Largest school referendum in state history overwhelmingly voted down

The South Washington County school district went for broke, placing a nearly half billion dollar referendum before voters on primary day. At $462 million, it was the largest ask ever put to taxpayers of a Minnesota school district, pitched as a way of dealing with overcrowding in the fast-growing east metro suburban area, according to the Pioneer Press.

Supporters argued that the referendum was needed to address overcrowding, particularly in the district’s three high schools, and future growth and student needs.

Over the next 10 years, the district expects to add 3,500 new students from 8,000 new homes. The district spans parts or all of Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, Woodbury, Afton, Denmark Township and Grey Cloud Island Township.

Voters shot down the record request in an equally big way, rejecting the measure by a lopsided two-to-one margin among the more than 22,500 who turned out. The planned closure of the Newport elementary school drove some of the opposition, but the district’s sales job also came under fire.

“This wasn’t just about Newport,” said Marvin Taylor, a Newport City Council member who led the “Vote No” campaign against the bond referendum. “I got involved because of that, but there were serious issues with the plan from the tax side and with their enrollment numbers. That’s what really made this message resonate throughout the district.”

Taylor said district officials held only one in-person public information session on the proposed referendum and failed to “engage” the public throughout the process. “I don’t understand, when you have a plan of this magnitude, how you could fail to do that,” he said. “This was put before the school board in January, and it was off their laps in April. It just felt rushed.”

Taylor said he was especially pleased that precincts in Woodbury voted against the referendum by significant margins. “It exceeded our expectations,” he said. “That was huge for us. Once I saw that, it gave us confidence that our message got through across the district. That was a strong indicator of where this was going.”

So it’s back to the drawing board for district officials, who acknowledged residents sent a loud and clear message.

“We knew the bond question was a big ask for our communities, and we thank everyone who came out to vote,” Pepe Barton, a spokesman for the school district, said in a written statement Tuesday night. “With several schools already overcapacity and more expected in the coming years, we are now in a place where difficult decisions will need to be made before 2025. As shared prior to the vote, this includes modifying the 10-year-facility plan and making necessary boundary changes to address overcapacity schools at all levels.”

Elsewhere across the state, there were mixed results among the total of 17 school districts with referendums. Voters approved referendums in nine school districts, while residents in eight districts rejected the request to provide more funding.