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A computer rendering shows Worthington’s proposed intermediate school that would be constructed through a $38.975 million bond levy. (Submitted Photo)

District 518 vote nears

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WORTHINGTON — Next Tuesday, District 518 voters will go the polls and effectively shape the future of Worthington’s schools and students.

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With two questions on the school district ballot — the first to approve a bond issue of up to $38.975 million in order to construct a new intermediate school, improve Prairie Elementary and remodel and expand Worthington High School (WHS), and the second to revoke an existing referendum authorization while simultaneously approving a new authorization — voters are encouraged to head to the combined polling place (WHS) to have their say in the matters.

“The points are twofold,” said Dan Greve, Worthington, the parent of a sixth-grade Worthington Middle School (WMS) student and a volunteer with the Vote Yes committee.

“One, we have a very strong district with good curriculum and extracurricular activities, and we need to be able to continue executing and delivering those programs to the students, and that means adding space to accommodate our increasing enrollment,” Greve said. “In the worst case, if this doesn’t pass, it would necessitate trimming programs while contributing to larger class sizes.

“And as we look at recruiting qualified employees with school-age kids to Worthington, having a sound school system with reasonable class sizes and up-to-date, adequate buildings are critical.”

Greve is one of about a dozen concerned citizens on the Vote Yes committee who has spent part of each Monday evening over the past two months strategizing about how best to communicate the need for people to vote “yes” to both ballot questions posed.

“I got involved because I didn’t like what I was hearing about the space issues our schools are facing,” said Gretchen O’Donnell, another committee member.

O’Donnell’s three children are spread between Prairie and WMS this year, although next year she will have a child in each of the district’s main buildings.

“The babies have been born, so we know the problem is not going away,” she said, noting that the current kindergarten class at Prairie numbers 254 students. “We need to have adequate and safe space for our children to receive the best education they can get.

“And I don’t want to see the quality programming District 518 offers being cut back because the operating levy isn’t renewed — and ultimately, that would happen.”

With all of District 518’s buildings near — or even beyond, as in the case of Prairie Elementary — design capacity, administrators have stretched and pulled available space out of many nooks and crannies.

For instance, a designated art room at Prairie is now a full-time classroom, and bathrooms at WHS serve as practice rooms for music students.

“Our music students are required to use the hallway, music storage room and bathrooms as practice rooms,” said Kerry Johnson, director of choral activities at WHS. Johnson has also been active with the Vote Yes effort and is taking her 78-member WHS Concert Choir to the prestigious St. Olaf Choral Festival on Sunday, where they will participate as an invited solo chorus and also in a mass choir performance.

“We lack the storage for our growing programs to house instruments, uniforms and music,” Johnson continued. “Our students make the best of what they have, but we are in need of more.”

Similarly, WHS science teacher Jodi Hansen is currently squeezing her 30-member freshman Physical Science class into a laboratory built to accommodate 24 students — and that space is tightly scheduled to allow six science teachers and their students shared access to the room.

“I am grateful for every student I have in class and I enjoy teaching them very much, but from a safety point of view, it would sure be nice to have a lower student to teacher ratio,” suggested Hansen.

“As teachers, we really do want what is best for our students, and all of them deserve a safe learning environment,” she added. “We believe that small class sizes help students learn better, and with a new intermediate building plus an addition to the high school, there will be room for more sections of classes so class sizes can be smaller than they currently are.”

During the three public information sessions this fall, Superintendent John Landgaard, the District 518 school board members and others in attendance have heard questions about the need for new space, particularly from some residents who remember attending WHS when student headcounts were similar to what they are now.

“I’ve heard complaints from people that ‘When I was a student here, we had more kids and less space,’ but because of current mandates, over 20 percent of each school is now dedicated to English Language Learners, computers and special education,” said O’Donnell.

“It’s not the same environment that many current adults grew up in, not the same situation at all, and you just can’t compare,” she said.

Landgaard further expounded, “There are different needs now than there were in the 1970s, for instance, and that can be hard for people to grasp.

“The state and federal mandates have changed from what they were 40 years ago, and school —where we must maintain all the same standards required of all other public buildings — looks totally different today.

“It’s not comparing apples to apples.”

While state law requires District 518 to list at the bottom of the second ballot question (pertaining to the operating referendum) that “voting ‘yes’ on this ballot question (means) you are voting for a property tax increase,” some residents may actually pay less in taxes for that purpose if the question passes.

“There will be no immediate tax increase, for sure, from voting ‘yes’ on Ballot Question No. 2, and in some cases it will mean a decrease for taxpayers because of how the state legislature changed the funding mechanism,” explained Landgaard.

“It was a favorable change for Minnesota schools, and we might as well get our share of the state tax dollars like other schools are.”

Greve, Johnson, O’Donnell and others involved with the Vote Yes campaign have had their work cut out for them, as not everyone has jumped on the “yes/yes” bandwagon without hesitation.

Dana Larson, a Worthington mother of three who stays at home with her children and is thus part of a one-income, local business-owning family, said she is still somewhat on the fence.

“I’m definitely planning to vote, but I hear a lot of opinions from people and have lots of friends leaning in different directions,” said Larson. “For me, it’s a matter of trying to figure out what’s going to be best for my kids.

“My three kids will be in school here forever, and I have to consider if I want them in classes of 30-plus students or 20-plus students,” she continued. “But as a family, and as a business, we have our taxes to consider.

“Still, my kids’ education is probably the most important thing for me, because I want them to have as many opportunities as possible so they can go far in life. This is an important decision.”

Opportunity for kids is exactly why Randy Simonson, a chief administrator at Worthington’s Newport Laboratories, is all in favor of voting “yes/yes” on Tuesday and why he urges other voters to follow suit.

“We moved here when our oldest child was in grade school, and all three of our kids went through this school system; I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Simonson said.

“They were given that primary start that was very important. And over the past 25 to 30 years, as I’ve recruited a lot of people for our local companies, we always point out the quality of our schools here and the dedication of the staff and teachers,” he continued.

“Having strong schools is important for recruiting employees, as well as for our own families, and in business, if you sit on a plateau, you end up going backward — this referendum represents growth and moving forward, and I am a strong advocate for ‘yes’ on both ballot questions.”

O’Donnell, for one, concurs.

“Our community is only stronger if we can give everyone a better education and make sure that all children here are educated to the highest level we can provide,” she offered.

Landgaard, who says he is grateful for the time and effort the Vote Yes committee has put in on behalf of District 518, readily reminds citizens that the “operating levy has become an essential part of our budget, and we need to maintain it or it will mean the eventual loss of jobs and programs,” he said.

“And, the big message is: this issue isn’t going away,” Landgaard assured. “Whether the building bond question passes or fails, it will be back, and it may cost us even more down the road, due to potential higher interest rates and construction costs.

“The higher enrollment figures will continue, and we’re going to have to address our space issues sooner or later—and when we address it will determine how much we have to pay for it.”

The combined polling place for the two District 518 referendum questions is at Worthington High School, 1211 Clary St., Worthington. The polling place will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Voters must be registered to be eligible to participate, but unregistered individuals may register at the polling place on election day. For more information, contact the District 518 Administration Office, 372-2172.

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Jane Moore
Jane has been a contributing writer to the Daily Globe since 1997. Previously, she held professional positions in corporate communications, alumni relations and journalism. She earned a B.A. in English with a minor in German at Carleton College. Jane handles the weekly "Looking Back" column and frequently writes education, fine arts and news features for the Daily Globe. Her blog can be viewed at www.timeformoore.areavoices.com.
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