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Vote will determine fate of new high school

Officials say the increasing number of students expected in School District 833 in the next 10 years is the driving force for a referendum Tuesday, Sept. 12, when residents will be asked to approve $149 million for a third high school and remodeling of existing facilities. It also includes $1 million a year, for 10 years, for technology.

"These are not make-believe kids," said Superintendent Tom Nelson. "They are already in or about to enter the school system."

District officials decided to put the vote on the Sept. 12 ballot rather than the general election's in November so that they could be sure a new high school could be ready to open in the fall of 2009, Nelson said. It takes 36 months to design and plan for a high school, he said.

"We are going to have to build a new high school," Nelson said.

The first ballot question for $107 million, includes a new 350,000-square-foot third high school and improvements at Park and Woodbury high schools.

"It is a matter of equity to make improvements in existing high schools," Nelson said. Referendum money would fund a stadium at the new high school and artificial grass athletic fields at all three. "We can't have a situation of haves and have nots," Nelson said.

"We could have made the referendum less costly but we wanted to address science labs," said Board Member Jim Gelbmann in an interview. "We got that out of community meetings. People don't want us to do things piecemeal."

Improvements at Park would include remodeled science rooms, auditorium improvements, a large room for lectures or use by the community and changes to the entrance and commons area.

At Woodbury, it would include science rooms, auditorium upgrades and a new lecture/community room.

If approved, there would be nine classrooms also serving as labs at both Park and Woodbury. Updated workspace would include wireless Internet connections, vented fume hoods near the presentation areas, adequate lighting control and safe storage for chemicals and supplies, according to Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Randy Zipf.

The list of potential sites for a high school has been whittled to two parcels located on County Road 19 between 70th Street in Cottage Grove and Bailey Road in Woodbury, Nelson said.

The district had more than $1 million left from the 2000 construction referendum that can only be spent on facilities, not on education. With interest, it has grown to slightly more than $4 million and will be used to buy the land for a new high school, according to Nelson.

About 100 acres of land is recommended for a new high school, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The first ballot question also includes an eight-classroom addition at Cottage Grove Junior High and Grey Cloud Elementary schools including a multi-purpose room at Grey Cloud.

The result would make the space in the Cottage Grove schools equal to existing space at Lake Junior High and Middleton Elementary schools in Woodbury, Nelson said.

District officials said some residents have asked why they didn't consider adding on to Woodbury and Park high schools instead of building a new one.

Without another high school, there would be 750 students in the 2009-10 graduating class at Woodbury and 685 at Park, according to district projections.

Officials say having "mega-schools" would lessen the number of students that can participate in co-curricular activities.

The district is planning to change grade configurations to kindergarten to fifth-grade at elementary schools, sixth to eighth-grades at middle schools and send ninth through twelfth grades to the high schools.

At the high schools, more educational opportunities would be available for ninth-graders including advanced math classes and easier access to after-school activities and athletic practices. The school day is currently longer at junior high schools, causing athletes to arrive at practices an hour after upper classmen.

Additions to the high schools would not be a cheaper option, according to Nelson. Without a new high school and changes in grade configurations, two more elementary schools would be needed, he said.

Moving a grade out of elementary schools creates one-seventh more space, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

With more room in elementary schools, the district will be able to offer Kindergarten Plus, a fee-based program for all parents who want all-day kindergarten for their children. Nelson said about 20 percent of students cannot be accommodated due to lack of space.

Under ballot question two, $40 million would go to continue the district's plan to replace 30 to 50-year-old heating systems in 12 buildings.

The district plans to use its Alternative Facilities Levy, for districts with aging buildings, to pay an additional $40 million for the changeover to new mechanical systems, according to Vogel.

If the referendum question passes, work can be completed on a 13 to 15-year schedule. If not, it will take up to 18 years.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Vogel said. "We need to protect the taxpayers' investment."

A new heating and cooling system at Pullman Elementary School in St. Paul Park was undertaken this summer for $3 million.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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