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School District 833 referendum preview: Growing areas prompt bond request

Students enter Liberty Ridge Elementary School on a recent morning. The school is among several in District 833 that are nearing capacity. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

When the day begins at Liberty Ridge Elementary School, students stroll in, check backpacks at their lockers and head to class — in every classroom in the building.

At 980 students total, Liberty Ridge is School District 833’s largest elementary and is projected to see even more students, especially if planned housing developments in the school’s boundary area move forward.

The school is using all available classrooms, and at some grade levels the class sizes are nearing the district’s threshold.

“It’s OK to be big,” Liberty Ridge Principal Mike Moore said recently while walking the halls. He said that teachers identify with the students and the school does well.

However, there also are logistical and scheduling challenges that come with filling an elementary school to near capacity.

There are no more rooms designed for classroom space, Moore said. Some programs — such as Spanish and art — share a room, limiting how teachers use the space for learning. Lunch hour is extended in order to get more students through the meal. Where other buildings might hold an all-school assembly or event in the gym, Liberty Ridge divides students into separate groups.

“It all works effectively, it’s just a matter of managing it,” he said.

Space constraints at several schools in Woodbury and Cottage Grove, coupled with projected enrollment growth in those areas of the district, are the reasons behind the district’s Nov. 5 ballot measure seeking an $8 million bond authorization to buy land for a new elementary school and a middle school.

If the bond is approved, the district plans to go back to voters in 2015 to ask for school construction funding. That would be a larger request, though the district has not estimated the building cost. In the meantime, it plans to start a Long Range Facilities Planning Taskforce to study the types of buildings needed.

Buildings near capacity

While Liberty Ridge is the largest elementary in South Washington County Schools, it’s not the only one facing space constraints. Middleton Elementary is at about 800 students and nearing capacity. Also, future growth is anticipated in the Cottage Grove and Bailey elementary school boundaries, said Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

While a few elementary schools are near capacity, there also is a coming space crunch at the middle school level, administrators say. Three of four middle schools — Cottage Grove, Lake and Woodbury — are within 100 students of their building capacity. Oltman Middle School saw its enrollment decline slightly this year and has space for about another 130 students, said Mike Vogel, who oversees district operations. But Oltman, located in St. Paul Park, has an attendance area that is not predicted to grow.

Liberty Ridge has faced capacity issues before. Last year it moved all kindergarten and preschool programming to a remodeled commercial building — now called the school’s Site 2 — across the street. There are seven kindergarten sections this year — five full-day programs and two half-day classes — that operate entirely out of Site 2.

School additions are feasible to address a need for more classroom space, Vogel said. However, he added, “every time we grow the student capacity of the building, we create issues with the core facilities.” For example, the cafeteria, gym and library were not designed for the increased student load.

Process criticized

The district has not publicly identified specific land it may be interested in purchasing for the school sites. However, it has been given information from the cities on five possible sites in Woodbury and another four in Cottage Grove.

Not all of those properties may be viable, whether due to an unwilling seller, location, the asking price or other factors.

Some residents and candidates for the District 833 School Board have criticized the district for seeking money from taxpayers before securing a deal for land. They’ve argued that by collecting $8 million, if the bond is approved, the district is all but guaranteed to spend no less than that on acquisition because a property owner knows that’s what the district has to spend. The district settled on $8 million based on the current sale rate for land.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said getting funding in place before publicly identifying the district’s preferred building site actually can save taxpayer money by reducing the chance that the asking price is spiked.

The bond measure, Question 3, is not tied to the operating levies in Questions 1 and 2 of the referendum, so it could be approved even if the levy requests fail.

Administrators made clear this is not a one-and-done attempt. Jacobus said the need for more space will not go away if the bond is rejected Nov. 5.

“We’d be on the ballot for building and land” in 2015, Jacobus predicted.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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