For three-plus years, the Stillwater Area Public Schools has strategized, and made pleas to voters, and now, finally, with a successful bond election last week, the pieces to its future appear to be in place.
Last Tuesday, voters approved a $97.5 million proposal to reconfigure the district’s grade levels, expand and update Stillwater Area High School and build a new elementary school in its growing southwest corner.
The proposal, backed by 58 percent of voters, according to unofficial returns, comes less than two years after the district’s successful pitch for extra operating funds. But anyone worried that the facilities makeover might require another operating-levy request can rest easy, district spokeswoman Carissa Keister said last week.
That is because, she said, the district will save about $1.15 million annually on building leases and student-tuition costs under the plan, or about $100,000 more than it will spend annually to operate the new spaces and employ more high school teachers.
The district expects to have all changes in place by the start of the 2017-18 school year.
Stillwater Area High School is being expanded to help make room for ninth-graders who are moving to the high school from the district’s current grades 7-9 junior highs. The junior highs, in turn, are being reconfigured into grades 6-8 middle schools, and elementary schools revamped to serve preschool through fifth grade.
Interim Superintendent Tom Nelson said earlier this year that moving ninth-graders and sixth-graders to different schools made sense academically because the district already transports about 15 percent of its ninth-graders to the high school for accelerated classes and because he believes sixth-graders should have access to teachers who specialize in individual content areas.
He also promoted the facilities plan as being “tax neutral” because the new bond would replace debt set to expire in the next four years. Taxpayers, as such, would not see an increase in what they now pay to cover building-related debts, he said. But if the new plan had been rejected, the owner of a $250,000 home could have seen a tax savings of about $240 annually in 2019.
Stillwater’s success means metro area districts were four-for-four this month in securing voter approval of new building plans. Traditionally, turnout is lower in May than in November. In Stillwater’s case, 8,197 votes were cast last week, compared with 14,396 in November 2013, when its most recent operating-levy proposal passed.
Keister said this year’s scheduling was not about gaining an electoral advantage, but a cost savings for future construction. Construction experts say that the district should save between 3 and 5 percent on project costs by now being able to seek bids for the work this winter, she said.