Eden Prairie School District officials fielded questions about the upcoming Designing Pathways referendum from a small but vocal audience on Tuesday night.
Around 30 people gathered in Eden Prairie High School's Performing Arts Center to hear a presentation from Eden Prairie Schools superintendent Josh Swanson on the details of the proposed $39 million bond that Eden Prairie voters will approve or deny on Tuesday, May 14.
During a 45-minute question-and-answer session, attendees' questions touched on a wide array of topics, from the timing of the vote to the reasoning behind moving sixth-graders from elementary to middle school.
"They're good, solid questions," Swanson told Eden Prairie News after the session. Many questions were familiar, he added, and are answered on the district's website about the referendum. He was careful in the presentation and question-and-answer session to avoid endorsing the referendum, as the role of the superintendent is to inform, not advocate, Swanson told the audience.
Instead, Andy Malone offered bright yellow shirts and absentee ballots for early voting outside of the Performing Arts Center. He teaches social studies at Central Middle School and is one of three members of the volunteer-run "Vote Yes" committee, which has been sharing information about the referendum since the committee was formed in mid-February. That mainly entails attending school events where parents congregate to answer questions and give out materials, he told Eden Prairie News.
Swanson's presentation reviewed Designing Pathways' journey from a districtwide inventory in 2016 to the five main tenets of the 20-year bond proposal.
"We started to realize we were maybe asking the wrong questions," Swanson said of the initial inventory.
After several rounds of community feedback, Designing Pathways came to life with the goal of teaching students "21st century skills" and enhancing small-group learning opportunities, among others, he explained.
While some of the audience's questions for Swanson were straightforward — like the impact of changed learning environments on student achievement and the future of programs for band and gifted students — others segued into a critique of the referendum or voting process.
"I have heard far less buzz and conversation around this vote than any other," said one audience member.
"I'm really disappointed that this was not prepared and ready to go last fall so the majority of Eden Prairie voters could vote on it," added another.
Swanson acknowledged their concerns, as well as the district's limited choice in the matter. The school board accepted his recommendations for Designing Pathways after the November midterm elections and didn't set a date for the election until its Jan. 7 meeting.
"You don't get to just pick a day" to vote, Swanson said: The state gives districts a list of several dates to choose from for referendums such as this, and because construction costs will only rise as time passes, Eden Prairie opted for the soonest option, he explained. The district expects 30 percent of registered voters to participate in the election, he added. (For comparison, 80 percent of the city's registered voters participated in November's midterm elections, according to Hennepin County.)
Another audience member noted that while the city's schools are its "crown jewel," she's concerned about the district's "narrative." Her children had to switch schools within the district frequently, which prevented a cohesive social experience, she explained, and such experiences might prevent prospective homebuyers with young children from settling in Eden Prairie.
During the question-and-answer session, Malone joined the audience and raised a hand to comment that as an Eden Prairie Schools graduate who also changed schools frequently from kindergarten to high school, the sixth grade's move from elementary to middle school would alleviate that problem.
Swanson also noted that if the referendum doesn't pass, many of its goals — including updating security measures, upgrading traffic flow and remodeling CMS — would still come to pass, but over 10-15 years rather than the predicted 2021 completion date for many of Designing Pathways' initiatives.
On the ballot
The election is a one-question referendum that will allow Eden Prairie voters to approve or reject issuing $39.9 million in bonds for Designing Pathways, a 10-year learning and security plan for the district's schools that's been in the works for three years.
The school board approved the language for the ballot question earlier this year. Voters will vote yes or no on the following question:
"Shall the school board of Independent School District No. 272 (Eden Prairie Public Schools) be authorized to issue general obligation school building bonds in an amount not to exceed $39,900,000 to provide funds for the acquisition or betterment of school sites and facilities, including without limitation safety and security improvements at each school site, building additions or updates at the middle school and preschool levels, and districtwide building updates to support personalized learning early-childhood through twelfth grade?"
Just over $26 million would go to projects at CMS, including classroom and cafeteria remodeling, security, traffic management and a new performance space. The district's only middle school was built in 1959 and last updated in 1994, Swanson said, and needs updates regardless of the referendum. The rest of the budget would go toward districtwide remodeling and furniture costs, construction fees and security updates.
Conversations about Designing Pathways began in 2016, when the district started to create goals for its next decade of education. The goals include making more flexible learning environments for students of all ages, moving students to age-appropriate campuses and increasing security and safety measures in all eight schools, according to the referendum's website. Some specific changes include:
- Moving sixth-graders to CMS from their current location in elementary schools;
- Building additional classroom, cafeteria, gym and parking space at CMS to accommodate sixth graders;
- Building a new performing arts center at CMS;
- Moving preschoolers into the elementary schools;
- And redesigning classrooms in all schools to support flexible and individual learning, including new furniture and lighting.