COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — Next Tuesday in Minnesota's Primary Election, South Washington County Schools will ask voters to consider approving a $462.6 million bond. The money would allow the district to move forward with a large set of construction projects designed to address growing student enrollment.
The challenges that come with such growth are illustrated on the district's website. Photos and captions show a crowded Woodbury High School cafeteria and students eating on the floor. Another image shows cars blocking bus lanes during dismissal at Park High School.
Already, East Ridge High School is 320 to 350 students over capacity heading into the new school year.
"We work with our cities regularly, and so what we know, through their comprehensive plans, is we're looking at an additional 8,000 homes, which our projection is to bring in approximately 3,500 new students over the course of the next 10 years," superintendent Julie Nielsen said.
Back in 2015, the district asked voters to approve a bond that would be used to build new schools and expand existing ones. It failed. Now seven years later, voters will decide again.
"The question the ballot is for $462.6 million and it would be the largest bond in the state of Minnesota," Nielsen said.
If the bond is approved, Crestview Elementary students would get a new building, allowing the Park High School campus next door to extend into the elementary school area. The district's alternative high school would also move into the Crestview building. Currently, the school is surrounded by parking spaces and students don't have access to green space.
"What [the bond] would allow us to do is to add onto East Ridge High School and it would allow for additional renovations at our other two high schools," Nielsen said.
The district's administration building would also be repurposed, making way for programming for 18- to 21-year-old students. These are just some of the plans the bond dollars would cover.
"What's important to remember with a $462.6 million bond is that bond dollars are only used for buildings. So, while we're not able to add teachers with those dollars, we would anticipate that if we continue to grow as the school district, we would eventually need more teachers and that would come out of our operating budget," Nielsen said.
However, opponents of the bonding question on Tuesday's ballot say the plan would close Newport Elementary and send its students to three separate schools.
According to U.S. Census data, Newport is the lowest-income community in the school district. Its elementary school also serves a more diverse population than any other school in the district, with more than half the students being children of color.
Newport is a town with fewer than 4,000 residents – and the elementary school is the smallest in the district. However, parents argue that because of its small size, children get the additional attention that they need.
If voters and the school board approve the plan, Newport Elementary would close as soon as 2025 and the building would become an early learning center.
"Why is Newport kind of picked on? Is it because we are the lower income community and is that why we're always having to defend keeping our school?" Newport parent Angela Geraghy said to KARE 11 in March 2022. "It feels like sometimes we kind of get lost in the shuffle with our bigger neighbors that have more growth."
South Washington County Schools reports, without any change,15 of its schools would be over capacity over the next 10 years. So what happens if the vote fails again?
"It would mean some extensive redrawing of boundaries to make sure that students have the space and the seats to be in classes," Nielsen said. "Students may not be going to the schools that they originally anticipated … but just by re-drawing boundaries, we won't be able to address all of our growth needs."
She says the district would work on a modified 10-year plan, which would likely be ready in February 2023.
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