November 3, 2015, South Washington County School District 833 voters went to the polls to elect three school board members and to vote on three ballot questions: Question 1 was a $10.3 million/year operating levy; Question 2 was a $96 million bond allocated for a new middle school (located on the borders of Cottage Grove, Woodbury and St. Paul Park) to replace Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park, and for renovations to the old Oltman to convert the school into the new Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion elementary school and additions to the district’s other three middle schools. Question 3 was for a $46.5 million bond that would go toward additions to the three district high schools and the remaining 14 elementary schools.
The voters passed Question 1 and denied passage of Question 3; Question 2 passed narrowly by 19 votes, which prompted community members to submit a recount request and petition. The first request was rejected by the district as the petition was missing petitioners’ information, so another petition was submitted with 63 signatures, which was accepted by district officials.
On Friday, November 20, 2015 the South Washington County School District 833 Referendum Ballot Question 2 recount took place in Room 13 of the Washington County Government Center. Five people – two “counters,” one “caller,” and an observer for each side – per each of the four tables carefully recounted the 13,659 votes cast for Question 2, while several community members along with Superintendent Dr. Keith Jacobus and School Board member Katie Schwartz looked on. Representing SWC 833 were School Board member and Vote Yes Chair, Michelle Witte, School District Director of Finance, Dan Pyan and Executive Assistant to the Superintendent and Election Officer, Dayna Bentdahl and another member of the community. Representing the recount petitioners were the two people who had submitted recount petitions, Mike Fouts and Bev Moreland, along with several community members who took turns as observers at the tables.
Early in the recount it was noted that at each table a similar issue with certain ballots arose. Instead of filling in the ovals (read by the voting machines) next to the words “Yes” or “No”, some voters filled in the “o” in the word “No”, making their vote unreadable by the machines and therefore not counted. As the representatives and election judges encountered these votes, it was generally agreed that the voter’s intent was to vote against Question 2. County recount official, Carol Peterson, determined that even though both representatives and the ballot callers at the tables were in agreement on the voter’s intent and had agreed that those ballots should go into the “No” pile that those votes should be put into the “challenged ballot” pile to be given to the Canvassing Board.
Recount Petitioner Mike Fouts questioned the actions of Ms. Peterson, saying, “I was confused by the role of the recount official. When ballots were agreed upon as a ‘No’ without a challenge from either party, she stepped in and declared the ballots ‘challenged.’…The observers and counters are in agreement that the votes were cast as ‘No’, and she steps in and says, ‘that’s not acceptable’ – I thought that was the role of the observers and counters, not the recount official.”
After the recount, the result was the “Yes” votes gaining one vote, the “No” votes gaining two ballots with 19 ballots listed as “challenged”: all challenged ballots were signed off on by the recount petition representatives. Those ballots will be submitted to the Canvassing Board on Wed. Nov. 25, at 8am, which will then determine the outcome of the election. The Canvassing Board is made up of two school board members, Chairman Ron Kath and Katie Schwartz, Washington County Court Administrator, Annette Fritz, Woodbury City Clerk, Kim Blaeser and Washington County Auditor, Kevin Corbid.
When asked about the recount result and the possibility of the ballot question passing by as little as one vote, Bev Moreland said that the measure possibly passing on a one vote difference will make her even more upset (than the original 19 vote difference) because “there were a lot of people who didn’t vote because they didn’t realize there was an election, or they didn’t vote because they didn’t think their vote would count.” She went on to say:
I’m on a fixed income and a lot of others are on fixed incomes – I don’t want them to lose their houses because of this, but they didn’t vote. I have a friend who owns a farm. Technically his address is listed as Hastings, so he can’t vote in District 833 elections, but part of his farm is in District 833, so whatever happens in 833 affects his taxes, even though he has no voice to vote against increased taxation. That’s taxation without representation.
Whatever the Canvassing Board decides for the outcome of Question 2, one thing stands out: votes DO matter in elections.