requirements for a fall 2015 referendum vote.“Obviously we’re hoping that there’s not going to be a significant change to those numbers,” Vogel said of the $179 million estimate. “We just need to make sure we haven’t overlooked some things.”

Another moving part in the facilities plan is the district’s intention to purchase the Valley Crossing Community School from Stillwater and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale districts, with which District 833 shares ownership. Its goal is to settle that purchase within just over a year, and recently the Stillwater district publicly expressed its intention to sell its share of Valley Crossing — or to buy the building — as it prepares its own district facilities plan.

“We’ll definitely be in those discussions as well,” Jacobus said.

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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