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South St. Paul residents to vote on building bond

  • Article by: Erin Adler
  • Star Tribune
  • May 18, 2013 - 12:25 PM

After 40 meetings and more than a year of discussion, the South St. Paul School District will ask voters Tuesday to support a $26.7 million referendum to fund facilities improvements.

Though the district passed operating and technology levies in 2009, it hasn’t put a building bond on the ballot for 12 years.

In that time, buildings have aged and are due for basic maintenance like new roofs, elevators and heating systems, said Superintendent Dave Webb.

With the small district facing increasing enrollment, elementary schools are filled to capacity, said board member Ann Counihan, who has three kids in the district.

When the facilities committee started its work, “We really wanted to dig deep into each site to make sure that we were ready for the next group of students,” said Webb. “We quickly found out that we weren’t ready for the next 12 years at any of our sites.”

Counihan said that the board and the facilities committee, made up of residents, district staff and administrators, undertook a thorough process to determine what the proposal should include.

“We’ve worked through every scenario and issue to get to this point,” said Counihan. “The thought that went into — ‘How much can this community afford? How much can this community support?’ — has been very lengthy, very vetted from the first day.”

If passed, the 20-year bond will add about $81 in property tax annually, or $6.75 a month, for the owners of a South St. Paul house with the median value of $142,000.

The board used the results of a phone survey to decide how much of a tax increase residents would support. About 60 percent said they would support up to an additional $7 per month, Webb said.

The facilities committee recommended the bond focus on four areas of need for the district — maintenance, elementary school overcrowding, safety needs and reducing rental costs.

In addition to basic facilities improvements, the request calls for repurposing an industrial arts area at the secondary school to accommodate STEM classes and a repaired running track.

To relieve overcrowding, additions to both elementary schools are suggested. This will allow for increased early childhood programming on site, instead of at the district’s leased Family Connections space, which is in a strip mall.

The proposal has “targeted an area of early learning that our district feels we need to muscle up a little bit,” said Counihan.

Research shows that by having early learning programming in elementary schools, early childhood teachers can share resources and plan with kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers, Webb said.

“That’s how you build those pathways to reading well by third-grade for kids,” he said.

A change that initially concerned parents is a proposed addition to the secondary school, which will make room for sixth-graders to attend along with grades 7 through 12.

Thus, sixth-graders would be middle schoolers and would be able to take classes from specialists, including world languages and arts offerings, he said.

The board had several community meetings about the change, Webb said. After parents and students had asked questions and could picture the new arrangement, most seemed comfortable with the idea.

The district also wants to improve safety and security capacity at all buildings, in light of recent national tragedies.

Finally, passing the bond will allow the district to buy the district office building, which it has leased for more than a decade.

Steve Doody, facilities committee member and chairman of the “Vote Yes” citizens group, said the community’s response to the referendum seems positive so far, in part because the committee listened to resident input from the start and kept its request reasonable.

The referendum has support from local trade union members, and the mayor and City Council passed a resolution in support of it as well, Doody said.

South St. Paul “is its own little town as opposed to a suburb,” Doody said. “People are very independent, and being that we run an independent school district, we definitely have shown support for it over the years.”

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283

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