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School District 833 levies pass; bond measure narrowly fails

South Washington County voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly renewed a District 833 operating levy and voted themselves a tax increase to boost local school funding while also rejecting a land acquisition bond by the slimmest of margins.

The district’s $4.9 million levy renewal passed 65 to 35 percent, according to preliminary vote results from the secretary of state’s office. That was Question 1 of a three-measure referendum and likely means the district will not face a projected $3.5 million budget cut next school year.

Voters approved the Question 2 operating levy boost 54 to 46 percent. The district was seeking a property tax increase of $6.9 million annually, to be split among four areas.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus credited the work of a parent-led committee that pushed for the levies’ passage. He said it is always difficult for a school district to ask for money from its residents.

“It’s just really impressive the support that they showed, along with our voters,” Jacobus said.

The bond measure calling for $8 million for land acquisition failed in a squeaker. Question 3 lost with 49.85 percent supporting it and 50.15 percent voting against it. It failed by 31 votes: 5,076 to 5,045.

It was not immediately clear whether the margin could trigger a recount.

Voters also picked five District 833 School Board members on Tuesday. They gave four-year terms to incumbents Tracy Brunnette and Katy McElwee-Stevens and challengers Katie Schwartz and Sharon Van Leer, who topped Molly Lutz by just five votes. Incumbent David Kemper lost his seat. Incumbent Laurie Johnson won a two-year seat.

The referendum results will influence key school budget decisions for the coming years.

In Question 1, the school district received a renewal of two existing operating levies totaling $4.9 million annually over the next 10 years. Renewing the two levies will not increase property taxes, according to the district. Operating levies help to cover general fund expenses, such as staff salaries.

The unofficial poll results showed that Question 1 handily passed 6,631 to 3,516.

The second question proposed raising property taxes to provide an additional $6.9 million a year. School leaders said the increased funds would be divided among four areas: school staff hiring; building safety improvements; technology infrastructure upgrades; and shoring up reserve funds that have previously been used to soften budget cuts.

Question 2 could only be passed if voters approved the operating levy renewal in Question 1. Voters approved the second question 5,463 to 4,663.

Question 3 sought $8 million for the district to acquire roughly 80 acres for a new elementary school and a new middle school, either on one campus or separate sites. The buildings will be needed, administrators have said, to accommodate enrollment growth that is predicted to follow new housing developments in Woodbury and Cottage Grove.

Jacobus said it was “disappointing” that voters didn’t support that, but he also said he was pleased that many agreed with the district’s plan to be “proactive” with its predicted school building space constraints. Without Question 3’s passage, the district will move forward with a long-range facilities planning effort and look to a future opportunity to pursue land for school construction.

Passage of Questions 1 and 2 have a larger impact on the district’s budget.

“I think they had more far-reaching consequences” should they have failed, Jacobus said.

Before the election, Jacobus said that if Question 3 failed, District 833 likely would go back to the voters in 2015 seeking money to buy land and build schools.

This was the first operating levy increase on the ballot in a decade, though District 833 voters renewed an existing levy in 2007. A year earlier, a bond measure was approved to fund the construction of East Ridge HIgh School and other improvements.

District and school building administrators this fall deployed an extensive communication campaign, using public meetings, videos, email and social media to explain what the funds would be spent on. As the election neared, there was more attention on district programs and operations that could face budget cuts without levy approval.

Administrators said it was their job to provide information about the ballot initiatives, not urge passage of them. However, all seven School Board members supported the referendum, and a citizen-run Committee for VOTE campaigned for the levy measures and the bond.

All of the School Board winners on Tuesday supported the referendum.

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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