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Officials in the Eastern Carver County School District are planning to close East Union Elementary School before the 2021-22 school year, the most passionately opposed among a series of almost $14 million in budget cuts they plan to make following voters' rejection last fall of most of a $121.7 million referendum.

At a public meeting, dozens of East Union parents and kids greeted school officials with signs asking that the small school in Dahlgren Township, southwest of Carver, be spared. A petition asking the district to keep it open gathered about 1,500 signatures.

"I've talked to a lot of people who voted no [on the referendum] but said they wish they could go back and change their vote," said John Sheridan-Giese of Carver, who started a Facebook group called SAVE East Union Elementary. Referendum opponents, he said, "didn't realize it would affect the schools and affect their kids."

Officials plan to divide East Union's 121 students among three other nearby schools. The board will vote on the budget reductions on Feb. 24.

Voters in the referendum likely were influenced to some extent by a vigorous "Vote No" campaign that linked the referendum to the district's equity program, even though very little of the proposed funding increases would have gone to the program. The equity program is mostly funded by the state and has little impact on the district budget, said district spokeswoman Celi Haga.

Carver resident James Johnson said he didn't regret voting against the referendum, which he based on objections to the equity program. But closing East Union, which all three of his children have attended, is "a horrible thing," he said. "I love that little school. Everybody knows each other, everybody is friends, the teachers all work together."

Sandi Poppler said she remembers the thrill almost 60 years ago when she moved from a two-room schoolhouse into brand-new East Union, featuring what back then seemed luxurious amenities such as indoor plumbing, hot lunches, a gym and library. "Oh, this was the best school in the whole world," said Poppler, who still lives only a quarter-mile away.

By margins of less than 5 percentage points, district residents rejected a $111.87 million bond request to build a new Chaska elementary school on district-owned land, along with other projects, and turned down a proposed increase in the district's operating levy by $5.6 million a year to maintain programs and services. Voters agreed to renew an expiring tax levy to upgrade security and technology.

In response, district officials now are planning cuts every school year for three years, starting with $6 million in the 2020-21 academic year, followed by $3.2 million and $4.6 million in each of the succeeding years, respectively.

Besides closing East Union, budget reductions include reducing the high school day from seven periods to six and eliminating the equivalent of about 48 jobs, including 32 teaching positions. Employees' salaries throughout the district will freeze, subject to negotiation, saving up to $2.6 million over two years.

Class sizes would be increased by an average of 1.5 students per class at the elementary level, Chinese instruction would be phased out, and teachers' workloads would be increased. Student activity fees would increase and the supplies budget would shrink.

Even before the referendum, the district had been trimming its budget because state funding has not kept up with inflation, said Superintendent Clint Christopher. "East Union has been a topic of conversation for closing as a budget measure for many years," he said.

Closing East Union would save about $550,000 a year, Christopher said. It's more expensive per student to operate because it's the district's smallest elementary school, and the building needs about $5 million in maintenance and repairs, he said.

As of Friday, district administrators had received 67 calls and e-mails about the budget proposals, about half asking to save East Union, Haga said.