Anabella, at right in a white bow, with her friends. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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South Washington County voters rejected a bonding referendum for a $462 million, 10-year facilities plan—the most costly schools referendum in state history.

Results were in from 93 percent of precincts by about 10 p.m. Sixty-six percent of voters cast “no” ballots on the referendum; 34 percent voted to approve the referendum.

The rejection of the referendum came as a victory to those who hoped to save Newport Elementary School, the district’s most diverse elementary school. Under the proposed plan, Newport Elementary would have closed as soon as 2025. But even though the referendum failed, South Washington County Schools officials say that closing Newport Elementary School remains a possibility.

“At this time, there is uncertainty about the future of Newport Elementary School in the event of an unsuccessful bond election,” the district’s website read ahead of the election. “Administration will need to evaluate all options for the 2023-24 school year.”

The plan would have resulted in the construction of two new elementary schools, the expansion of three high schools, and renovations to schools throughout the district. Under the district’s plan, Newport Elementary would have become an early learning center. 

District officials proposed the plan to accommodate growing enrollment and overcrowding.

At Woodbury High School, some students eat lunch on the cafeteria floor. At Pine Hill Elementary School in Cottage Grove, one set of bathrooms serves the entire school, and staff have turned a storage closet into a makeshift occupational therapy space. At East Ridge High School in Woodbury, hallways are difficult to navigate during passing time, since the school is over capacity by several hundred students. 

But parents at Newport Elementary told Sahan Journal they did not understand why these problems should result in the closure of the school that has served their children well. More than half the students are children of color, and 22 percent are English language learners.

“Because the school size is small, the kids get all that attention from the teacher,” Hoyam Elkhedir, a mother of six who lives in Woodbury, told Sahan Journal in April. “We feel comfortable, safe, and we belong.” 

Charissa Vasquez, a mom involved in the Newport parent-teacher organization, told Sahan Journal her three kids were thriving at Newport Elementary. They faced bullying from teachers and students in other schools they’d attended because Spanish is their first language, Vasquez said. But since coming to Newport, she’d seen an impressive change in all of her children.

“If we don’t fight for our kids’ future, who’s gonna do it?” she said.

The referendum’s failure means district officials are likely to return to voters with a revised facilities plan in February 2023.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.