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Column: Worthington school referendum FAQ's

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WORTHINGTON — As a Worthington School Board member, it is my responsibility to seek your input on the decisions we make as your representatives. I have been available at various meetings, activities and community functions, first seeking your input on what we can do to address our space issues, and then discussing this referendum proposal. I have heard many excellent questions from you, and I would like to provide answers here to the some questions I have heard.

What is this referendum about? It’s about room to learn and room to grow. Right now, I believe student learning is suffering from overcrowding as building capacity is less than 3,000 students, but enrollment is more than 3,200. We are growing by 100 students every year, so the problem is getting worse. We need to provide enough space for our students.

What will happen if the referendum is approved? The district will build a new high school and reconfigure grade levels across the current elementary, middle and high school. A community driven process chose this option because it was the most cost-effective for the long term, meets space needs at every grade level now, and well into the future.

What will happen if the referendum is not approved? This is complicated, but if we cannot build a new building, we have to completely rethink how we provide education. The board looked at many options to open up space in the buildings across the district. The majority of the options hurt students because they eliminated programs, curricular activities and electives. The decision was made for the short-term to allow class sizes to continue to increase. In the meantime the board would EXPLORE and RESEARCH the move towards an implementation of a multi-tier/rotational/year-round school schedule. Three-quarters of our students would be in school at any one time, while a quarter would be on break. This is not the best direction for the district, but in the absence of new space, we felt it is an option we need to explore and see if it is at all realistic.

What will it cost me if the referendum is approved? If approved, owners of a $115,000 Worthington-area home, the average home value in Worthington, will see a property tax increase of about $12.32 per month.

Are we asking farmers to pay more than their share for school buildings? Since the Ag2Schools 40 percent tax credit for farm landowners was signed into law in 2017, the share of school buildings is paid for more fairly, and 20 percent of the costs of this referendum will be paid for by the state of Minnesota. Here’s who pays what on current and future school building bond debt in the Worthington School District: Residences – 20 percent; Agricultural – 30 percent; State of MN (pays for tax credit) – 20 percent; Commercial – 17 percent; Other sources – 13 percent.

Why can’t the district simply add on to the schools? The buildings' core spaces, such as cafeteria, kitchen, hallways, locker areas, mechanical spaces, etc. are not designed to handle more students even if the buildings had additions built for more classroom space. To create enough space for both current and projected enrollment, these spaces would have to be expanded as well, which is challenging and often requires more expensive remodeling/additions.

How can I trust that the new high school is the right SIZE? Square feet per student is among the lowest in the conference, and will remain that way. We are currently at 164 square feet per student, by far the lowest in the conference, and will be at 212.54 square feet per student if the new high school is built, when West Learning Center is demolished, and when the ALC/Gymnastics building is occupied. The rest of the conference schools range from 214 to 325 square feet per student, and the average is 270 square feet per student.

How can I trust that the new high school is the right COST? New construction cost is comparable to recent MN projects. Looking at two recently bid high schools, New Ulm and St. Cloud, the estimated cost for a new Worthington High School falls squarely in the middle. The total project cost for a new high school in St. Cloud was $310 per square foot, in New Ulm is was $228 per square foot, in Worthington, is would be $274 per square foot.

Did costs go up since the 2016 referendum? Yes. The bond interest rates have risen by nearly a full 1 percent (equal to more than an $11 million increase over the life of the bond) and regional market construction costs have increased by 3.6 percent to 4.1 percent (equal to more than $2 million).

Will the district build activities fields at a new high school?  Fund Balance? No, the referendum does not ask you to pay for activities fields; we are focused on academic needs. However, at some point in the future it only makes sense to have athletic fields at the new high school. The board is always evaluating the fund balance.  First, we have a fund balance policy of keeping 8 to 12 weeks of operation in the fund balance for cash flow purposes. Currently that is about $7 million. We also have designated fund balance. We recently reduced the levy by $1 million and set aside $2.5 million to pay off existing bond debt related to the middle school classroom additions and an energy audit. Fund balance has grown mainly because of our increasing enrollment not local property taxes. The district is as fiscally responsible as it can be with the fund balance taking in to consideration sound management practices, reducing district debt and doing what is best for our students and growing needs.

You can find much more detailed information on these and other topics at www.isd518.net. Feel free to contact us at info@isd518.net or by phone at 372-2172 with any questions.   

Thank you for your time and making an informed decision when you vote on Feb. 13.

Lori Dudley is chair of the District 518 Board of Education. For graphs that accompany this column, visit dglobe.com.

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