South Washington County Schools voters on Tuesday passed a $10.3 million operating levy increase and approved a $96 million bond measure by the narrowest of margins to fund construction of a new middle school and other building upgrades that address space constraints in a growing area of the school district.
A third ballot measure seeking $46.5 million in bonds for high school and elementary school additions and improvements failed.
The levy increase in Question 1 passed by roughly 56-44 percent, according to unofficial results. The middle school bond measure in Question 2 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.
Voters rejected Question 3 by a margin of about 52-48 percent, according to the unofficial results.
Referendum supporters were elated by passage of the first two questions.
“Today is all about excitement for the kids,” School Board Chairman Ron Kath said.
In Question 1, the district was seeking a $525-per-pupil annual operating levy increase for the next 10 years. District leaders say the increased property tax revenue is needed to avoid roughly $7.4 million in spending cuts for the 2016-17 school year. It also would help the district to stop relying on its dwindling reserve funds as an alternative to making budget-balancing program cuts.
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 district had already identified more than $3 million in possible cuts if the levy failed. Elementary band and orchestra were on that list, along with a grade-school reading intervention program and the possibility of contracting for bus service.
Middle school projects were the focus of Question 2. The $96 million in bonding will be used in part to build a new Oltman Middle School in northwest Cottage Grove.
“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 is proposed to be renovated and turned into the new home of the district’s Spanish immersion elementary school, Nuevas Fronteras. That popular choice program shares space at the crowded Crestview Elementary School in Cottage Grove.
Michelle Witte, a School Board member and a leader of the pro-referendum Vote Yes 833 committee, 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 over 20 years.
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.
Passage of the first two ballot questions will result in a property tax increase for District 833 residents.
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.
As they crafted the referendum package 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 levy is expected to be followed by a request for another $375-per-pupil levy hike in 2017.
“We’re coming back in two years,” Kath said. “This is a stairstep, a big step.”
The referendum campaign was waged on multiple fronts.
School administrators ran what was described as an informational campaign, holding community forums and over 100 various meetings to discuss the district’s budget situation, 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 Tuesday night.
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 the prepared statement.
Vote Yes 833 committee organizers and other referendum supporters gathered Tuesday 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.
They distributed fliers, posted appeals on social media and with assistance from the local and state teachers’ unions made phone calls to firm up support.
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.