Stillwater school district error leads to late notice of new Marine polling place

Stillwater Area School District officials are calling it one of the worst pre-election mistakes that could happen.

A district employee mistakenly left Marine on St. Croix households off of an initial required mailing alerting residents of a change to their polling place. Instead of voting in the special election at Marine Village Hall on Tuesday, residents must drive to the May Town Hall in neighboring May Township.

Postcards alerting the 630 Marine households of the polling place change weren’t sent out until Oct. 25 – 10 days after required notices were sent to the 3,344 other affected households in the district. District officials say the postcards were mailed out as soon as the error was discovered so residents would get the notice of the changed polling place before Election Day.

Polling places also were combined in Afton and Lakeland – at the request of election officials in Washington County – based on “manageability of the precinct due to the number of registered voters, voter experience and proximity to the even-year precinct for the voter,” county officials said.

State law requires that the district send out a notice 25 days prior to the election to inform voters of any change in polling-place location.

“It’s pretty late,” said Diane Mills, a Marine resident and election judge who discovered the error. “To have this happen, it kind of looks bad.”

When Mills learned on Thursday that the notice had not been mailed to Marine, she immediately called Washington County election officials. They, in turn, contacted district officials, who said they had mailed out the notices.

Unfortunately, according to district spokeswoman Carissa Keister, a district employee inadvertently missed Marine on St. Croix in the mailing.

“It’s an unfortunate mistake,” she said. “It was an administrative error, human error. It’s especially upsetting because Marine has already been deeply impacted by past decisions. We’ve been working to build connections again with the community of Marine and move forward.”

$175 million bond referendum

In 2016, the school board voted to close Marine Elementary School – along with Oak Park and Withrow elementaries — to save money and use its resources more efficiently.

Washington County election officials in December 2022 reached out to the school district with a proposed list of combination polling places for 2023, Keister said.

“This is a typical process for special elections,” she said. “The list included changes to three combined locations, which impacted a total of 3,974 households.”

The changes included:

Afton W1-P1, W2-P2, W3-P3 and W4-P4 and Denmark Township P2 at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Afton
Lakeland, Lake St Croix Beach, Lakeland Shores, St Mary’s Point at Lakeland City Hall
Hugo W3-P6, May Township, Marine and Scandia at May Town Hall

State statute permits school districts to utilize combination polling places for their elections, said Christie Piskura, Washington County’s taxpayer services and elections division manager.

“The county partners with the school district in making a recommendation for polling locations, and we take several factors into consideration,” she said. “The two primary things we look at are population counts and geographical location. It is important that a voter does not need to travel a large distance to get to their combined polling place, while also considering resources and tax dollars needed to administer the election. The goal is to strike the right balance and to consider how potential changes might affect a voter’s experience.”

The school district on Tuesday will be asking voters to approve a $175 million bond referendum to fund construction projects to address growth in the southern and central parts of the district and improve safety at schools throughout the district.

The bond referendum would help the district add capacity in the communities served by Andersen Elementary in Bayport and Lake Elmo Elementary, the two oldest schools in the district, and construct additional classroom space and a new gymnasium at Oak-Land Middle School in Lake Elmo. It also would be used for safety and security improvements at all district schools, including a secured front entrance addition and remodel at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights.

The $175 million request would cost taxpayers with a median-priced home of $500,000 approximately $200 a year for 20 years.

Voters in the district also will elect a school board member to fill the seat vacated by Eva Lee, who resigned last winter. Chris Lauer, who was appointed to fill out Lee’s term, and Jessica Johnson are running for the seat.

Thankful to observant resident

Mills, the Marine resident who discovered the error, said she asked officials at the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office to postpone the election, but they declined to do so.

“It really bites,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do at this point other than hire a private attorney and take them to court, but that would not accomplish a delay in the election because it would have to go through the court system.”

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Superintendent Mike Funk said the district is “thankful to the Marine resident who reached out to us so we could address this issue prior to the election.”

Mills said she would not be supporting the referendum on Tuesday.

She said there are still hard feelings in the town, population 702, about the closing of Marine Elementary. She said she and others now support the two local charter schools — Marine Village School and River Grove Elementary School.

“A lot of people take this personally,” she said. “The district closed three perfectly good schools, and now they want to spend millions of dollars on two new schools. It just doesn’t make sense.”

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