Update, 12:18 p.m.: The article was updated to reflect a correction made to the reference of the district's general fund balance as of its last audit. 

WORTHINGTON - Planning for construction of a second-story addition to the Worthington High School will begin soon, a result of action taken by the District 518 Board of Education during a special meeting Tuesday evening.

After much discussion, board members voted unanimously to construct a $4 million second-story addition. Current plans now anticipate an additional six classrooms on the second level of the northwest portion of the high school building.

According to Superintendent John Landgaard, the goal will be to begin construction in spring 2020, with occupancy sometime later that fall.

Board chairperson Brad Shaffer said while this won’t solve all the district’s space problems, he sees it as a step in the right direction.

“We’ll have a place to put some teachers and a place to put some students,” he said.

While board members unanimously supported the addition, they were more mixed in how to fund it.

Landgaard told members they had the option of funding the addition by a combination of its remaining lease levy authority (estimated at around $3 million) and fund balance or entirely by fund balance. According to the district’s last audit, the district has $8.5 million in assigned funding and $13.4 million in unassigned funding in its fund balance, Landgaard reported.

Board member Mike Harberts made the initial motion to construct the addition with 100 percent fund balance. He added that he doesn’t support use of the lease levy, as it doesn’t qualify for the Ag2Schools tax credit. Board member Adam Blume and chairperson Brad Shaffer also supported the motion.

Board clerk Steve Schnieder said he was hesitant for the board to tie its hands with regard to funding at this stage without further research. Board member Lori Dudley also didn’t support the project with the funding conditions. Board member Joel Lorenz and treasurer Linden Olson also opposed the motion pending further financial inspection.

The board advised consultants to run numbers related to the funding options for it to consider during its May meeting.

Referendum, facility collaboration

Much like discussion surrounding the high school addition, funding questions seemed to be the biggest barrier in regard to the referendum and collaborative project agenda items.

Landgaard told board members that the longer the district delays a decision on some of these projects, the more the problem grows.

He said he can figure out how to fund some projects - like community education, Trojan Field and a high school addition (depending on if the board decides to use lease levy or not) - without a tax impact to district residents.

“But I can’t wave a magic wand and fund all of it,” he said, with a potential intermediate school project still undecided.

Lorenz made a motion for a three-question ballot in November. It failed by a 4-3 vote.

Under that proposal, question one would have asked voters to bond up to $29 million for a two-grade-level intermediate school (construction was estimated at $31 million, meaning the district would have committed at least $2 million). A second question, contingent on the first passing, would have asked for construction of an intermediate school for three grades for an additional $7 million. The third question addressed bonding around $10.5 million for the learning center/gymnastics facility currently under construction. That proposal would have allowed that facility to come off the lease levy, thus qualifying for Ag2Schools tax credit.

Dudley and Schnieder also supported the motion. However, Harberts, Olson, Blume and Shaffer rejected it.

Shaffer and Harberts both expressed concern about a three-question ballot.

“I think people will think we’re trying to pull something,” Shaffer said.

Harberts and Blume said they’d like the district to commit more funds to the project.

“Looking at the ag(iculture) economy right now, there’s no word other than ‘it sucks,’” Blume said. “Worthington is an ag-driven community. Do we forget the school at this point and cross that road some other day, maybe when things are better?”

Olson believed there were too many different funding considerations on the table to be able to make a decision regarding the referendum Tuesday evening. He proposed revisiting it at the board’s May meeting.

By a 5-2 vote, the board moved to proceed with planning a collaborative project along with the city’s activity center on the former Campbell’s Soup property. According to preliminary plans, the district would be looking to house its community education and Early Childhood Family Education in the facility, which Landgaard added may allow expanded preschool options. The district’s share of the construction is estimated at $12.5 million. However, that estimate is subject to change depending on what the county decides.

“Let’s give the city and the county the indication and knowledge that the school is fully behind this,” Olson said.

“If we don’t do anything now, are we ever going to do anything with community ed?” asked Dudley, who made the motion.

The board’s action did not specify what dollar amount it would be willing to commit up to. Harberts called the motion too vague and said it wouldn’t give the state legislature any incentive to support the project in a future bonding bill. He voted against the motion.

Blume also voted against the motion, stating he feared the action would penalize a future referendum.

“You might as well plan another three referendums,” he said. “That’s my thought.”

Blume addressed community education again when the conversation shifted to a future referendum. He wondered if a joint community education and intermediate school had been explored, which may also mean shared spaces that are an anticipated financial perk of the proposed collaborative project with the city and possibly county.

Consultants were instructed to calculate estimated costs for that possibility to present at the board’s May meeting.