referendum results eagles celebration

Owatonna Public Schools staff and supporters of the $104 million building bond referendum gathered Tuesday night to watch the results come in. District residents ended up voting in favor of the measure, which will go toward funding a new high school to be designed by Wold Architects and Engineers with the help of community committees. (Submitted photo)

OWATONNA — “The community has spoken,” said Dale Fairbanks, a member of Concerned Owatonnans for Public Education, summing up voters’ approval Tuesday of a $104 million bond for construction of a new high school.

Now that Election Day has passed, both Fairbanks and Owatonna Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad said they hope the community will continue to be involved through helping to plan and design the new facility.

“We’ll be working right now to start to define our process,” said Elstad, of next steps. “It certainly includes having core planning groups from our staff and administration at the high school, but also high school user groups — community stakeholders, student stakeholders — to make sure we’re gathering all of those perspectives.”

After a failed $116 million building bond referendum in May, Elstad said the process of once again pushing for a new facility reaffirmed the importance of being responsive to residents while still advocating for students. Mark Sebring, chair of the Owatonna Public Schools’ board, echoed this sentiment.

“Clearly, following the May vote there was an even greater necessity to listen to the community,” Sebring said. “I give Jeff a tremendous amount of credit for putting himself out there to garner a sense of what they wanted to see done differently.”

This time around, instead of failing by 1 percentage point, the measure passed with 56% of the vote. Additionally, a second $8 million bond to help finance renovation of the current high school into a shared district service center was narrowly approved by voters.

Elstad said a second community design committee will be convened to help steer this project, but that that will likely not happen until the new facility has moved into the construction phase.

“I think it would be our intent to look at providing a more centralized district office, maintenance and service center,” he explained. “If that’s the wish of the committee, we would look to perhaps sell both of those current properties. Then any proceeds from the sale of those two buildings would go right back into the project.”

In addition to the $8 million bond, $3 million from the new high school construction estimate has also been earmarked for work on the current facility — leaving a budget of $11 million overall.

Planning for the new high school — which is slated to go in on 88 acres at the intersection of highways 14 and 218 — will likely begin next month, when Elstad said the district will start to publicly recruit committee members. He noted that interested parties should keep an eye on the district’s website and social media for further information and an application.

While there are no set requirements for who can serve on the board, Elstad said he wanted to be sure members were able to commit to a year’s worth of work. He estimated the design phase would likely finish up next fall, and that construction would start in the spring of 2021 after receiving the necessary approvals from the City of Owatonna. The building would then likely be complete by fall of 2023.

For Fairbanks’ part, he hoped himself and other members of COPE — a group that opposed the building bond — would now continue to stay active on the issue by working with district members during the planning process.

“[The district’s] going to have community meetings to decide exactly what they want. We’d like to be there and share our input on what we’d like to see out of the high school,” he said.

Members of the community design committee will be working in conjunction with staff from Wold Architects and Engineers, and will likely be helping to plan a number of new job training and career development spaces within the school.

“The vision of the building is really around career pathways and what is needed in our community to drive that forward,” Elstad explained. “All those things that have to do with teaching and learning start to see themselves on paper when you design a building.”

Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce, was also excited about what the expanded and updated facility could offer in terms of workforce development.

“We know from touring other schools that are fairly new — and that have been laid out in a way that supports career pathways — that students are much more likely to try different things,” he explained, of visits to Alexandria and St. Cloud’s Technical High School. “They have more kids that are going into the trades and two-year schools and things of that nature. We want students to be able to get wide exposure to different opportunities.”

Meier said that even the amount of space — being able to have training laboratories next to more traditional classrooms — can help encourage students to explore different electives and encourage business leaders to come in and work with the schools. He added that a new facility, with contemporary equipment that students can receive on-the-job training from, will likely provide an incentive for businesses to stay in Owatonna.

“Our businesses are growing and competing on the workforce side of things, and it’s a challenge. We need to be able to attract people to our community, and we also need to provide our students who are here an opportunity to see what’s available to them,” he added. “The businesses are going to grow somewhere, and we want it to be here in Owatonna.”

Residents interested in helping plan for this new facility can check for updates next month at www.owatonna.k12.mn.us or on the “Owatonna Public Schools” Facebook page.

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