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Intermediate school, Trojan Field on Aug. 14 ballot

WORTHINGTON -- The fourth Independent School District 518 bond referendum in five years is in full swing. With the website launched, notice of election publicized, mailers sent and absentee voting open, the "Worthington Forward: Building Our Futu...

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WORTHINGTON - The fourth Independent School District 518 bond referendum in five years is in full swing.

With the website launched, notice of election publicized, mailers sent and absentee voting open, the “Worthington Forward: Building Our Future Together” campaign is well underway in advance of the Aug. 14 primary. The ballot will include two proposals: a $35 million intermediate school and a $4 million bond to update Trojan Field and its amenities. The two questions are independent of the other.

District administrators and board of education members will be on hand Wednesday for a come-and-go, round table style meeting. The informal meeting will allow district residents to come to the Worthington High School band room anytime between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. to get their questions answered regarding the district’s most recent proposal, said Superintendent John Landgaard.

Table fliers are also available for interested businesses, and community organization presentations are also available upon request.

Question 1: New Intermediate School In the district’s least expensive proposal, a new intermediate school would attempt to alleviate student crowding, particularly at Prairie Elementary and Worthington Middle School. The elementary would be reduced by two grade levels and the middle school by one, as the intermediate school could educate up to 900 students in grades three through five. The 120,480-square-foot facility would be built on the district-owned 155-plus acre site south of WMS.

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If passed, Landgaard said occupancy would be targeted for fall 2021.

According to district literature, District 518 residents with a $125,000 estimated market value home would experience an annual tax increase of $95.28. A commercial/industrial property valued at $100,000 would see a tax increase of $144.36 annually. An agriculture homestead property valued at $5,000 per acre would see a tax increase of $1.45 per acre annually, and a non-homestead property with the same value would experience an increase of $2.89 per acre. Residents can find more property values and tax impact scenarios on the district’s website. A tax calculator is also available, allowing residents to find the estimated tax impact for their property.

While the question is for a $35 million bond, the estimated scope of the project will cost $36.4 million. If the bond question passes, the district would contribute the remaining funds necessary to complete the project.

According to Landgaard, the district will have a few potential funding options, either from the assigned, committed or general funds. The board of education will make that determination later if the bond passes, he said.

Throughout the district’s attempts of passing a referendum, some District 518 residents and school board member Mike Harberts have raised the question of why the district doesn’t “buy down” the referendum with what they consider comfortable or excess funds.

Landgaard compared the district’s fund balances to personal checking or savings accounts.

“How much do you want to have in that savings account - versus your cash flow - to pay your bills?” he said.   

While it’s not common practice, the state has borrowed funds from school districts during a budget shortfall. Districts were later compensated, but districts needed comfortable fund balance more than ever that year in order to keep operating, Landgaard said.  

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State funding contributions to school districts also wavers as the legislature considers its budget on an annual basis, Landgaard added.

At the heels of the district’s failed $68.5 million proposal for a new high school, the district’s intermediate school proposal will come to district residents just two days beyond the 180-day threshold required by the state between one bond election and the next.

Landgaard said a big reason the board cranked out a new proposal as quickly as possible was due to the construction timeline.

“You can gain about six months of construction time,” he said of having an August referendum as opposed to one in November.

The board of education assumes the intermediate school will be a temporary solution. If student population continues to experience its recent upward trend, the district anticipates the intermediate school will suffice for eight to 10 years, before student population growth meets or exceeds each building’s capacity.

Landgaard said this coming school year will be the first in recent history that all district grade levels will exceed 200 students.

Question 2: Trojan Field + Amenity Renovations Torn between what seemed to be widespread community disapproval of spending funds on athletic-related facilities before educational space issues were resolved - while having an aging and deteriorating field and amenities - the board of education grappled with whether or not to add a second question on the Aug. 14 ballot related to Trojan Field upgrades.

While the two questions are independent of the other, some members feared that anything with the word “athletic” on the ballot might deter some voters of approving the first question related to the intermediate school. On the other hand, some board members believed the need for updates was not going to diminish, and that remaining stagnant might also reap negative effects.

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If approved, the approximately half-century old Trojan Field is anticipated to receive a near-complete overhaul. Having updated the restrooms, the board has considered keeping that facility and gutting the rest.

If approved, Landgaard said the district will target the construction to occur in summer 2019, with completion before the 2019 fall activities season.

Acknowledging that Trojan Field hosts more events than smaller schools in the area, District 518 Activities Director Josh Dale said Trojan Field is in by far the worst condition in comparison to regional schools.   

The field, Dale said, hosts approximately 45 events a year, from varsity and lower level football to soccer games. That count includes four to six Minnesota West football games The college’s current facility rental agreement is approximately $400 per game.

In the spring, the track hosts four varsity and two middle school events, Dale added. The track is also utilized for a middle school track day, one Heron-Lake Okabena track event, a Worthington parochial school’s track day and other community events/organizations.  

The complex’s gates also remain open during the spring and summer seasons to allow the general public to utilize the track surface for walking and running.

As is, the field is not conducive to all three sports that compete on it, Dale said.

The track is narrower than it should be, which prohibits the ability for soccer teams to play on a regulation-sized field, Dale said. A number of deficiencies and safety concerns also exist within the complex, Dale said.

“Each year, we walk the bleachers with chalk and mark areas that could potentially break,” said Lance Bird, head of Worthington High School building and grounds.

The bleachers, Dale added, are probably the worst aspect of the complex, as many people complain of getting fiberglass splinters from sitting.

The crow’s nest, visitors’ crow’s nest, fieldhouse, concession stand, ticket booth, goal posts, lighting and scoreboard are also in poor condition, Dale said. The field itself requires reseeding annually, as well as holes and ruts to be filled in, and the lack of a consistent sprinkler system makes it difficult for grass to grow.

Because of this, the district generally must reject requests from the general public to utilize the field, Dale said.

“It takes the second of the last football or soccer game to the start of the first of the next to get that field looking like it does,” he said.

While Dale expects a synthetic turf field will require general maintenance of its own, he expects it would be more versatile and usable for more activities, from general practices to approved special community use. With an updated facility, Dale would also offer the school to host Section 3A football.

Installed in 1992, the track has exceeded its 15-year life expectancy, Dale said. The cost to resurface - which is expected to last three to five years - is estimated to cost $70,000. Track replacement is estimated at $400,000, Dale added.

Bird said he has spent six years repairing and patching the field and buildings. He said at this point, the district would be “throwing money into the wind” to continue trying to repair the infrastructure that’s there.

“It’s time something be done - you can only fix something for so long,” he said. “Now, the fix is to replace.”

Dale said Trojan Field - once considered state-of-the-art - has satisfied its purpose, but it’s beyond time to make improvements to Worthington’s sports complex, which he called a representation and focal point of the city.

“A quality facility makes people excited to come to your community,” he said. “It’s a more enjoyable experience for the competitors and fans.”

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