WORTHINGTON - Mike Kuhle is publicly supporting the upcoming District 518 bond referendum, but he’s quick to point out that he’s doing so as an individual and not speaking for the city.
Kuhle, who’s in the final year of his first four-year-term as Worthington’s mayor, says that a vote for the district’s $68 million referendum, which would result in the construction of a new high school in the community, is a vote toward ensuring a positive future for the city.
“I’m not a legislator or an educator, but I can only speak to the economic development impacts of a strong school system,” Kuhle said. “That’s what I’m advocating for.”
Kuhle explained earlier this week that he placed a questionnaire on the League of Minnesota Cities mayors’ listserv asking for input on how other communities and elected officials addressed bond referendums for school districts. He said he learned that other city councils had not passed resolutions, but individual council members and mayors pledged their support.
One mayor Kuhle heard from was Gary Sturm of St. James, which had a bond referendum for its schools passed by voters in November 2015.
“The city did not pass a resolution, as we also felt the school is its own entity, but myself and the council members voiced and gave support to the referendum,” Sturm wrote to Kuhle, adding that opponents of the referendum in St. James warned businesses would close if the referendum was approved - but that hasn’t been the case.
“Progressive school districts and health services are an integral part of the future of any community,” Sturm wrote.
One of the other mayors Kuhle heard from was Denny Baker of Spicer.
“The city council was asked to support the bond issue and we declined, feeling each governmental unit should stand on its own and the school committee understood,” Baker wrote. “We were not negative either. Each council person could speak as they wished.
“A good school is the heart and soul of our rural communities,” Baker added. “In my belief, to attract more economic development, you need a good school system and that includes buildings.”
Kuhle said this week that the Worthington City Council doesn’t plan to vote on a resolution regarding the District 518 bond referendum, which takes place Feb. 13. He also pointed out that he hasn’t always supported the district’s referendums, noting that he didn’t vote for the referendum proposal presented to voters - and rejected by a nearly 2-to-1 margin - in 2016.
This time around, though, is different.
“I know no one wants to see taxes increase, and I’m not telling anyone how to vote,” Kuhle said. “I can only advocate for the impacts on attracting businesses and attracting new people to our community. We badly need that moving forward.
“I’ve been in enough economic development meetings over the years listening to companies and listening to workers about what they look at when looking at a community,” he continued. “A strong vibrant school system is one of the top attributes. People talk about the increased cost for them as taxpayers, but there’s an increased cost of doing nothing. If education falters and moves backwards, there will be less taxpaying property … and that means an increased cost to everyone.”
In addition to getting behind the bond referendum, Kuhle also made it clear that he’s not fond of the tactics employed by an organized group opposed to the measure. The mayor criticized members of Worthington Citizens for Progress, which also led an effort to defeat the district’s 2016 referendum, for what he said were attempts to stir up anger and division among district residents.
“I realize It’s a tough call for the taxpayers, but it should be left up to them individually and not influenced by intimidation,” he said. “This needs to a be a personal decision that should be based on the facts, not on intimidation and the dividing of our community.”
The mayor expressed his displeasure in a Worthington Citizens for Progress Facebook post that appeared last weekend encouraging people to not patronize restaurants that displayed literature about the referendum.
“Why would you advocate to boycott local businesses based on their simply doing a public service by disseminating information?” Kuhle asked. “Advocate for your position, advocate for your ideals, but don’t intimidate our citizens or businesses. Don’t be saying on social media to boycott these businesses - this is a personal choice, and that’s where it needs to stay.”
Kuhle also stated that he received a Monday phone call from District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard informing him that Worthington Citizens for Progress, citing data practices law, has requested all of the district’s vendor bills from Marco - the copier, printer and business information technology at which Kuhle is employed as a salesman.
“What they’re trying to do is make me look bad, as the school system is one of my accounts,” said Kuhle, who denies any quid-pro-quo arrangements with the district.
Regardless of any actions of the referendum’s opposition group, Kuhle said he’s publicly stating his support because he feels personally that a “yes” vote is the right one.
“We are a growing community, one of the few in southwest Minnesota that is growing in population,” he said. “Strong schools equal strong communities, and that promotes growth.”