Referendum for new Owatonna school set for Tuesday

May 15, 2019 11:28 AM

Several school districts are set to bring referendum questions to voters on Tuesday. Owatonna is just one of those districts.

The district says there are on-going maintenance issues, accessibility concerns, and safety and security problems in their nearly 100-year-old high school.


For example, Owatanna Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad says the building has 32 entrances and exits to monitor. A new high school would have about 15. He's hoping voters approve a new building, but there are those in the community who strongly oppose that.

Elstad says five times over the last 27 years Owatonna voters have turned down a referendum asking for money for a new high school, or money to make major modifications to the existing building.

"I think people have reached the point where they're tapped out, they don't have an endless supply of money here," said Marlene Nelson with Concerned Owatonnans for Public Education, or COPE.

According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, whether a referendum passes or fails often comes down to geography.

In 2018, all of the school districts in the metro area that put a bond or levy question on the ballot had it approved by voters. However, in greater Minnesota, the results are much more split.

The school district is asking for $116 million to build a new high school on a much larger site. The district says it would have flexible classrooms with modern technology and equipment.

For the average homeowner, it would mean a $23 tax increase per month.

"If they were going for a reasonable amounts, even if they said 75 or $80 million, I think the public would've went for it, but when you want to go for $116 million, but actually it's $138 million with corporate gifts, what are we building here?" questions Nelson.

The total cost dropped from $138 million to to $116 million due to the support the district has received from local businesses.

"It's incredibly unusual, and in the state of Minnesota it's unprecedented, to have that much private support for a public high school," said Superintendent Elstad.

2019 Referendums

Elstad said Federated Insurance has offered $20 million, Viracon, an architectural glass company, has promised windows at cost and Wenger Corporation has offered $2 million in music, theater and athletic products.

"They want to create relevant and extensive experiences here for students, recognizing that there is a real need for students to be entering the workforce, so they see the benefit to building a new building that will allow for these opportunities," said Elstad.

If the referedum passes, the old school could be sold, or torn down. About $3 million has been set aside for that. But it's a sad thought for some graduates.

"It's a beautiful building, especially from the outside, and it would be a shame to tear down a piece of history," said one graduate.

The district says some developers and grassroots groups have already reached out about the building. It was on the national historic registry at one point, but is not anymore after changes were made years ago.

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Jessica Miles

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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