Students held signs asking the school board to save Newport Elementary before an April 2022 meeting. Under a new version of the South Washington County Schools building plan, Newport Elementary will stay open. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

After all the controversy, there was no press conference to announce that Newport Elementary School would remain open after all. South Washington County Schools made no formal announcement one way or the other about the fate of the school.

But on March 23, the school board unanimously approved a guiding document to help move forward with its facilities planning process. One of the tenets of that document: “We will not bring forth a plan that closes any elementary school.”

“It’s a huge relief,” said Hoyam Elkhedir, a parent of two children at Newport Elementary School. “We feel like our voice was heard, finally. And to be honest, there is no reason to close it.”

While many districts struggle with declining enrollment and budget cuts, South Washington County Schools, in the southeast suburbs of St. Paul, faces the opposite problem: new housing development and population growth. Last year, the school board approved a $462 million facilities plan—which would have been the largest in state history—to help address overcrowding, primarily at high schools and middle schools. Newport Elementary School would have become an early learning center.

But when voters rejected that plan in August, the district had to start the planning process again. This time, the district listened to voters, and learned what they would support.

“There was a lot of opposition in the community to closing a school,” said Shawn Hogdendorf, the communications and community relations director for South Washington County Schools. “We heard what the community said, and we changed course.”

“They know they can’t pass a referendum if they try to close our school,” said Marvin Taylor, a Newport city council member who helped lead the opposition to the previous plan. “They learned that the hard way.”

Community members discussed priorities for a new school facilities plan in an April 2023 listening session at Oltman Middle School in Cottage Grove. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The new plan, which the school board will consider at a June 1 meeting, would present two ballot questions to voters. The first would focus on a $160 million high-priority set of issues, including secure entrances and renovations at overcrowded middle schools and high schools. A second question would ask voters for additional funds for elementary school renovations and more space for the district’s alternative high school, which currently has room for just 11th and 12th grade students. 

Neither question would close any school—including Newport Elementary School. 

This plan, like the last one, would require a property tax increase. Voters will have to approve it in November before it can take effect. Yet the shift in the district’s proposal marks a hard-won, if quietly announced, victory for the Newport community.

Newport Elementary is the district’s most diverse elementary school: more than half of the students are children of color; 62 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; and 18 percent are English language learners.

It’s also the smallest elementary school in the district. Many parents described its size as an asset, and praised the teachers for their attention to individual students. And it’s the only school in Newport, a small town of about 4,000 residents. For many residents, the school is the bedrock of their small community.

“The students and the teachers have really strong relationships because of the small environment,” Elkhedir said.

Charissa Vasquez, a Newport Elementary parent, said her first-grade son fell behind when he missed several weeks of school due to illness over the winter. But by the end of the year, he had caught up.

“The school is outstanding because he is now where he’s supposed to be,” she said.

Newport parents and students packed an April 2022 school board meeting, when the school board approved the plan that would have closed Newport Elementary. At times, the meeting got tense. The school board walked out when the crowd got unruly. Police showed up to enforce fire code violations.

Parents and teachers vowed to defeat that plan at the ballot box. And they did. That August, 66 percent of voters rejected it.

Since then, school officials have been collecting feedback throughout the district. At many schools, voters mentioned concerns over Newport Elementary’s closure as a reason to vote no. Other voters were concerned primarily about a property tax hike. Through listening sessions, surveys, and community feedback sessions, district officials narrowed down a set of priorities they hoped voters might approve.

“We’re listening,” said Hogendorf, the district spokesperson. “I think we’re working really hard to try to gather feedback and listen to what the community wants.”

Taylor, the Newport city council member, praised the district’s improved community engagement since the August referendum’s failure. Still, he said, the district had not acknowledged its previous mistakes or attempted to provide closure to the Newport community.

“I feel like they got it right now,” he said. “Now they have to sell it to the people.”

The community’s message had resonated, Taylor said: “You don’t shut down a school that’s working.”

Weigh in on South Washington County Schools’ new proposed facilities plan:

-Find the most up-to-date information about the proposed plan here.

-You can watch a livestream of the school board meeting June 1 at 6 pm.

-Provide feedback to the district using this link from June 2–9.

-The school board is scheduled to vote on the plan June 15.

-If the school board approves the plan, two facilities questions will go to voters this November. All South Washington County voters can weigh in.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...