Rochester schools are running out of room. School officials are asking voters to say “yes” to a two-question bond referendum that would raise property taxes about $50 per year for the owner of a $200,000 home.

The two-question ballot goes before voters Nov. 5. Early voting began Friday at the Edison Building.

The first question calls for $171.4 million to build a new middle school and elementary school and reconstruct two existing elementary schools to accommodate up to 720 students each.

During a match two years ago, a Century High School swimmer took position on the starting block only to have the block mount collapse underneath him.

The second question asks for $9.5 million to build a competition pool at Century High School, deepen the diving pool at Mayo High School and close all three middle school pools.

The total ask is $180.9 million over 20 years.

“The challenge for the district is getting people to look beyond the numbers,” said Rochester Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz.

School referendum

Linda Freeman (right) and Desiree Strom talk with passers by about the referendum in John Marshall High School during a swim meet Tuesday. (Ken Klotzbach/kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Growing problem

Since 2011, Rochester schools have experienced 12 percent enrollment growth. District elementary schools are at about 98 percent capacity, and the three middle schools run at about 99 percent capacity.

The district has taken measures to accommodate the growth. District officials have redrawn school boundaries. Preschool classes were moved out of school and the classrooms repurposed.

“We’ve run out of those things we can do to address growth without adding new buildings,” Muñoz said.

A housing and growth study estimates enrollment in the district will grow by about 1,200 students in the next five years.

“The capacity issues are such that it’s going to start affecting the quality of education,” said Linda Freeman, co-chairwoman of the Strong Schools for Rochester group that is advocating for public support of the referendum.

Some middle and elementary school art and music teachers are without home classrooms and bring materials into the other teachers’ classrooms to teach.

The first bond would also fund improvements to building security, upgrades to lighting and sound at the high school auditoriums and new fire alarms to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

A community survey showed broad support for increasing capacity and security at the schools. Support from non-family respondents dropped when the ask amount hit about $172 million. That’s why the referendum was split into two questions, Muñoz said.

Location, location, location

Appetite for the bond amount isn’t the only concern critics have. On March 19, the same day the school board approved the two-question bond, the board also voted to approve purchasing 150 acres of land north of 40th Street Southwest, between Hart Farms addition and Bamber Valley Road. City leaders have since pointed out the location is not set for urban expansion for more than 20 years under the city’s long-range plans. The plan also calls for prioritizing developments that use existing city infrastructure and can be accessed not just by car, but also by bus, bicycle or walking.

Some city leaders balked at approving the location. Muñoz said the location works for the district’s needs but is willing to examine other locations.

The study by LHB suggested the new middle school should be in the southwest quadrant of the city. Regardless, the location of the middle school and land that will eventually be used as the site for another high school likely won’t be finalized by the time people vote.

Freeman said she hopes that doesn’t keep people from supporting the measure.

“It does not and should not take away from the point we need a new middle school in the southwest quadrant,” she said.

Opposition

A loose “We can do better” group doesn’t deny the district needs more room for students. However the group advocates for smaller, neighborhood schools to address the crowding.

Muñoz said running smaller schools comes with higher operating and administrative costs.

“In a perfect world, if I could write a check for any amount, we would build a school in every neighborhood,” he said.

Under the district's plan, Bishop and Longfellow would be rebuilt at their current sites into 720-capacity schools. New buildings will be built on district-owned land. Both schools will remain open during construction of new buildings. The old buildings will be razed. Longfellow has about a 320-student capacity, Bishop's is about 475 students.

A new school would also be built on a site north of 55th Street Northwest where the city and the school district both own land.

Freeman said small schools would make it difficult to create a diverse ethnic and socio-economic student body.

“Those small schools start to look like their neighborhood,” she said.

Muñoz added small buildings don’t give schools flexibility in programs or class sizes.

“I disagree with the argument that you need a small class size to have a quality education,” he said. “Really, it’s about the culture you build in the building.”

Timing

Next year, the property tax from the bond referendum that paid for construction of Riverside Elementary School and Century High School will drop off property tax roles.

On Tuesday, the numbers got more favorable. District officials announced at the School Board meeting that property tax valuations in the district rose by 8.9 percent. That means an additional $1.2 billion in property value was added to the district this year. That means early estimates that the additional tax bill on a home valued at $200,000 would be $96 per year is cut in half.

“That was the best news all night,” said board member Julie Workman.

Early voting began Friday at the Edison Building, 615 Seventh St. S.W. The ballot will be available at regular polling locations Nov. 5.

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General Assignment Reporter

John joined the Post Bulletin in May 2018. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 2004 with degrees in Journalism and Japanese. Away from the office, John plays banjo, brews beer, bikes and is looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter “b.”