At Redtail Ridge Elementary School in Savage, colored circles in the carpet mark where kindergarten students will someday sit at classroom meetings. In the computer lab, piles of blue electrical cable lie coiled, ready for computers and tables.
Construction workers spent this month finishing up with flooring and stairwells in the brand-new, $16.8 million school. But as thousands of Minnesota students head to school, the already crowded Prior Lake-Savage district isn't getting ready to open Redtail Ridge. They're closing it.
When district voters rejected a property tax increase last fall that would have paid to hire teachers and open the school, the school board made good on a threat to mothball the building for at least a year.
School districts sometimes struggle to win voter approval to both build and run a school, but it's rare for a new school to sit empty during its first year. Now, Redtail Ridge stands as a reminder of the challenge faced by suburban districts that are trying to make room for more students even as a wallet-draining economy strains voters.
"I think having an empty building standing there is kind of a harsh reality," said Lisa Provost, a Savage resident whose 9-year-old son probably would have been at Redtail Ridge this fall. "It's like, 'Ouch! How could this not be open?'"
Redtail Ridge was built to reduce class sizes in a district where about half of all elementary classrooms will be overcrowded this fall, according to Superintendent Sue Ann Gruver.
But last fall, more than 60 percent of voters rejected the district's request for $4.5 million a year in operating funds and $28.9 million in bonds for an addition to Prior Lake High School.
"Last fall, we thought it was excessive," said Prior Lake resident Dave Thompson, president of a local group called Citizens for Accountable Government.
Still, many residents didn't really believe the district would mothball Redtail Ridge, Provost said, even though the school board warned voters before the election that it would. "The bond passed to build the school, but the levy didn't pass to run the school, and people don't always understand that they're two different things," she said.
A juggling act
In February 2005, Prior Lake-Savage voters approved bonds to build three new schools, including Redtail Ridge. The district saw growth coming and wanted to start building two of them right away, but it wasn't sure exactly when it would need to open Redtail Ridge, said district spokeswoman Kristi Mussman.
The district didn't want to ask voters for money to run Redtail Ridge and risk having the cash sit unused in public coffers for years before the school was built, she said. It also couldn't ask for operating funds at that vote, anyway. That's because state law requires school districts to put levy referendums -- unlike bond referendums -- on regular November-election ballots.
So the district requested construction funding to secure land for the school and avoid "coming to the voters every six months," said Pam Becker, an elementary school principal in the district who would have been principal at Redtail Ridge this year.
Later, it became clear that the area was growing fast enough to justify opening Redtail Ridge in 2008, and the district found itself in need of operating funds for the new school last fall.
Minnesota school districts often stretch their budgets to avoid going to voters for the money to open a new school, said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. Districts also can link ballot questions, asking for construction and operating dollars at the same time and telling voters that a school won't go up unless both measures pass.
"In most cases, school buildings are built and districts, one way or another, willy-nilly, find a way to get them open, even if it causes some additional pain in other parts of the district," he said.
Request cut in half
Even empty, Redtail Ridge will cost the district $150,000 this school year for costs such as utilities and a custodian to monitor the building. It would cost $1.4 million a year to run the school, a price that includes hiring about 11 new teachers.
Elsewhere in the district, some elementary classrooms will hold 32 or 33 students, said Gruver, the superintendent. At nearby WestWood Elementary, space is so tight that the school has converted a gymnasium into extra learning rooms.
This fall, the school board is proposing two ballot questions that would generate $2.35 million a year in new operations funding. "They said last year, 'Sharpen your pencils, you're asking too much,' so we cut it in half," Gruver said.
The first question would renew $7 million in operating dollars that the district already receives and raise an additional $1.65 million to open Redtail Ridge in 2009, hire two additional teachers and reopen a swimming pool that the district closed this year. The second question would generate $700,000 a year to reduce class sizes throughout the district.
Thompson thinks the district should have split up the first question, separating the levy renewal from the funds to run the new school. The renewal is "essential," and Redtail Ridge needs to open, he said, but he still thinks the district could find another way to pay for the school. But when the board looked at its choices last year, it realized that opening Redtail Ridge would mean cutting staff at other schools, defeating the goal of lowering class sizes, Mussman said.
During a recent tour of Redtail Ridge, the superintendent and other school officials said they were hopeful that this fall's funding request will pass. But if it's destined to fail --
"It's not," said Gruver.
"We aren't talking about it!" Becker chimed in.
"We are really anxious to get children in here," Gruver said, "and we know our families are, too."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016