The South Washington County and Stillwater school districts have had a lot in common when it comes to asking voters for new funding.
In November 2013, both won approval of operating-levy requests aimed at strengthening school security and their respective bottom lines.
Now, the two neighbors are readying bond proposals addressing long-range facility needs. Their pitches are likely to come before voters at different times — Stillwater’s in the spring and South Washington County’s most likely in the fall — but again there are similarities.
One is especially tricky. Both districts covet Valley Crossing Community School, now a unique collaborative of three districts, as an answer to their elementary space needs. But the question of who owns that building — if, indeed, an agreement can be reached to allow one district to take it over — is not likely to be settled soon.
Ideas on how best to accommodate students in the middle-school years also have emerged as key features of the plans. South Washington County wants to build a new Oltman Middle School. Stillwater has proposed reconfiguring the bridge between the elementary and high school years from the current grades 7-9 to the more popular grades 6-8 model.
The biggest difference between the plans is their potential immediate cost to taxpayers.
Stillwater is considering a $90-million-plus proposal that would require no increase in what taxpayers currently pay to cover building-related debts. That’s because the new bond would replace debt set to expire in the next four years, Superintendent Tom Nelson said.
“We’re calling it ‘tax neutral,’ ” he said.
South Washington County is eyeing a $180 million proposal that would increase taxes on a $250,000 home by about $150 per year, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.
Here’s where the plans stand:
Although the Stillwater proposal does not boost taxes in the short term, it does extend debt payments beyond the next four years and erases the potential savings taxpayers would see when bonds are retired. In 2017, the owner of a $250,000 home is due for an $80 tax reduction when payments for Valley Crossing come off the tax rolls, Nelson said. Then, in 2019, payments for bonds sold to build Rutherford Elementary are set to expire, offering another $140 savings, he said.
The district argues that continued investment in its facilities would save money and meet goals outlined in its Bridge to Excellence strategic plan.
Nelson said that moving sixth-graders out of the elementary schools and shifting ninth-graders from the junior highs to Stillwater Area High School will benefit both groups academically. The ninth-grade move would require building improvements, but Nelson noted the district already transports about 15 percent of its ninth-graders to the high school for accelerated classes.
“They should be at the high school,” he said.
Transforming the grades 7-9 junior highs into grades 6-8 middle schools would give sixth-graders access to teachers specializing in specific course areas, he said.
The district now is presenting the proposal to parent groups. The meeting schedule is available on its website. Nelson said some people raise questions about proposed athletic facility improvements. But, he said, every part of the plan has a group supporting it.
Tentative plans call for a public vote in May.
South Washington County
Vogel said his district is eyeing sites in Cottage Grove as a potential home for a new Oltman Middle School, and that it would be about two miles from the current building in St. Paul Park.
Oltman opened as an elementary school, and is seen as an awkward fit for the middle school model, which separates students into teams and moves those children among the same math, science, social studies and language arts teachers.
Vogel said that the district also needs to pursue additional operating revenues, and is planning to survey residents to gauge levels of support before scheduling a vote and completing the funding requests. In the meantime, it will tackle another assignment: adjusting attendance boundaries.