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Community input: Residents, officials discuss updated proposal for District 518 referendum

WORTHINGTON -- A sparse crowd gathered in the Worthington High School band room Tuesday evening for the second public discussion on the upcoming District 518 referendum.

WORTHINGTON -- A sparse crowd gathered in the Worthington High School band room Tuesday evening for the second public discussion on the upcoming District 518 referendum.

Superintendent John Landgaard opened with an updated site proposal that takes into account suggestions made two weeks ago at the previous public meeting. Changes to the site include the addition of the Area Learning Center (ALC) and a stand-alone gym dedicated to gymnastics.

“We’re looking for input on the programming side,” began Landgaard, “so we’re going to try and focus on that at least at the beginning and then look at the financial side.”

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Taking a look at the enrollment statistics, a jump of at least 800 students is projected by the 2024-25 school year, putting the three existing schools -- Prairie Elementary (PE), Worthington Middle School (WMS) and Worthington High School (WHS) -- each far beyond their capacity. Even now, the schools, especially the elementary school and middle school, are bursting at their seams.

Addressing the question of why the improvements are needed, Landgaard said, “The buildings can’t accommodate the incoming projected need. Continued steady growth at all ages is expected for the foreseeable future. We are at or over capacity in all of the facilities.”

Landgaard also addressed questions about the West Learning Center facility.

“Given the age and number of physical issues with West Learning Center, we believe it is an unwise use of funds to continue to reinvest in the building,” he said.

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An additional goal mentioned as a district need is the integration of Early Childhood programming into the K-12 facilities. If the current plan is implemented,  pre-K through second-grade students would be housed at Prairie Elementary (including ECSE and ESFE and Adult Community Education classes). Third- through fifth-graders would attend the current middle school, sixth- through eighth-graders the current high school and ninth- through 12th-graders a brand new facility on the recently purchased, 155.29-acre property located west of Crailsheim Road and north of Fox Farm Road.

A benefit of having the third through fifth grades in the WMS building would be that those students would have access to science labs and other facilities not currently available at Prairie Elementary,

As proposed, the new high school would accommodate more than 1,100 students and come in at 216,000 square feet. It would include, in part, 26 classrooms in addition to seven science labs, four industrial tech labs, three music rooms, three art labs, two FACS labs, three business labs, special education rooms, three gyms, a walking track, wrestling and fitness rooms, administrative offices and a student commons/cafeteria space that would be a “more fluid space, usable all day and not just a room that is shut off after lunch,” explained Sal Bagley with Wold Architects and Engineers of St. Paul.

Following Bagley, Pat Overom of ICS Consulting in Blaine addressed the financial aspects of the proposal.

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“It’s important to remember that the referendum isn’t about a new high school,” Overom cautioned. “The new high school happens to be the solution that creates additional space for all the grade levels, creating a flexible space all the way through all grade levels.”

Though the final proposal by the board has yet to be decided (it is hoped that will take place in July), the budget as presented for now includes a $59,600,000 high school, $3,000,000 for site development, $7,200,000 for a multi-purpose stadium, $1,800,000 for existing building grade conversions, and $3,400,000 for FF&E technology and security for a $75 million total bond referendum.

Given an average house cost of $120,000, the estimated annual tax increase would be approximately $200 annually. A tax calculator will be available when the final proposal is made, as homeowners will be able to input their tax ID parcel number to see the actual impact on their taxes should the referendum pass.

As suggested by previous community input, the Area Learning Center (ALC) and a stand-alone gymnastics gym would also be included in the new high school site, adding an additional $7 million to $7.5 million to the project. The suggestion was made by attendee Bob Bristow of Worthington that the gymnastics gym be completed prior to the full project, because while the end date for the entire project is the 2019 school year, the gymnastics program will be needing space far sooner than that.

Questions from the audience rounded out the meeting.

“What has changed from the board’s thinking from two years ago to now?” asked community member Ginny Hibma. “How is this proposal different?”

“A new high school is the way to address our issues,” Landgaard replied. “Previously we were driven by dollars, but that was not necessarily the right solution. This is the right solution now. We need to do what is right, even though it costs more.”

School board member Linden Olson also pointed out that one difference is that the district’s projected enrollment two years ago wasn’t as high as it actually proved to be, making this plan all the more necessary. Olson also discussed the athletic fields that don’t currently meet certain requirements and -- while fixable temporarily by short-term repairs -- ultimately need the kind of space proposed in the new high school site.

Concerning the issue of new fields -- particularly new soccer facilities -- the school district is already in talks with the city of Worthington about possible collaboration, though no final decision has been made.

Additional questions about the proposed “pre-K” status of the Prairie Elementary were asked by Bristow, particularly addressing the question of all-day, everyday preschool.

“It is our goal to have that available to everybody,” Landgaard replied.

Olson offered a thought on Worthington’s future as the meeting neared its end.

“Don’t think of it as a cost, think of it as an investment in the community - a long-term investment,” he said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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