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Nuevas Fronteras school parents worried about BNSF trucking plan

District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus on Jan. 19 discusses with Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School parents the affect a BNSF Railway car staging lot could have on truck traffic passing by Oltman Middle School on Third Street in St. Paul Park. The district plans to renovate the existing Oltman building to be used by Nuevas Fronteras, after a new Oltman Middle School is built in Cottage Grove. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion families who long have been eager for their own space with plenty of breathing room for the popular program now are worried what their children might inhale at their next school.

Air pollution and traffic volumes are among safety concerns Nuevas Fronteras parents have about a plan by BNSF Railway to build a 6,000-vehicle parking lot in St. Paul Park. The site is south of the Oltman Middle School building that District 833 intends to renovate for Nuevas Fronteras and other uses.

Parents are concerned because as many as 130 diesel semitrailers a day could use Third Street on the west side of the Oltman building to transport the new vehicles to dealerships in a five-state area after they are shipped by rail to the staging lot.

BNSF has said trucks could make as many as 65 trips each way daily, and that traffic would be between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Third Street is the designated truck route.

"The increase in air pollution in an area that already has high exposure from a refinery, from rail tracks, from other things — it's frankly alarming to us as parents," said Megan Rooney, co-president of the Nuevas Fronteras parent organization. Rooney said the group doesn't want to make the issue about Nuevas Fronteras. It is concerned about the location's safety and the plan to spend taxpayer dollars on a site deemed by some as unsafe.

Rooney was among dozens of parents gathered for an informational session with district leaders last week. Administrators explained the BNSF proposal as well as the district's plan to renovate the Oltman building for Nuevas Fronteras and other programming, and how they already are looking at ways to modify construction to address the potential truck traffic.

"We're concerned about that traffic and we were not excited to hear about this taking place either," Superintendent Keith Jacobus told the parents Jan. 19.

BNSF bought 300 acres of land on County Road 75 near its rail line a couple years ago. The company was mum in 2015 about its plans for the property, but last year BNSF said it will relocate its new vehicle lot from St. Paul to St. Paul Park, where it would double its staging space.

The 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. That project is underway.

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.

Some Nuevas Fronteras parents now wonder if using Oltman is the best plan for the grade school if BNSF Railway carries out its project.

Jacobus said the district has not identified another solution and currently is in the stage of gathering parent input.

The bonding approved by voters in 2015 only can be used for renovating Oltman, not on another school construction or building addition.

As the district gathers more information about BNSF's plan, it is looking for ways to limit school traffic on Third Street. It could shift the main building entrance to the south side of the building and have buses enter the site from the south and stage on the west side of the property and adjacent to Third Street, said Mike Vogel, the district's interim director of facilities and construction management.

Air, noise and other pollution concerns already have been raised by St. Paul Park, Cottage Grove and Grey Cloud Island Township. BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth has said the company is addressing mitigation issues related to pollution concerns. Also, McBeth has said, BNSF is open to considering a different trucking route, but so far no alternative exists.

The new questions being raised about the BNSF plan's impact on the Oltman site also could add a new layer of complexity to the district's current discussion about changes to its southern elementary attendance boundaries. Any change to its Nuevas Fronteras-Oltman plan could affect enrollment at other buildings. The South Washington County School Board is expected to further discuss that issue at its Feb. 2 meeting.

Jacobus said the district will continue discussing the BNSF plan with Nuevas Fronteras parents.

"We were just as surprised about this as you are," he said.

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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