It was a long time coming, but this week Worthington schools finally received much-needed voter approval to expand space for students. Voters from the southwestern Minnesota community had rejected five referendums since 2013.
Scores of Minnesota school districts pass levies via referendum during elections, but the Worthington result is especially noteworthy. It’s an example of a small city’s struggle to adjust to an influx of immigrants — new Americans who some longtime residents see as community assets who establish households, operate small businesses and keep their towns going. Others regard them as unwanted outsiders who shouldn’t be there and don’t deserve local tax dollars for their children’s educations.
In fact, the city of 13,000 has been the subject of national news stories about attitudes toward immigrants. One of them featured a school bus driver and “vote no” proponent who greeted white students as they boarded his bus, while ignoring immigrant kids of color.
But on Tuesday, the community took a wise, forward-looking stand by investing in its kids — all of its kids — regardless of where mom and dad were born or what language is spoken at home. Residents narrowly approved all three of the district’s referendum questions, with one passing by just 19 votes. That means the district has permission to sell up to $33.7 million in bonds to build a new intermediate school to house 900 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.
Additional space is desperately needed for the 3,400-student district because enrollment has grown rapidly in recent years. Worthington is in farm country, and its pork processing plant employs 2,400 mostly immigrant workers. Twenty years ago, more than three-fourths of the city’s residents were white. Today, 60% are people of color, as are 70% of students in the school district. Among those students, 37 languages are spoken.
Some of that enrollment growth has come after a rush of unaccompanied minors from other countries. In the past six years, more than 400 immigrant children have arrived in Nobles County without parents, some to live with relatives or other guardians. As a result, schools are packed. Classes are being conducted in storage areas, and some teachers have to move their materials on carts from room to room because they have no classroom of their own.
One Worthington school board member told a reporter that referendum opponents came from three groups: older residents, farmers concerned about taxes and the “racist element,” meaning those who don’t want to pay to educate “those kids.” But some of the “vote no” group said race had nothing to do with it and that the district should operate within its current budget.
Farmer Matt Widboom, a Worthington High School graduate who now farms corn and soybeans, had a different view. Although his taxes will increase almost $3,000 per year, he takes the long view. “It’s a lot, but it’s an investment,” Widboom told the Star Tribune. Nobles County and Worthington are among the few places in rural Minnesota that are rapidly growing, he said, and educating young people will help sustain that growth.
“There are two jobs for every person in Nobles County,” he said. “We don’t have the people to fill the jobs. We need to retain these kids.”