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New ideas emerge during District 518 board work session

The District 518 Board of Education (foreground) hosts a work session Monday night pertaining to issues involving space concerns in the district's schools. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Could  District 518 take matters into its own hands to resolve its space issues?

While nothing has been determined, that was an idea presented by one Board of Education member during Monday night’s special board work session called in response to February’s latest rejected building proposal.

Relatively quiet throughout the beginning half of the meeting, board member Joel Lorenz suggested the board take a final building proposal to district residents with a “Plan B” already in place. He suggested a November ballot question.

“Then I want to find out the lease levy option we have as the board to do Plan B, anyway, because we can’t keep doing this time and time again to get voted down,” he said. “There’s no reason for that.”

Lorenz’s suggestion followed his expression of frustration and disappointment that, despite the board continuously lowering the proposal’s price tag, a referendum has yet to be supported, and delaying it continues to cost the district money.  

“There’s too many little personal issues,” he said, adding that nitpicking is getting tiresome.

Board member Adam Blume said rather than “ramming it down people’s throats,” he’d prefer to pass a resolution with integrity.

“They elected us for a reason, and we’re going to have to make that decision if they don’t want to give us something we can work with,” he said, adding that the “fighting and negativity this community has is kind of sickening” and that some related commentary on social media is “ridiculous.”

Board vice chairperson Lori Dudley and member Mike Harberts advised, however, that under a lease-levy option, the Ag2Schools 40 percent tax credit would not apply.

Harberts said the absolute soonest he believed the board could produce a final proposal it was happy about was November.

Because it was a work session, the board discussed facility-related items for more than two hours Monday night without taking any formal action.

Lorenz’s suggestion proceeded a 30-minute public comment agenda item that opened up the work session.

Encouraged by the board to share comments and suggestions regarding the district’s continuous space issue, 11 members of the public respectfully addressed the board.

Representing the Support Our Schools in Worthington organization, Jason Turner urged board members to consider a November referendum. “Whether blonde, brown-haired, red-haired or black-haired,” the district and community has a responsibility to educate all children, he said.

“It’s (about) fighting for those who don’t have a voice yet,” he said of the need to find a solution. “It’s investing in kids, it’s investing in our communities collectively. It’s what someone else did for all of us. It’s a selfless thing to do, and it’s a legacy to leave.”

Worthington Citizens for Progress Committee Chairperson David Bosma also addressed the board. He said he believes the situation has hit a plateau, caused as much by mistrust of the district’s use of taxpayer money as it is a difference of opinion in price tags.

He said people of a ranging demographic tie distrust to the district’s $3 million land purchase west of town without prior indication what its intended purpose would be.

“Basically, why was the cart put before the horse?” he said.

He recommended that the district terminate existing contracts with Wold Architects and Engineers and ICS Consulting, and afford the opportunity to another company to complete an updated facilities assessment through a fair bidding process.

“You may feel renovations have already been looked at and it’s too late in the game to scrap everything and do a new assessment, but the truth is, a large portion of the public doesn’t see it that way and wants more information rather than the word of one company be inherited by the school board, as it seems to be the case in the last few years,” Bosma said.

Later in the work session, board treasurer Linden Olson said all another facility study would accomplish is taking a bunch of time and money to tell the board and district what it already knows.

“All it’s going to tell us is ‘you’re a heck of a lot short of rooms,’ he said.  

Board Chair Brad Shaffer said the district’s indication that it was short on space didn’t come from the district’s construction consultant, ICS. An enrollment study by another individual confirmed what was already known internally, he said. The enrollment study cited throughout the meeting was conducted in June 2015 by Hazel H. Reinhardt, which provides enrollment projections through the 2024-2025 school year.

In fact, added Olson, in an attempt to keep the study unbiased, it was explicitly made clear that whoever conducted the enrollment study may not turn around and bid on a project.

Shaffer said the district’s consultants have been doing their job and gathering information as requested by the district.

“I’m ready to stand firm with the people we’ve been working with who understand what we’re doing and who have been side by side with us through this whole process, because they haven’t necessarily had a financial incentive to do anything other than what we’ve asked them,” he said.

Lois Kester, a psychologist at Prairie Elementary, addressed another issue among some community members. She admitted she and Superintendent John Landgaard don’t always see eye to eye, but called the accusations made against him “totally unfair.”

“He is an honest man and he is a man who has been a good steward of our money and this district,” she said of Landgaard, who some have ridiculed and blamed for creating a divide within the community. “Whether John is here or John is gone, we need more space. This isn’t an issue about Mr. Landgaard, and I wish we would stop talking about that.”

Other comments made Monday night included support of a new high school building and athletics facility; a request of the board to consider a solution to increase voter turnout; a question as to whether private business partnerships or sponsorships had been explored; and a question regarding consideration of cheaper building materials, like steel.

The board also discussed the potential of updating its enrollment study. Following a discussion between Monday morning’s three-member instructional committee meeting, a recommendation was made to delay updating the study until the 2020 census was complete to take advantage of the data that will produce.

However, at Monday’s work session, Schnieder said he supported conducting an updated enrollment study so that all possible information is out in the open.

Olson said he didn’t see the need to rush another enrollment study, as the last two intermediate school proposals would have only attempted to play catch-up to the problem as it currently exists.

“The proposals (did not) address our future growth projections,” he said, adding that the existing study has been consistent with the district’s true enrollment and spans another several years.

Based on the cost to complete the current study, conducting another could cost the district around $10,000.

The board also discussed the legislative request that would secure $15 million in state funding for an intermediate school or community education facility. Landgaard described that process as an “uphill climb,” but that if the grant funds were approved, the board would be asking voters to approve something in return.

“The state doesn’t just give us $15 million without a voter-approved match,” he said.

Shaffer said even though the $15 million is a product of tax dollars, its source is from across the entire state rather than concentrated in the immediate area.

He doesn’t see the harm in asking.

“Quite honestly, in my opinion, someone is going to get that money, and we’re going to pay for it anyway,” he said. “So we might as well try and get it ourselves. Our taxes won’t go down just because we don’t get the $15 million. Someone else is going to get it on our dime.”

Landgaard said if the request were passed and resulted in a bonding bill, Gov. Tim Walz would be required to sign off on it as well.

The district should know the outcome by the conclusion of the legislative session at the end of May.

Other items discussed during Monday night’s board work session included:

  • A verbal request from the city to partner with its planned activity center pending legislative approval of the city’s half-cent sales tax increase voters approved last November.

Landgaard said he hasn’t received a formal letter of intent, but it’s been verbally expressed that the district could utilize some space for its community education programming, as well as manage the activities facility. Olson recommended the board eventually give the administration authority to continue to work out an agreement with the city on which the board can further act.