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Pro- and anti-levy campaigns ramp up for School District 833 referendum

A pro-levy group hopes to convince South Washington County Schools voters to cast ballots in November in support of the district's referendum, while an anti-levy group has been formed to try to defeat the measure. (Bulletin file photo)

A battle is brewing over whether School District 833 deserves more taxpayer money.

Advocates say the district needs the cash to fund classroom operations, build a new middle school and upgrade other schools. Opponents say the proposal is “wasteful” and “careless.”

At issue is a three-question referendum that the South Washington School Board recently voted to place on the November ballot.

If all three questions are approved, it would result in an annual property tax increase of $418 on a home valued at $250,000, according to the district.

On Nov. 3, south Washington County voters will consider an operating levy that asks for $525 per student, or $10.3 million a year for 10 years. They also will also be asked to greenlight a $96 million bond measure to build a new middle school in northwest Cottage Grove and make other middle school upgrades. A second bond question would finance $46.5 million in improvements to high schools and elementary schools.

Both bond measures will fail if the levy is not approved, while the third $46.5 million bond could only pass if the operating levy and other bond question are approved.

Administrators and School Board members have said the two issues are related: The district cannot open a new building without increased revenue to pay for its operations. The operating levy would also be used to build up the district’s reserves and avoid budget cuts next year.

Campaigns organize

Two opposing citizens groups have coalesced around the referendum.

In one corner is Vote Yes 833, which is comprised of booster groups, teachers and at least one School Board member. They favor passage of the referendum and have campaigned for previous levy measures.

And in the other corner is Vote No, otherwise known as the South Washington Citizens for Progress Committee, or SWC4P, whose chair, Andrea Mayer-Bruestle of Woodbury, is also running for a seat on the School Board.

Vote Yes 833 has an online color brochure outlining their position. SWC4P has Facebook. Vote Yes 833 has a network of boosters and is starting this year’s campaign with $5,590 leftover from its 2013 levy work. It receives donations from individuals and groups, including unions that represent teachers and principals. The campaign opposing the referendum listed no money on its recent campaign finance report but may tap an out-of-state consultant skilled in defeating school levies.

Mayer-Bruestle said their group was still in the fundraising stage. She said the district needs more accountability and transparency.

“The school board’s track record of wasteful spending is clearly evident in this proposal,” she said in an email. “It needs to be stopped for the good of the children, the families, business and property owners … and to help teach the board and administrators how to better manage our money.”

Vote Yes 833 includes School Board member Michelle Witte, who is running for re-election for her first full four-year term. She has helped lead previous pro-referendum campaigns and makes no secret of her campaigning for passage of the levy and bond measures.

“When people talk about wasteful spending, we are absolutely as lean as we can be,” Witte said.

If the referendum isn’t passed, she added: “We’ll be cutting into the muscle. We’ve trimmed all the fat. There will be significant consequences if the levy and the bonds aren’t passed. It’s not a threat. We’re telling people, ‘This is the situation.’”

She dismissed Mayer-Bruestle’s claim that the Vote Yes 833 camp has an unfair advantage by virtue of their insider status.

“The advantage we have is that we’re involved in the schools,” Witte said. “We know what’s needed. We understand. We’re working every day with kids and families. We’re really connected to the issues and do feel passionate. That’s why we’re working for Vote Yes (833) because we see what the value is in our district.”

Mayer-Bruestle admits that it may be a lopsided battle, but her group might bring in a hired gun to help even the odds. She said they have been talking with anti-tax strategist Paul Dorr.

Dorr, the owner of Iowa-based Copperhead Consultants, has earned a reputation as an effective levy-buster in several states, but some of Dorr’s tactics have been criticized as unsavory and divisive. Opponents say he spreads misinformation through 11th-hour mailings or phone blitzes, leaving school districts or levy advocates no time to refute the allegations.

Mayer-Bruestle said that Dorr’s record speaks for itself.

“The opposition is well established,” she said. “They’ve got the ground game. They have their worker bees. We are the underdog. What does an underdog team do? They hire the best coaches they can.”

District efforts

As the two groups organize, District 833 has launched its own informational campaign about the referendum.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus and other administrators are hosting a series of “community conversations” about the ballot measures. The events are set for 6:30 p.m. at Park High School lecture hall Sept. 29, Oct. 13 and 27; 6:30 p.m. at Woodbury High School Sept. 23, Oct. 7 and 21; and 10 a.m. at the District Service Center Board Room Sept. 17, Oct. 1 and Oct. 22.

Communications Director Barb Brown said they have an eight-part outline of the referendum they sent to parents through their electronic notification system. Paper copies of the outline will also be posted in district schools.

Brown said the district also plans to give more than 100 informational presentations throughout the community to staff, parent-teacher associations and community groups. Unlike two years ago, however, the district is not assigning an administrator to work full time on the referendum this fall.

Still, Brown said they would like to replicate the effectiveness of the district’s 2013 campaign, when voters approved two of three ballot questions.

“I think by the end of that campaign, right before the election, we heard people saying, ‘Stop! We have enough information,’” Brown said. “That’s our goal, to make sure we have informed voters going to the polls. We want to hear that again.”