Owatonna voters reject new high school
By a slim margin, voters in the Owatonna School District rejected a plan to build a new high school.
During a special election on Tuesday, May 14, the bond referendum failed by only 120 votes. Final results show 5,762 voters or 50.52% said no to the referendum while 5,642 voters or 49.47% said yes.
The widest disparity of votes arose out of Clinton Falls precinct, which includes much of the rural areas of the district. In Clinton Falls, the referendum was soundly defeated by more than 70% of the votes with 1,277 people voting against and 456 voting for it.
Owatonna was not alone with a failed referendum. Nearly all rural referendums failed last week while all Metro referendums passed.
“We are very disappointed with the vote results,” said Mark Sebring, chairman of the Owatonna School Board. “Our needs are real, and the funding does not exist to address them.”
Sebring said the only way the district can adequately tackle the on-going maintenance needs and learning environment issues at the high school is through voter-approved taxpayer funding.
Officials say the bond rejection will have major implications on the district. Some of them include $22 million plus in-kind donations from local businesses may not be given in the future, construction costs climbing up to 6.5% annually and ongoing maintenance projects at the high school will impact the current budget.
The district also pointed out that students will continue to learn on outdated industrial and agricultural equipment that do not reflect current trends in the areas of manufacturing, engineering and ag science. In addition, the Career Pathways initiative, which ensures students are college, career and life ready, will not be fully implemented, officials said.
“Our job as school leaders is to provide a quality learning environment for all our students,” said Superintendent Jeff Elstad. “We owe it to our students and staff to determine why voters did not support this plan to improve the educational environment which will benefit all of our district students.”
Elstad said the school board and administration will discuss ways to determine why the community was not supportive of the request, especially given the extensive planning process and work of the Community Task Force on Facilities that resulted in the ballot question.
Marlene Nelson, who spearheads a group called Concerned Owatonnans for Public Education, was pleased with the results of the referendum. Her group maintained the district does not have a specific plan for a new school design. COPE also argued the bond would raise property taxes by about 15%.
“People can’t afford this,” Nelson said. “It’s way too much for this town.”
Nelson suggested taxpayer money would be better spent on aging infrastructure throughout the community, including sewer lines and roads. “Things need to be fixed,” she said.
She also questioned some of the misinformation provided by school officials leading up to the referendum. “When you don’t have truth on your side, you’re not going to be ethical,” Nelson said.
COPE remains committed to helping come up with a reasonable plan for the community. “Our goal is to not only empower our young learners, but to also protect taxpayer resources,” COPE says.
Nelson thinks school officials will waste no time in coming right back at taxpayers with another referendum. “COPE is not going away,” she says. “We will be ready for them to come back,” she said, adding COPE will always remain vigilant on this issue.
Paul Peltier, who monitors referendums around the state, tweeted after last week’s elections: “The Minnesota legislature must recognize the disparity and the difficulty for rural communities and step up to the plate to fund our future.”