A discussion about growth and Long Range Facility Planning, with thoughts from City and District Elected Officials
Author, Jaime Kokaisel
published, April 20th, 2022
Jaime Kokaisel is the author of JAiME for SCHOOLS. She is a Woodbury resident and a district voter. Her children attended the SoWashCo public schools for 10 years until 2021. They now attend private school, and Jaime writes about all school options available to families. Her focus is on building strong families for the sake of our children and our communities.
TO: THE SEVEN SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS WHO WILL VOTE ON THURSDAY, APRIL 21ST:
Sharon Van Leer, Melinda Dols, Patricia Driscoll, Louise Hinz, Simi Patnaik, Katie Schwartz, and Eric Tessmer.
And the 103,000 South Washington County Residents this plan will impact,
including over 70,000 registered voters to decide the outcome in the Special Election AUGUST 9TH, 2022.
District Facility Plans
The plan is large. The plan is expensive. The plan meets district goals. It is about “Building Our Future” says the headline. “Community. Growth. Student Success.” For everyone, you ask? Yes, for everyone … except for students currently attending Newport Elementary and 3,800 residents living in the City of Newport. For them, the plan represents just the opposite.
If you have not seen “the plan”, you can view it by going to South Washington County School’s website under “Facility Planning” (or click on the link at the end of this post). I will reference the information found there throughout this article.
Remember back when the district first presented the data in November? The overcrowded state of our high schools reverberated throughout the district. Since the first day of school in September, parents spoke out about unacceptable classroom sizes and student-to-teacher ratio’s at East Ridge High School and Woodbury High school. The Steering Committee with Long-Range Facility Planning seemed to use that momentum to fuel support for facility planning.
Fast forward four months, and the final plan shifted from prioritizing high schools to prioritizing Birth-5 Early Childhood Learning (displacing students at Newport Elementary School in the process) and District Offices centrally located in a brand new Crestview Elementary School building. lt is a $462 million dollar plan that will impact just about every building in the school district.
District projections are made by looking at PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE data.
The justification (we are told) for spending $462 million dollars on facility renovation and construction is: GROWTH. This is determined by city development housing projects and the student generation rate used to anticipate school age children per home type. In ten years, the school district has determined we will have grown by 8,000 new homes and 3,500 new students. With this they say 15 schools will be over capacity.
“Student estimates based on Davis Demographics formula for student generation rates implemented on current housing developments and demographics over the last 10 years.”
The past, as we are all too familiar, is in the past. Life as we knew it 10 years ago will never return. We are living in uncertain times with an uncertain future. The strong economy of the past is not a realistic or reliable model to base future estimates upon. We need the caution of uncertainty, not the bravado of full confidence.
Despite this news, and the fact that Minnesota only gained about two hundred residents total in 2021, SoWashCo saw record breaking population growth. I can think of a number of reasons why this might be. Safety, quality of life, and proximity to amenities makes Washington County, and by extension SoWashCo, very attractive to city migrators. Our city leaders should be recognized for their dedication to providing and sustaining the high quality of life we enjoy.
Our County is growing, there is no doubt about that. The Patch writes, “Washington County experienced one of the highest population growth rates in the Twin Cities metro in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Washington County added 4,065 residents from 2020-2021, taking it’s total population to 272,256 residents.”
By US Census reports “The U.S. population grew at a slower rate in 2021 than in any other year since the founding of the nation.” Contributing factors were Covid-19, declining birth rates and International migration.
But is the GROWTH of Washington County directly related to the GROWTH of its government school system?
- Washington County + 1.5% INCREASE (See Patch article above)
- SoWashCo School District – 1% DECREASE (See Financial Update below.)
There was a time when the two may have been more closely connected, but current data confirms a divergence. Times are changing. Is SoWashCo Schools an asset to our County? Does the public school draw families here? I don’t know the current majority answer to this, but I do know pre-Covid it did. The reason I personally moved from Saint Paul to Woodbury in 2009 was for the quality public school education SoWashCo was known for. By 2021 we un-enrolled our children though (apparently along with many others) due to the unhealthy learning environment that permeated school culture and classroom instruction.
Choice in schooling patterns over the past two years has not only changed due to Covid-19 mitigation strategy, it has also changed due to the quality of education. Alternative schooling options have grown out of the need for a consistent, truthful, rigorous learning model. The public school system still expects to appeal to resident families from a place of authority, but many families are no longer content to settle on the bureaucracy.
City Council Member, Marvin Taylor of Newport makes the point, “The Davis Demographics report from 2019 has proven to be inaccurate in projecting elementary enrollment thus far.”
The two charts below illustrate the point Council Member Taylor is making. The Davis Demographics report was conducted in 2019 based on Fall 2018 data, which was pre-Covid. Enrollment in ISD#833 saw significant decline immediately in 2020 and 2021. In just three years since 2018 we can now confirm, the Davis projection for 2021 is 1,123 students OVER projection! As of this month (April), you can see SoWashCo themselves anticipates year 2027 enrollment UNDER projecting the Davis Report by 2,782 students!
In the usual form of district leadership, truth is often found in unspoken words.
So where is the district coming up with 3,500 new students by 2031, if their own current 2022 projection is only a 942 student gain from 2021-2027? Are we really going to support a $462 million bond referendum with this little growth? Or does Dan Pyan’s Financial Update NOT account for new development? I asked him for comment on April 19th, so when he replies I will post the update here. I would be surprised if his enrollment projection did not account for development, since “Enrollment Drives The Budget,” as he typically says.
“Current enrollment in District 833 elementary schools is 1,000 students below the projection for the 3rd year (2021-22).” says Council Member Marvin Taylor. “This should be alarming since the District is directly appropriating a critical piece (student generation rates) from the Davis Demographic’s reports for its current plan. The rate of 0.557 elementary students per new single family homes, used by Davis Demographics and the District in its current plan, is producing projected numbers of students that have not been materializing over the past 3 years. Thus, this needs to be reevaluated.” (Marvin Taylor) See more data Marvin has pulled on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MarvinTaylorNewport
“Beyond this, it’s hard to say what the District is doing similar or different because they have not shared their methodology.” Says Council Member Taylor. “The Davis Demographics report, despite its flaws, explicitly lays out its methodology for scrutiny. A new survey would once again need to spell out its methodology and could be used to compare against the Davis Demographics report (and the District’s model). This would add transparency and help identify potential flaws in the current model being utilized for projections.”
A report like this could be generated for relatively minimal expense, especially in relation to the scope of the proposed referendum.Newport City Council Member Marvin Taylor
If 35+ task force members were organized to represent all 100K of us, then I would appreciate the district sharing the profile of that group. For instance, of the 35+ people, how many are teachers? Of the 35+ people, how many are parents only (meaning they are not members of MDE, teachers unions, government employees or special interest groups)? Of the 35+ people, how many are SoWashCo residents? Of the 35+ people, how many are not SoWashCo residents? Of the 35+ people, how many are district 833 employees?
If Superintendent Assistant Kristine Schaefer, who is on the LRFP Steering Committee, answers these questions I sent to her, then I will update them here:
Who better represents the whole of a community than our elected officials?
The School District is faced with a problem, and their job is to logically assess the problem, implement a plan, schedule a timeline, and organize a committee of stakeholders to represent the community. But how much can a committee (hand-picked by district administration, for all we know), represent the whole of the community? The people who best represent the whole of the community are our elected officials! Contacting each one of them should be the districts priority in this facility planning process.
According to their Long Rang Facility Planning timeline, from March – Sept 2021 they say “Facility staff consults with CITIES to review latest residential building data and projected housing developments.” South Washington County School District spans five cities and two townships. This includes Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Newport, Saint Paul Park, Afton, Grey Cloud Island Township, and Denmark Township.
I reached out to four cities/townships with most (or all) of their population residing in SoWashCo, and I asked them each the same questions …
- QUESTION 1: Were any ELECTED OFFICIALS consulted during this time period? Did anyone from the school district, that you are aware of, talk to city staff to discuss future development projects?
- QUESTION 2: Is the “10-year Active and Anticipated Development” snapshot, in which Davis Demographics is basing Student Population Projections, accurate to your knowledge? (viewable at https://www.sowashco.org/facilityplanning )
COTTAGE GROVE: Mayor Myron Bailey 4/18/2022
- “Yes. Matter of fact – we had a workshop with the School District Officials with the entire City Council and City Staff. We also meet with the school district personnel at least once a quarter – generally with one of 2 of the board members to discuss future growth and keeping each other informed on what is going on.” … “(W)e communicate with them regularly as they need to know the most up to date growth plans with future development, and we need to know where they may have classroom/school issues so we can work together to understand future building needs or busing needs.” (Bailey)
- “I happened to have a meeting with them last week to review the numbers as I wanted to better understand the projections. The growth projections are accurate to what we currently have on the books for developments and the proposals that are still in the works for future development. He/They was able to show me what the student ratio has been in the various developments happening in Cottage Grove. Some developments are above the projected ratios, some are below – but for the planning processes – they look correct.” (Bailey)
SAINT PAUL PARK: Mayor Sandi Dingle
- “I can tell you that I did meet with the school district several years ago to learn of their long range facility planning timeline. At that time they did not commit to closing Newport Elementary. They only noted that it was the oldest school in the district. I am completely against the closing of this school. I feel that neighborhoods, at a minimum, need to provide early education to young students.” … “Out City Administrator was a part of the meeting mentioned above. I do not know if any further meetings were held with City staff beyond this preliminary meeting.” (Dingle)
- “Unknown” (Dingle)
WOODBURY: Community Development Director Janelle Schmitz 4/20/2022
- “The City Council has not discussed this matter at a City Council meeting.” … “City staff has met with the School District staff on several occasions to receive updates on their long term facilities plan. Woodbury’s adopted 2040 Comprehensive Plan outlines the growth projections for the City through the year 2040. The School District relies on the adopted comprehensive plans from all of the cities in the district to inform their long term planning process.” (Schmitz)
- “City staff cannot comment on its accuracy or inaccuracy. City staff regularly provides updates to all of the school districts that serve Woodbury regarding anticipated development in Woodbury. However, it should be acknowledged that development projections regularly change as real estate markets are dynamic and a development project’s status can change accordingly.” (Schmitz)
GREY CLOUD ISLAND TOWNSHIP: Supervisor Richard (Dick) Polta 4/18/2022
- “Only speaking for myself the Board was never contacted by SOWASHCO schools staff. But keep in mind Grey Cloud Island Township has no plans or any potential areas for future development. The township has very little open space for any development which would have an effect on schools student loading.” (Polta)
NEWPORT: Mayor Laurie Elliott and City Council Member Marvin Taylor 4/18/2022
- “I don’t know if ‘consulted’ is the right word here.” says Mayor Laurie Elliott. “Former Mayor Dan Lund did attend a meeting in 2019 or 2020. At that time it had been implied that Newport Elementary could be considered for closing … It’s my understanding that ultimately Crestview was considered for closure at that time.” Dan Hines from the School District emailed City Administrator, Deb Hill, on three occasions: April 2021, Sept 2021, and March 2022. Mayor Elliott says, “My greatest concerns about all of these exchanges are: 1) Our Administrator DID reply to inquiries from the School District when they stated they never heard back from her. 2) Dan Hines didn’t clarify that these questions/answers were driving a long-term facility plan for the School District … (in) the first email dated April 1, 2021, Dan states they are ‘trying to update our demographic projections in the complicated world of COVID.’ 3) The request for construction information that is a ‘certainty or near-certainty’ is a short-term answer for a long-range plan.”
- Mayor Laurie Elliott says, “What’s missing from the report is other population changes such as when Wings of Newport transitions to mostly market-rate apartments (from supported housing), the Century Avenue development, an inquiry last week about the building density requirements on one of the 8 acre properties I mentioned for development during my comments to the School Board … “ City Council Member Marvin Taylor also answered, saying school projections are not accurate. “No. At the present time, I believe we have 3 projects that qualify as “near future” developments. The first is 102 affordable ‘workforce’ apartment units to be added by MWF Properties adjacent to the transit station (https://www.twincities.com/2022/01/27/newport-to-add-two-apartment-projects-at-the-transit-station/). A second, that is currently under negotiation …, is for 15 townhomes to be added on the east side of Highway 61. A third, and quite significant area, is the land identified for mid-density residential development (5-20 units per acre) in our 2040 comp plan just West of Century Ave … In our comp plan, we identified 50 developable acres in this area, with 14 acres being projected for development by 2030, with 70 single family detached homes …” (Taylor)
Meanwhile, Newport has been busy improving their City. Before finding out from the district their school was planned for closure, the construction of a new city hall/public safety facility is under way, a playground at Pioneer Park (near the elementary school), and significant improvements are planned at Lion’s Park in the next 3-5 years. These three projects have a total estimated cost of $11.6 million.
Quality schooling can lift up a neighborhood and play a very large part in the health and prosperity of a city.
For the City of Newport, that is exactly what Newport Elementary does. Their smaller class sizes and quality teaching staff is what draws families inside and outside city boundaries. One school ties their community together. One school binds them. Newport Elementary School is the HUB of their city.
The City of Newport is doing their part to improve the image of their community. What has the school district done to help improve Newport’s image? The district cites declining enrollment and inefficiencies for the reasons to close Newport. My question for Superintendent Nielsen is, “When looking at the health of a school, what do you define a City’s responsibility to be, and what do you define a School Districts responsibility?“
Up next, in PART 2, we’ll look at the people of Newport, the families, the teachers, and the business owners who will be impacted by the possible closure of their school.
A TWO PART SERIES
Click here for PART 2 – “Building on Optimism: QUILT OF QUOTES“
by JAiME for SCHOOLS April 20th, 2022
Quotes and Graphs from SoWashCo Website under Facility Planning : https://www.sowashco.org/facilityplanning
SoWashCo PopulationStatistics : https://censusreporter.org/profiles/97000US2733810-south-washington-county-school-district-mn/
Population, Origin, Race Maps from 2020 Census Website : https://mtgis-portal.geo.census.gov/arcgis/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=2566121a73de463995ed2b2fd7ff6eb7
Current Boundary Maps : https://www.sowashco.org/enroll#Maps
City of Newport: http://www.ci.newport.mn.us/CHPSB.php