Stillwater Area Public Schools Passes $97.5 Million Facilities Referendum

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Stillwater Area Public Schools voters approved a $97.5 million bond request to update district facilities, including an addition and renovations to Stillwater Area High School, and a new elementary school.

The bond was approved by 57.6 percent of voters in a special election held May 12. The bond will pay for an addition and renovations at the high school, construction of a new elementary school and a variety of improvements to facilities across the district.

More than 8,100 voters turned out for the special election — with 4,721 people casting yes votes (57.6 percent) and 3,475 people voting no (42.4 percent).

In addition to an addition and renovation to the high school, a new elementary school and a transportation hub, the bond will also change grade configuration by moving to preK-5 elementary schools, grades 6-8 in middle schools and grades 9-12 at the high school.

With existing debt falling off in the coming years, the bond will not increase taxes beyond what residents currently pay.

“Our community clearly saw the advantages of this plan and the unique opportunity to make needed changes for our students,” Superintendent  Tom Nelson said in a statement. “We’re thankful to the staff and community members who created a long-range facilities plan that makes sense for our students and our residents, and to the many staff and volunteers who worked to share the plan with our community. We look forward to getting started.”

With approval of the bond, school district staff will now turn their attention to designing and planning for the various construction projects across the district, Community Engagement Manager Carissa Keister said. Obtaining a site for a new elementary school will be one of the first priorities, and a decision is expected yet this spring.

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Committees of staff and parents will begin work next week to finalize designs for the high school addition and begin designing the elementary school. Architects will also meet with staff in other district facilities to plan necessary renovations.

“The facilities that will be improved will help us attract more kids and compete against neighboring school districts,” former Stillwater school board member and “Vote Yes” co-chair Natalie Fedie said on Tuesday night. “The only way we can get more funding is if we bring in more kids or stop kids from leaving the school district, and these improvement will help do that.”

Renovation planning will take place over the summer and fall, and bidding for projects will take place this winter, Keister said. Ground breaking for the high school addition and a new elementary school will take place in the spring 2016.

All of the construction across the district will wrap up over the summer of 2017, and the grade configuration change will be in place for the start of the 2017-2018 school year.

“For me what initially set the tone is when the long-range planning group met and came to the board and one speaker said we have done long-range planning three times and have never pulled the trigger, it’s time to be bold for Stillwater,” School Board Chairman Tom Lehmann said Tuesday night. “That really resonated with me. This was an opportunity to be bold.”

With South Washington County updating their facilities, this was really an opportunity for the district to say to its voters — on a tax-neutral basis — this is an opportunity to compete, let’s do it, Lehmann said.

“It’s hard with a levy to see how your dollars are being spent, because it’s the kind of things that are behind the scenes like curriculum and planning,” Lehmann said. “Here we’re going to build a new school in the south end of our district, add on to the high school and do major changes at all the elementary schools. This is tangible stuff people will see.”

The grade reconfiguration is one aspect of the bond Fedie is most proud of.

“The difference between a middle school and a junior high is that they are sociological and emotional age groupings that are literally different,” Fedie said. “This aligns us with state standards, and it’s just better for kids in this age group … it offers more opportunity.”

Change is scary for people, and it’s one of the biggest concerns from parents with students going into sixth grade, but there are a lot of examples of middle schools that are thriving and healthy, Fedie said. “I’m really excited.”

One of the most challenging parts of the bond were the improvements to athletic facilities at the high school, Fedie said.

“One thing I really pushed the school board to consider was to keep the bond request one package, because when you break it apart, you start to prioritize certain projects over the others and break apart the community,” Fedie said. “My hope was to bring the community together to support one big vision — one  big, comprehensive and tax-neutral plan that made all the changes at once.”

A lot of people have questioned if this was too athletic-heavy, and said they didn’t think it focused enough on academics, Lehmann said.

“But when people see the results of this, they will see the vision, and I think they will really be happy with what we’re able to do.”

This is an incredible community that takes great pride in its schools, he said.

“We are so thankful for the continued support, and look forward to the new opportunities this bond will bring to our students and our entire community.”

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