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‘No’ on both 518 ballot questions

Voters prepare to cast their referendum ballots Tuesday at Worthington High School. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — “Unfortunately” was the key word of the night as District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard and District 518 Board of Education members began to process what voters’ turndown of two Tuesday referendum questions will mean for the Worthington school system.

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“Unfortunately, the results are not favorable for either question, and of course at the end of the day we need to ask ourselves simply: ‘What is best for kids?’” queried Landgaard following the tally’s release.

“Each of us will probably answer that in our own way, but tonight I do not feel the results are what is best for our kids.”

Ballot Question #1, which sought approval for a bond issue of up to $38.975 million for construction of a new intermediate school and improvements to both Prairie Elementary and Worthington High School, failed by a large margin; 1,758 residents filled in the “no” oval, with only 965 voters opting for “yes.”

Ballot Question #2, aiming to revoke the district’s existing referendum revenue authorization and replace it with a new, 10-year option, also failed, with 1,261 voters agreeing but 1,457 choosing the negative response.

“The rejection of Ballot Question #2 is [particularly] disappointing, because everyone will actually be paying higher taxes for at least one year because of the way it’s laid out,” said Landgaard.

“It was explained very well in the brochures, but unfortunately, on both questions, whether we didn’t explain it well enough or the public didn’t take the time to understand it, it’s an unfortunate circumstance.

“We have to go back and reevaluate everything.”

District 518 Board chairman Linden Olson agreed.

“Yes, I’m disappointed, but the biggest disappointment is that we spent two years and had a lot of public meetings, but outside of school officials and staff we had probably less than five percent of the people who voted ever show up to have their questions answered in person, and learn what the referendum would mean to our district and kids,” said Olson.

Increasing enrollment, and projections of ever-higher student counts in District 518, propelled the local school board over the past two years on a hunt for the best solution to meeting needs for housing all students and keeping class sizes reasonable.

“We are fortunate to have a reserve to use, but that won’t help us with class sizes and a number of other things we need to do for the kids,” said Olson.

Had the second ballot question passed, it would have meant a tax reduction in 2014 of $2.80 for every $50,000 increment of taxable market value on residential homestead properties, and a savings of $13.96 per $250,000 increment on commercial/industrial properties.

Because the building bond referendum was unsuccessful, voters will likely see the District 518 board bringing the space issue back into play, as accommodations must be made for the continuing growth in enrollment.

According to a recent District 518 newsletter on the subject, temporary solutions may be used, perhaps including but not limited to increased class size, portable classrooms and/or leasing space.

“The next step will be for the board to have conversations, reevaluate and consider some options out there in terms of what they may or may not want to do — but the board will have to make the decisions on where we go next,” said Landgaard.

Olson attributed the ballot questions’ turndown to three main points.

“One big thing is the farmers’ very real concern that the funding for capital projects for schools is grossly inequitable,” said Olson. “I’m a farmer, and I understand that.

“The second factor is that between the city, county and schools, people felt the taxes were more than they were willing to spend, and unfortunately the school questions were the first place they had to personally express their disapproval with that,” Olson continued. “They only get to say no to city and county taxes when they elect city council members and county commissioners.

“Third, a lot of retired people who no longer have kids or grandkids in the school system don’t want to support it anymore,” he hypothesized.

“I feel that other people gave up quite a lot to give me a good education, and I owe it to children in the community to give them a good education too, but I don’t think that feeling is widespread in our community anymore.”

Olson is also concerned about the potential negative impact “no, no” votes may have on Worthington’s economic development.

“Many people may not realize the tremendous impact our schools have on recruiting businesses and individuals to live and work here,” said Olson. “Voters sometimes become more concerned about the perceived short-term impact on their pocketbooks than the long-term impact to our community.”

One of Olson’s school board peers, Lori Dudley, echoed his sentiments.

“I don’t think the general public understood that voting yes on the second question didn’t change their tax liability at all,” said Dudley, in accepting that the “no” votes would send the school board back to square one in planning.

“We will process what the voters have said and return to work, trying to do what is best for the students of District 518.”