Worthington schools are still full; different solution is proposed
By Lori Dudley
As you may have read, the Worthington School Board will again ask voters to consider a referendum to address overcrowding in our schools. The vote will be on February 13 next year. We are so thankful for the many hours of study put into this new proposal by many community members, as well as school district staff. My colleagues on the board and I hope you will very carefully consider the facts around this proposal.
Enrollment continues to grow
Worthington Public Schools continues to have an enrollment problem, and that is a good problem to have. Our enrollment continues to grow according to our projections. While many school districts in greater Minnesota are cutting programs for students because of declining enrollment, we’re able to maintain and offer more programming to meet the challenges of educating all our learners as our enrollment climbs.
As of Oct. 1, our enrollment was 3,209. In 2015, we hired an enrollment specialist to do a demographic enrollment report. That report projected enrollment for 2017-2018 of 3,180 to 3,218.
I think many of our community members agree that we have a significant overcrowding problem in our schools from pre-K through twelfth grade that continues to grow and must be addressed soon.
Community leads the way
Enrollment growth hasn’t happened overnight. We’ve seen increases each of the last 10 years as we’ve grown by about 1,100 students – that’s the equivalent of 44 classrooms! We saw we were outgrowing our space and proposed solutions in 2013 (intermediate school with additions) and 2016 (new High School with athletic fields) that were not approved by voters. This winter and spring we turned to you, members of our community, for your input on how to address this challenge. We commissioned a survey in February 2017, to learn more about your objections to the 2016 proposal. We held focus group meetings and other public meetings (including approximately 300 community members who attended 9 meetings) to solicit community input on what the next proposal would be. Community members asked to have numerous options evaluated. We asked our architects, Wold Architects and Engineers, a highly respected school architectural firm, to provide us with cost estimates on every imaginable, realistic alternative, and then explored the benefits of each.
The result is a different proposal than in 2016. This request is for a project that costs $10 million less. It does not include athletic fields and other expenses that the community objected to. It does include a new high school and the same reconfiguration of schools that was part of last year’s plan. The school board chose, with community guidance, the most cost-effective approach for the long-term. In addition, this solution offers significant benefits to students by reorganizing current grade configurations to better align with curricular goals across the district and creating flexible spaces for personalized learning and a wider variety of instructional delivery, among other benefits. Most importantly, it eliminates overcrowding at every level in every grade.
Ag property tax credit
For years a major hurdle for school districts in agricultural areas has been the cost of school building levies to Ag landowners. In 2017, the Minnesota Legislature approved the School Building Bond Agricultural Credit. The credit reduces property taxes paid by Ag landowners on existing and new school building levies by 40 percent. In District 518, this means the tax on Agriculture land for existing bonds (1999 Prairie Elementary/High School and the 2010 High School/Middle School) will receive a 40 percent reduction. We lobbied the legislature for this change, and are extremely happy this tax relief became law.
More information is coming
After the last referendum we learned that some residents didn’t feel they had enough information to make an informed decision. The school district does not have a staff person dedicated to communications. The public relations position was eliminated in 2002 due to budget cuts at that time and never rehired creating a significant savings over 15 years. Therefore, we have hired Jeff Dehler, a school communications specialist, to help us communicate this complicated issue. We’re currently spending less than 3 cents of every dollar on administrative costs, and this decision continues to save the district money by not hiring a full-time permanent position.
We will be sending direct mail to residents, making dozens of presentations to community groups, and communicating through our website, email, and social media so voters have all the factual information they need to make an informed decision by Election Day.
If you have questions, please contact the School Board or District Administration and I would like to thank you for taking the time to read this article.