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Consultant to answer Nuevas Fronteras questions on impact of BNSF Railway plan

With parents concerned about truck traffic and air pollution at the proposed site for Nuevas Fronteras, District 833's Spanish immersion elementary, the South Washington County School Board decided to conduct a study with the aid of a consultant.

The board on Thursday gave Chairwoman Katy McElwee-Stevens authority to finalize a deal with an independent contractor, without naming the consultant nor how much the district aims to spend.

The board also delayed its decision on the district's south elementary attendance boundaries, for which Mike Vogel, interim director of facilities and construction management, offered a final recommendation. Any change to its Nuevas Fronteras-Oltman plan could affect enrollment at other buildings.

"We need to understand the implications for the health and safety of our kids," board member Michelle Witte said. "It's a pretty big decision."

Nuevas Fronteras parents have raised concerns about a plan by BNSF Railway to build a 6,000-vehicle parking lot in St. Paul Park. The lot will be south of the Oltman Middle School building that District 833 planned to renovate for Nuevas Fronteras and other district programming.

Parents expressed concerns because as many as 130 diesel semi-trailers a day could use Third Street, west of the Oltman building, to transport new vehicles from the BNSF staging lot to dealerships in a five-state area. Air pollution and traffic volumes are among safety concerns.

The Spanish immersion school is the district's most popular choice program. There is a waiting list for Nuevas Fronteras, and enrollment is expected to grow. The school serves students from across the district, and others through open enrollment, and feeds into Spanish immersion programs at Cottage Grove Middle School and Woodbury High School.

The railroad's plan was announced after the school district got voter approval in November 2015 for a bond measure that included roughly $11 million for the renovation of the Oltman building. Nuevas Fronteras would move from its current home in the Crestview Elementary School building in Cottage Grove to the Oltman space after a new Oltman Middle School is built in northwest Cottage Grove. Construction of the new Oltman is under way.

As the district gathers more information about BNSF's plan, it is looking for ways to limit school traffic on Third Street, which already handles 3,000 vehicles a day near Oltman.

Witte said there so many layers to the questions that are being asked.

McElwee-Stevens posed 27 questions in an email sent to the School Board and staff, she said Thursday, when the board met to discuss the issue.

Jacobus and Vogel have been making calls, in hopes of answering parent concerns, but they need a hand — and quickly.

Jacobus said the railroad has been responsive, but admitted that gaining the most trustworthy fact-finding information, sourced so that the board could have confidence in its decision making, would come from a consultant.

"Someone who could help us noodle it through," Witte said.

While Jacobus and Vogel have been working on the issues and the superintendent has enough time to get the necessary information, some of the questions require a scientific expert.

"We can't answer those on our own," Jacobus said.

The decision to hire a consultant could come with side effects: a delay of approving changes to middle school boundaries; an alteration of the intradistrict transfer policy, which has a March 1 deadline; longer bus routes if the district takes buses off of Third Street; or a reconfiguration of the entrance of the school.

The board stopped short of affirming its plan to repurpose Oltman Middle School for use by Nuevas Fronteras.

But Vogel said the basis for using the money from a November 2015 referendum is "very limited." Essentially, it cannot be spent at a different site for the expansion of another building, Vogel emphasized.

If there is to be a Plan B, board member Katie Schwartz said, "We'll cross that railroad bridge when we come to it."

She suggested that the board be ready to make a decision about the plans to remodel the building no later than its March meetings.

Schwartz said the board needs to make sure the site Nuevas Fronteras moves into is safe.

Maybe BSNF will agree to concessions — more trees, noise barriers, alternatives to using diesel fuel, she added. She suggested "trying to work with them instead of trying to fight them."

As McElwee-Stevens urged each board member to voice an opinion on the subject, board member Sharon Van Leer said it sounds like "we're all agreeing."

"It sounds like all of the questions could be answered if we have more hands on deck," Witte said.

"I'd rather wait a little longer to make a really good decision," Van Leer said.

She said the board should advocate for and negotiate a common-sense agreement in regard to the railroad's impact on kids.

Work on Nuevas Fronteras is slated to be done in two phases—ready for occupancy in fall 2018 and completed by fall 2019.