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Ten-year-old Anabella, a fourth-grader at Newport Elementary, watches as the school board decides whether to close her school. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Students sobbed in their teachers’ arms. Parents’ eyes welled up, too. As parents, teachers, and children filed out of the South Washington County school board meeting on Thursday night, the disappointment felt palpable. 

The school board had just voted 6–1 to approve a $462 million facilities plan. The construction and renovation plan, designed to accommodate a growing district, would also result in the closure of Newport Elementary School.

While many Minnesota districts face enrollment decline, South Washington County Schools, the state’s sixth-largest district, faces the opposite problem: enrollment growth and overcrowding. Already, some high schools are so far over capacity that some students eat lunch on the cafeteria floor and struggle to navigate hallways during passing time.

With 250 students, the majority of them children of color, Newport Elementary is the smallest and most diverse of the district’s schools. The district plans to turn the elementary school into an early learning center. Newport kids would be zoned into other elementary schools, with most of them attending Cottage Grove Elementary.

But the school board’s vote is not the final word on the matter. In August, the facilities plan will go to voters, who will decide whether to approve Minnesota’s largest ever school bond referendum—which would mean a property tax hike. (School districts and other municipalities often issue bonds in order to finance long-term building and infrastructure projects.)

For Marien Fernández-Paris Razo, whose daughter Jaslynn has thrived at Newport, the vote felt disheartening. She had expected the board would approve the plan. But she noted with disappointment that only one board member voted no.

“But it’s not over,” she said. “We’re going to continue fighting. I’m just worried about the kids.”

Art supplies, an ice cream truck, and kids with a cause 

Before the vote, families gathered at Newport Elementary to make signs for a pre-vote rally. Parents and kids chose from plastic bins of crayons and markers and a neatly stacked pile of posterboard. An ice-cream truck, providing popsicles, played “Turkey in the Straw.” Many parents and kids were wearing matching gray T-shirts with red eagles, the Newport school mascot. 

Abundant art supplies lined outdoor tables so parents and students could make posters for the rally. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The sun shone brightly, an April rarity, and the temperature was comfortably in the mid-50s. It was one of the first days that felt like spring, and spirits were high. 

Charissa Vasquez, a mom involved in the parent-teacher organization, helped prepare for the rally, joined by her three kids. Because Spanish is her children’s first language, they faced bullying from teachers and students in other schools they’d attended, Vasquez said. But since coming to Newport, she’s 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.

Her 10-year-old daughter, Anabella, cried when she found out about plans to close the school, Vasquez said. Anabella then wrote to the school board. “She is a fighter,” Vasquez said.

Newport Elementary School fourth-graders Asiya and Anabella worked together on a sign to bring to the school-board meeting. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Anabella appeared next to her mother, a large white bow with silver spangles in her hair.

“Whenever there’s trouble, the principal always fixes it and we don’t have that problem anymore,” Anabella said. “It’s like a little community family. When we see someone, we always say hello and their name because it’s easy to know everyone here.”

One school she’d attended was so big it was hard for teachers to help everyone, Anabella said. At another, teachers told her not to speak Spanish, Vasquez added.

“I don’t care. I still speak Spanish anyway,” Anabella said, shaking her head. She walked off then to find a friend.

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

At their previous school, all three of Vasquez’s kids lagged far behind grade level. But at Newport, she added, they’ve thrived. Now Anabella is at the top of her class, and her two younger brothers are at grade level.

As the poster-making session came to an end, teachers tried to prepare kids for the realities of bureaucracy. “Whatever decision this group of people chooses to make, it’s not the end,” one teacher told them. “There is still a whole community that is rallying behind you.”

As the poster-making session came to an end, teachers tried to prepare kids for the realities of bureaucracy.

“Whatever decision this group of people chooses to make, it’s not the end,” one teacher told them. “There is still a whole community that is rallying behind you and supporting you. Look around at all these parents, all these adults.”

Diverse enrollment, personal attention: ‘I thought this is what we wanted,’ a state rep says

Before the board vote, more than 100 kids, parents, and teachers rallied with their signs outside district offices in Cottage Grove. Kids chalked hopscotch grids on the sidewalk and waved red pompoms. Others blew bubbles on top of a not-yet-melted snow mound. 

Most adults rallying outside the school board meeting Thursday night expected the board to pass the facilities plan, including the closure of Newport Elementary. But they said they still hoped to defeat the referendum at the ballot box.

Students, parents, teachers, and alumni decorated signs in hopes they could convince the school board to save Newport Elementary. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Keith Franke, a Republican state representative from South St. Paul, said he thought the high-cost referendum would be a tough sell. 

Franke’s oldest daughter attended Newport Elementary; as a parent volunteer, he helped build the playground. The dedicated attention from staff meant they were able to spot a mild learning disability, he said.

“I think in other larger situations—bigger schools where you don’t seem to have the attention—it wouldn’t have been noticed,” Franke said. “They really advocated for her. I thought this is what we wanted. Along with how diverse Newport has become, the sense of community, and the ability to bring everyone together.”

But could this $462 million bond referendum pass in South Washington County?

“I think it’s going to be a tough road,” he said. He believes the economy is going in the wrong direction, and property taxes and valuations are already skyrocketing. The controversy around closing Newport Elementary School could be “one more nail in the coffin” for the bonding plan, he said.

Anabella and Addison defend their school

Inside district offices, students and parents packed every seat in the boardroom, as well as the aisles and the hallway outside the room, eager to be seen and heard. The district announced the facilities and school-closing plan on March 3, 2022. Community members haven’t had the opportunity to testify at a public hearing—typically a state requirement before a school board makes a final decision to close a school. And the board limits public comment at school-board meetings.

Sharon Van Leer, the board chair, banged her gavel and told the crowd that due to the fire code, only 140 people would be allowed in the room at the time. The others would have to leave. The crowd roared in discontent. Board members walked out of the room through a door behind the dais.

Sharon Van Leer, the board chair, banged her gavel and told the crowd that due to the fire code, only 140 people would be allowed in the room at the time, and the others would have to leave. The crowd roared in discontent. 

“Then how will you hear our voices?” yelled one man with a red beard.

Board members walked out of the room through a door behind the dais.

“You’re walking out on our kids!” a PTO mom yelled.

After about 15 minutes, Cottage Grove police arrived. One officer calmly informed the crowd about the fire code guidelines. 

“We’re about 12 chairs short,” a mom told him.

“There’s 140,” the officer said.

“Guess you didn’t go to Newport,” she retorted.

A man looks through a glass door at a police officer enforcing fire code limitations during a tense school board meeting. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

When the meeting resumed, the first speaker to provide public comment was Newport fourth-grader Addison McDonough.

“She’s got this. She’s in my class,” a boy whispered.

Addison headed to the lectern, accompanied by Anabella, still wearing her white bow. She spoke about how easy it was to find a home at Newport. Anabella, for instance, became part of the community right away even though she transferred into Newport mid-year.

“On Anabella’s first day, she looked very nervous,” Addison said. “We treated her like she wasn’t new. Like part of our family.”

Hearing that Newport was slated to close made Addison “mad, sad, and curious,” she continued. “Why would you close our school? Just because we are small, that does not mean we are bad. If you vote to close Newport, you will be tearing apart one of the best things in the world: my family.”

The audience applauded. “You did so good!” whispered the girls’ classmate.

At the end of the public comment period, which lasted less than 30 minutes, Van Leer thanked the speakers and particularly the children. “We’ve heard you,” she said.

Sharon Van Leer, the board chair of South Washington County Schools, addresses the crowd. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A PowerPoint presentation from the assistant superintendent

The board then moved on to the facilities plan. Assistant superintendent Kristine Schaefer presented the final plan in a PowerPoint. Van Leer called for a vote. She asked if any board members would like to make a final comment before the vote. None did. The tension grew heavy in the room.

Six of the seven board members voted in favor of the plan, with only Eric Tessmer voting no. 

“Thank you, Eric,” said someone in the crowd. Tessmer gave a brief nod.

Community members filed out of the room as the board meeting continued. Some shouted at the board as they left.

In the hall, amid frustrated parents and crying children, some Newport residents starting talking again. The next step, they agreed, would be a campaign to defeat the August 9 referendum. 

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