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Worthington Citizens for Progress hosts meeting on District 518 facilities proposals

Art Johnston, a Duluth board school member, speaks Monday at the Worthington Event Center during a meeting coordinated by Worthington Citizens for Progress. (Martina Baca / Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — The Worthington Citizens For Progress Committee hosted a public meeting Monday with District 709 school board member and engineer Art Johnston as the guest speaker. Johnston shared his experiences as a Duluth school board member when that city went through a bond referendum.

The goal of the meeting, organizers said, was to educate residents about the consequences of school districts spending too much money on building projects. Monday’s event marked an occasion for WCPC members to speak publicly about their specific goals, as well as their hiring of consultant Paul Dorr to help with their message.

“The goals of the Worthington Citizens for Progress are to oppose wasteful proposals coming from the school board,” said Don Brink, WCPC co-chair, on Monday. “We wish to participate and influence the discussion of affordable $30-$35 million additions and intermediate school.”

Johnston was a school board member when the Duluth board voted to spend more than $300 million on a multi-building project.   

“I am not here to tell you how to vote,” Johnston said. “I am hoping that Duluth is the poster child of poor management of school districts.

“(I am here to) tell you a little bit about the things that I have seen since I have been … on the school board for going on eight years,” he added.

After Johnston discussed the basic concept of school finances, he explained what he believes residents should take into account before voting on a referendum. He said building construction shouldn’t be based on enrollment projections — since those are subject to change — and questioned projected District 518 enrollments that show an increase of approximately 800 students by 2025.

“When you are building a building, the only thing you know is that you don't know what the future holds — it’s a complete projection, not a data-driven decision, when they are doing that,” Johnston said.

Other topics Johnston referenced were the importance of having a range of alternatives and cost increases for maintenance and teachers that would result from larger facilities.

Dorr also addressed the audience Monday night with a number of concerns on how the District 518 board is handling the process of considering possible facility expansions and additions. He focused on a March 22 school board meeting during which Peter Leatherman of The Morris Leatherman Company, a Minneapolis full-service market and research firm, presented results of a February phone survey. The survey included calls made during the first week of February to 400 randomly selected school district residents, who were asked their perceptions about the district as well as questions related to the November 2016 bond referendum.

Dorr contended the school board is not following the results of the survey, which found that “likely voters would support a bond referendum raising annual property taxes between $84 and $100 on the median-valued home” ($158,000). He explained residents in the survey said they are willing to pay, on average, $92 annually instead of $291.20, which would have been the annual tax impact on the $79 million bond referendum that failed last year.      

“The public has told them that they can afford a $25 million referendum,” Dorr said. “It’s my assessment, as a political campaign consultant, that you’ve got a serious problem with your school board.”

Dorr also noted that the results of the survey show voters are more likely to address space needs through additions and renovations rather than the construction of a new high school. The survey also shows 76 percent of residents opposed building a multi-purpose stadium and athletic fields, he said.  

The most recent building costs of proposals presented by the board range between $65 million and $77 million. None of the building projects include sports facilities, and an option for building additions was only recently included in the proposals, with board modifications coming as a result of public input gathered during input given during public hearing hosted by the district earlier this year.

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard said this week that a $25 million referendum wouldn't resolve overcrowding in all buildings. According to prices listed by ICS Consulting of Blaine, expanding just the high school would cost an estimated $20,412,500, while expansion of the middle school has a pricetag of $15,365,000 and an elementary school expansion would cost $19,566,000. He added that it’s not possible to build just classroom space without support spaces such as cafeterias and gymnasiums.

“You can solve half of the problem with $35 million, but you can’t solve the whole problem,” Landgaard said. “So that’s the question — do you solve part of the problem now, but turn around and come back right away to solve your other issues that you have?”

The survey results also showed the three major reasons why residents voted no on the 2016 bond referendum. They included “poor school district spending,” “taxes are too high” and “cost too high.”  Although a majority surveyed opposed the idea of a new high school, that’s what represented in the district’s least expensive proposal.

Landgaard said the decision to include a new high school among the district proposals is backed by research and information that members of the board have gathered over time.  

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