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District 518 space issues receive attention from state legislators

WORTHINGTON — Could the Minnesota State Legislature be the answer to Independent School District 518’s space needs?

Not entirely, but they could help.

Two companion bills authored by local legislators that request a $15 million grant to the school district were first introduced last week on the Minnesota House of Representatives and Minnesota Senate floors. According to the language of House File 1832 (authored by Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake) and Senate File 1858 (carried by Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne), if adopted, the district could receive up to a $15 million matching grant to “predesign, design, construct, furnish and equip” an intermediate school, community education facility or a combination of the two.

Under the terms of the grant, the district must commit an amount at least equal to what it receives in state grant funding to complete its project.

That means the board of education has some work to do, as the the scope of the project and how the district plans to fund its share should they receive the state grant have yet to be determined, said District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard.

Such conversations may be part of a 7 p.m. Monday public board work session at the Worthington High School Media Center. At the work session, the board is expected to review its long-term facility master plan and discuss its options and next steps moving forward in regard to its space needs. It’s also expected to discuss what’s currently a verbal request from the city of Worthington to potentially partner the district’s community education with the city’s proposed activity center. Based on what’s been discussed, the district would be responsible for its portion of the facility.

While the board is just in the beginning stages of discussions, the grant funding (if received) could theoretically contribute to the district’s portion of that partnership, Landgaard said.

But before the board discusses its facilities any further, the first 30 minutes of the March 11 work session will provide an opportunity to district residents to address the board with comments or ideas as it relates to facility needs. In consideration of time and allowing all interested district residents to address the board, it’s requested that comments remain under three minutes.

Meanwhile, the fate of the grant will remain in state legislators’ hands as it continues to be heard by various committees.

Landgaard said Weber and Hamilton spoke with him either prior to, or right at the beginning, of the current legislative session.

Following the district’s February referendum that failed by 17 votes, Landgaard said he and Hamilton began working quickly on the bill’s language and Weber remained part of the conversation.

Hamilton said he has been aware for some time that rural school districts are in need of additional funding.  

“It’s in our Constitution that we must educate our children,” he said, so when the latest referendum failed, he was unwilling to give up on school funding.

Hamilton decided to try thinking differently about education funding, since referenda have failed repeatedly.

The bill he wrote is an exploration of other options, Hamilton said. His goal is to see if this solution is a viable option for meeting the needs of Worthington schools.

“The city of Worthington is not alone,” Hamilton added, explaining that he and Weber have also written similar bills for funding the Red Rock Central school district, which has also tried and failed to pass referenda.

Although this attempt has no historical precedent, Hamilton describes himself as “the eternal optimist,” and his confidence is manifest in his support for the proposed legislation.

“Legislators are taking this (education issue) very, very seriously,” Hamilton said, pointing to other bills on the House floor like the farm-to-table initiative as evidence that the state legislature is invested in finding solutions.

It’s a good sign for the bill that the chair of the Education Finance Division has agreed to hear it in a committee meeting. Hamilton said this means the bill will make it through the committee process in time to meet the first legislative deadline March 15. The deadline “is for committees to act favorably on bills in the house of origin,” according to the House Concurrent Resolution for 2019, which means that the bill will move forward on its journey to becoming law.

The next step for the bill is a hearing this morning in the House Education Finance Division. Landgaard and RCC Superintendent Bruce Olson will attend the hearing and testify in support of the bill. After that, the bill will be heard by the Capital Investment Division.