After six tries, Worthington School District expanding with referendum vote

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WORTHINGTON, Minn. (KELO) — Independent School District 518 is out of space. It remodeled computer labs and storerooms into more education areas, trying every way it could to provide more space.

The district will get that space after a successful referendum on Tuesday.

Superintendent John Landgaard said they are over capacity in every building by 80 to 120 students. He said it’s a challenge academically for students.

“Like at the elementary, some of our specialists work in a commons area or a hallway, which again is educationally not what you want to do because of the distractions and other things. But then it leads to that safety element,” Landgaard said.

School has talked expansion before

This district covers several communities in southwest Minnesota: Worthington, Bigelow, Reading, Rushmore and Wilmont.

Expanding has been an ongoing conversation between the district and the community for seven years.

“I think we’ve looked at practically every option that’s out there and some make sense, some didn’t. So, we’ve gone back and forth on options and the amount of input from various people,” Landgaard said.

The district has seen tremendous growth since 2007.

Tuesday’s $34 million in new borrowing for the district was a long time coming. Voters had previously voted against similar referendums five times.

Why is enrollment growing?

Much of this growth is driven by an influx of immigration into the community.

Unlike most of the counties in southwest Minnesota, the population in Nobles County has grown since 2010, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Nobles County is part of DEED’s Region 8 corridor, which has 8,210 foreign-born residents.

The corridor includes Cottonwood, Jackson, Lincoln, Murray, Pipestone, Redwood, Rock, Lyon and Nobles County.

Nobles County has an estimated 2018 population of 21,924, an increase of 546 people or a 2.6 percent increase since 2010.

The growth has come through immigration. In Region 8, 8,210 residents are foreign-born, or 7.1%, of the total population. The number of immigrants in the region jumped by 33.6% since 2010 and more than half of those come from Latin American countries.

District gets national attention

The school district was thrust into the national spotlight when school bus driver Don Brink made controversial comments about immigration in a Sept. 22 Washington Post article.

“I wish they would have another ICE raid,” he said. “They need to get rid of the illegals.”

KELOLAND News spoke to Brink on the phone. He declined to speak to us or any other journalist after the Washington Post story.

(AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

Landgaard believes the Post may have spurred more people to get active in the referendum.

“There were more people, I think that got involved. Which is always difficult. People are busy nowadays. They don’t always take the time to become informed, informed about what’s going on,” Landgaard said. “So, I think it played that role of more active involvement in the referendum, which again, anytime you have a lot of involvement in an activity, it’s much more positive for the outcome of the referendum.”

Brinks comments sparked outrage among students.

Worthington High School student Aunna Groenewold is the student representative on the school board. In a recent meeting, she relayed students’ feelings about the article.

“Many students shared that they feel attacked by the views expressed in the article. Students are aware of others sharing these views that were expressed in the article, however, these views are not an accurate representation of the core values of the district,” Groenewold said.

The local teacher’s union even sent a letter to Landgaard and the board of education, asking for a paraprofessional on the buses and the district to provide cultural responsiveness training to bus drivers.

Drivers, like Brink, are employed by a separate company, not the district.

“The perpetuation of false and damaging stereotypes of immigrants has lasting effects on our children. Educators understand that our immigrant students’ success is far too often at the mercy of our country’s broken immigration system and the fear mongering that goes along with it,” Education Minnesota Worthington 7291 wrote in the October letter.

Landgaard said the district has looked into the paraprofessional request but said it’s very expensive.

“In the end, we’re going to become stronger because of it because we’ll have those difficult conversations of how we work and live together,” Landgaard said.

He agrees that a broken immigration system is hurting the students.

“I want our kids to know we’re supporting them. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, and they’re important to us,” he said. “Immigration is not a school district issue. That’s a federal issue. And unfortunately, our federal folks haven’t figured out how to deal with that.”

As the community continues to have conversations about race and immigration, the school is dealing with growth.

(AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

After this week’s successful referendum, the school will build an intermediate school for grades 3-5. The district also plans to add a second floor to the high school.

New tax break helps district

The district was helped by the Minnesota Legislature with the new Ag2School tax credit passed in 2017.

(AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

This allowed the board to ask voters to refinance an existing debt so that farmland could qualify for tax credit on construction.

“I think just across the State of Minnesota, the number of referendums that passed this go around and particularly in rural, without a doubt, that’s been an added bonus to try and to get these referendums passed,” Landgaard said.

The district is in an agriculture heavy tax area. The Ag2School tax credit will reduce the school project building tax on farmland by 40 percent for taxes payable prior to 2020. In 2020, the reduction is 50 percent.

The tax credit was designed to create equity between property-rich and districts that have a heavy reliance on agriculture land taxes.

“There’s still some elements that’s inequitable,” Landgaard said. “And you know, there’s still property-rich and property-poor districts and, and there’s a lot of tweaking in my view that still needs to occur with the taxation legislation to help get things correctly.”

Landgaard points to looking at businesses in future fair taxing conversations.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teacher’s union, applauded voters across the state for passing tax levies that will benefit tens of thousands of students. She also referred to businesses.

“Unfortunately, every successful referendum shifts a little more of the burden for paying for public education to Main Street Minnesotans when the multi-millionaires and most powerful corporations already aren’t paying their fair share,” Specht said in a statement. “Every operating levy is a sign of policy failure at the state and federal levels. This is especially shocking when you remember the wealthiest few are enjoying massive tax breaks doled out by the federal government just two years ago.”

Nobles and Lyon Counties employ the most people in southwest Minnesota. Many of those are employed in 4,806 food manufacturing jobs such as turkey or beef processing.

At $49,965 in 2018, average annual wages were over $9,000 higher in manufacturing than the total of all industries.

What’s ahead for the district?

Right now the district is continuing to grow.

“That could change tomorrow if you start having more businesses or housing opens up,” Landgaard said.

The district is looking at four factors as enrollment grows: current businesses expanding, new businesses coming in, more housing availability and open enrollment between districts.

For now, he will begin meeting with teachers and staff to see what they want the new school to look like.

“The real work starts when you have to start putting concrete in the ground,” he said.

The referendum will become permanent next week when the district holds a special meeting to canvass the results.

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