A divided Stillwater Area Public Schools board approved a lease levy April 8 that will expedite an eight-classroom expansion at Brookview Elementary. 

The vote to sell up to $7.26 million in certificates of participation was made 5-2, with board members Tina Riehle and Liz Weisberg voting against. That action followed on the recommendation administration made March 25 to extract the Brookview project from the district’s more extensive wish list of facilities needs likely to be the subject of a bond election next spring. 

Expediting the Brookview expansion in this way has the potential to lessen the impact of this fall’s school boundary changes, argued those who voted for the measure.

“This needed to be done yesterday,” said board member Matt Onken, referring to the Brookview expansion. Onken joined board chair Bev Petrie and fellow board members Katie Hockert, Alison Sherman and Annie Porbeni in voting for the lease levy.

High-paced residential growth in the district’s southern end has led to a quickening in enrollment — and mounting space concerns — at both Brookview and Lake Elmo Elementary while the district’s three primary schools on the north end — Rutherford, Stonebridge and Lily Lake — are unable to fill their classrooms.

The Brookview expansion, which is expected to cost just under $7 million and be completed 12-18 months from now, will allow the school to take in an additional 200 students. Board members said last Thursday

the effects of this expansion would ripple out to Lake Elmo and alleviate some of the “creative spacing” there as the district awaits the full replacement of that school.

But unlike a bond issue, a lease levy does not require voter approval, and that was a hot point with board members Riehle and Weisberg, who said that by sanctioning it the district was taking a gamble with taxpayers’ trust when it comes to future referenda, like that facilities bond issue next spring or the renewal of the district’s expiring operating levy. 

“We’re about to go into a levy and a bond where we’re going to ask people to trust us — but without asking them, we’re going to tax them additionally for the newest building in our district,” said Weisberg, who called such action “insulting.”

Riehle said she believed those who advocated for the lease levy “grossly misjudged” the risk involved to future referenda. “I think it’s putting our district in great harm,” she said.

SAPS is expected in May to formally call the referendum to renew — and likely increase — its operating levy, with the question to be added to the ballot this November. Without renewal, the current levy runs out end of next school year. The district is also looking at a capital projects or tech levy for this fall, followed by the facilities-based bond issue that is likely to come before voters in the spring.

Neither Weisberg nor Riehle said she was opposed to the expansion at Brookview itself, which prior to last Thursday’s vote had been part of the bigger package planned for in the spring bond issue, but they did say it was “inequitable” to expedite improvements at the district’s newest building while bumping other similarly priority items — like the Lake Elmo project — farther down the line.

Lake Elmo Elementary, which a 2019 working group of community members and district leaders pegged a priority item after scoring it well below standard on everything from its plumbing to its tech infrastructure to its ADA accessibility, is scheduled for a complete rebuild as part of the spring bond issue. That project has an initial cost estimate of between $55 million and $60 million, and it would account for the largest share by far of the total bond package.

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