As the March 11 date of the Shakopee referendum draws closer, it seems everyone in town has an opinion on whether the district should spend $78 million on a second high school.

At the heart of the debate are issues being faced in other metro-area districts — whether ninth-graders belong in high school and whether a big high school can provide the same student opportunities as two smaller schools.

For Superintendent Rod Thompson, the issue is simple: Shakopee's population is growing, and by adding an additional high school and moving freshmen up, the district could reduce crowding at every level. Sixth-graders could attend middle school, freeing up the sixth-grade center for use as an elementary school.

Thompson has held about 100 meetings about the referendum leading up to the vote, he said. "For Shakopee, this is a once-in-a-generation kind of decision, and so for our community it's important that all of the facts and information get out there."

Not everybody is sold. There's a "vote no" group called "Parents for Options" and a Facebook page called "Shakopee — One Community, One High School" has cropped up and has garnered more than 529 "likes."

And there are plenty of others who "want to see an alternate option" presented, said Mark Swartout, a parent. "I think that there's a pretty galvanized level of opposition."

A 30-member facilities task force that met from 2010 through 2013 considered several options before finally recommending building a second high school for grades nine through 12. The current high school was built in 2007 with a capacity of 1,600.

The district says there's a cluster of students in grades three through five that is already too big for schools to accommodate. And with kindergarten classes exceeding 650 students and more growth expected, space needs will only become more dire, Thompson said. District documents estimate that 9-12 enrollment will hit 2,600 by 2017-18, the year the new school would open.

Points of contention

Some residents, however, question the facts on which the proposal is based.

"First of all, I am not at all against expanding the schools because of growth in population," said Curt Olson, a 42-year Shakopee resident. However, he believes growth projections may be inflated — and says the space crunch only exists if you bring ninth-graders to high school.

He doesn't think they belong there, he said. Without them, Olson said, the current school could get by with an addition, creating a "mega high school" that could serve more students, he said.

Thompson fields more questions about the megaschool idea than any other, he said. The district's referendum Q-and-A calls it a "stopgap solution at best."

Swartout recalled that the district had previously offered the addition as a viable expansion option, but Thompson said district records indicate it was only suggested as a possibility.

Another key point for the district is that having two smaller schools will provide more opportunities for students, with twice as many chances to play on sports teams, participate in the arts or be leaders. "What we're saying is, we want to focus on the word 'participate,' " Thompson said.

But Swartout isn't sure students benefit from a smaller environment. "I personally believe that … the educational opportunities that exist in a large school trump that of two small schools," he said. "If a megaschool is so bad, why are so many other districts adding on to their buildings?" he asked.

Other districts have tried both approaches. The Wayzata district voted this week on a referendum to fund an addition to allow the high school to accommodate about 4,000 students. On the other hand, the Eastern Carver County district, based in Chaska, opened its second high school in 2009, and Lakeville added a second high school in 2005.

The $89 million proposal also includes $3 million in security upgrades, $3 million in maintenance updates and $5 million toward improving fields and outdoor spaces. If passed, the measures will add $155 a year to the taxes on an average-priced home in the district, valued about $213,000.

A second high school would be built a mile from the current school, with the same design. Students and teachers could even take buses back and forth for classes, Thompson said.

Dividing the city?

Olson and Swartout say it isn't primarily the tax increase they object to, but the lack of options presented.

Being seen as "anti-referendum" isn't easy. "Many people in Shakopee view it as a small, close-knit community and don't want to be viewed as part of the opposition," Swartout said.

Despite a population of 40,000, Shakopee's small-town feel is another reason some object to a second school. Swartout believes two schools will divide the city, he said.

But Kevin Wetherille, a parent who supports the referendum, said that kind of division "only happens if adults in the community let it happen."

Wetherille was initially skeptical, but believes students will have more chances to participate in extracurriculars with a second school. And since freshman-year grades are now considered on college applications, ninth-graders belong in high school, he said.

He felt the task force "had explored all the options," he said.

If the referendum doesn't pass, Thompson said the district will have to look at ways to make use of existing spaces right away. But he's hopeful voters will approve it, he said.

The district passed bond referendums in 2004 to fund the existing high school, and in 2005 to build two elementary schools and a pool.

"You don't get a second chance or a mulligan with kids' academics," he said.