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School District 833 gets budget breathing room after levies' passage

School District 833 will bulk up instead of cut back.

The district will add school staff and make building safety and technology improvements rather than brace for budget reductions after voters approved a property tax hike to fund education operations.

South Washington County voters overwhelmingly renewed a $4.9 million operating levy and voted for a $6.9 million increase, favoring the first two measures of a three-part referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The two levy questions passed comfortably — 65 to 35 percent on the renewal in Question 1, 54 to 46 percent on the levy increase in Question 2, according to preliminary results from the secretary of state’s office.

The third question, which sought $8 million for land acquisition for future schools, failed by just 31 votes out of over 10,000 total cast.

District administrators cautioned that the levies’ failure would have meant spending cuts beginning with about $3.5 million from next year’s budget. That would have followed a $2.2 million cut this past year from the district’s $175 million general fund budget.

“I think they had more far-reaching consequences,” Superintendent Keith Jacobus said of the levies, though he added he was disappointed the bond measure failed.

School Board Chairman Ron Kath said the levies passed for a couple of reasons. The information about the district’s finances and planned use of the additional levy money was “clear and concise,” he said.

“The other part was not asking for any more than we truly need right now,” Kath said.

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

The levy renewal will be used to maintain existing school operations, while the increase is intended to be split among four areas: adding the equivalent of one licensed staff member to each school; making building entrance design changes and adding safety features to enhance school security; upgrading district technology hardware and software for classroom and district business use; and to shore up reserve funds that have been tapped to soften the effect of budget cuts.

Now that the funding has been approved, Kath said he told administration to “make sure that we deliver on our promises to the community.”

Jacobus said transparency will be critical moving forward, since new levy dollars will go into the general fund. Administration will periodically update the board about how the new funds are being spent, he said.

The staff increases will begin in the 2014-15 school year and will vary by building but could include teachers, counselors or social workers, depending on each school’s need. Those staff additions will come after the district cut the equivalent of 22 positions in a budget-trimming measure last year.

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 he was “disappointed” that the bond failed but noted many voters did support the district’s plan to be “proactive” and save taxpayers money by acquiring property before land values increase.

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.

Kath said many people doubted that Question 3 would even come close to passing. (It failed with 50.15 percent voting against it and 49.85 percent supporting it — 5,076 to 5,045.)

“Folks still wanted to know where the land was going to be purchased at,” Kath said. “We just couldn’t at this point tell folks where we think the land will be.”

Identifying desired property to purchase before the bond vote would drive up selling prices, he said.

The district likely will be back on the ballot seeking money for land acquisition and the construction of a middle school and an elementary school as early as 2015.

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.

Jacobus also praised Middleton Elementary Principal Julie Nielsen, who was on hiatus during the referendum effort and worked to produce informational pieces for the district.

“Julie’s efforts definitely helped us be successful,” Jacobus said.

Nielsen, reading from a prepared statement at last week’s board meeting, compared the temporary assignment to missionary work.

“I was definitely on a mission trip — helping others in the district,” she said.

Nielsen, Jacobus and numerous other 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 also was 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.

Jacobus credited the work of the 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,” he said.

The results were to be canvassed by the District 833 School Board Tuesday night, after the Bulletin went to press.

Woodbury Bulletin editor Mike Longaecker contributed to this story.

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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