WORTHINGTON, Minn. – As students grab their bags and stream out of the science classroom at Worthington High School, Ellen Baker-Merrigan packs up, too.
She gathers notes, student papers, pens and markers, and loads them onto a two-shelf cart. Then she trundles down the hall to her desk in the old storage room she shares with two other teachers. Boxes of books line the wall under a metal staircase slicing through the room, and fluorescent lights flicker amid exposed pipes and ductwork.
Baker-Merrigan, a teacher for more than 25 years, doesn’t have a classroom of her own anymore.
Across town, at Prairie Elementary School, Molly Scheidt leads her seven-pupil English language class in another converted storage room smaller than the walk-in closets of many modern homes. Three other nearby classes are meeting at tables set up in the hall.
“There is literally not one room in this building that is unoccupied,” said John Landgaard, Worthington’s school superintendent.
A bitter fight over school funding here has become a flash point in a larger debate about immigration and its impact on this southwestern Minnesota prairie town, where an influx of immigrants from across the globe — and more recently, an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America — has dramatically changed the racial makeup of the city and its schools.
Five times since 2013 the district has asked voters to approve spending millions to build more classroom space to house all the students. Each time, voters said no — the last time, in February, by just 17 votes.
Now, as the district makes its sixth request on Tuesday for more money, this city of 13,000 residents remains divided, torn between a longing for the Worthington of the past and addressing the needs of a rapidly growing and diverse population. Similar new struggles are evident around the state.
Emotions are raw, if not always publicly expressed.
“People have their minds made up,” said Linden Olson, a retired farmer and the school board treasurer. “They don’t want to hear anything else.”
In Olson’s view, the nearly $34 million bonding request, most of it slated for a new intermediate school, faces opposition from three groups: older residents, farmers concerned about taxes and “the racist element.”
“In my opinion, there is a sizable number of voters in our district that will not support any bond referendum for schools because they do not want to pay to educate ‘those kids,’ ” Olson said. “There is a very strong racist attitude that is present and that few people are willing to deal with.”
Bursting at the seams
As recently as 20 years ago, more than three-fourths of Worthington’s residents were white. Today, 60% are people of color, as well as 70% of the students in the school district.
Much of the shift stems from the rush of immigrants who arrived here seeking work, many of them finding it at JBS Pork, a slaughterhouse on the edge of town that employs 2,400 workers.
Nowhere is the demographic change more evident on a daily basis than in the district’s schools, where hallways once dominated by white students have become increasingly diverse. One indicator: 37 languages are spoken by district students.
In the past three years, Worthington’s high school enrollment has grown by 19% and middle school enrollment has grown by 9%, while elementary enrollment has been stable, according to figures from the Minnesota Department of Education. About 3,400 students are enrolled in the district, while the maximum design capacity of its schools is about 3,100 students.
Much of that space pressure comes from 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. On a per capita basis, that’s the second-most of any county in the U.S., according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Most find homes with relatives, local immigration activists said. And the school district has no choice but to accept them as students.
“We are required to educate every kid who registers,” Landgaard said. “We don’t get involved in immigration.”
Many residents praise the new arrivals, noting the economic and cultural vitality they bring to the city. At least 50 local businesses, including restaurants, grocery stores, auto shops and accounting firms, are owned by immigrants.
Downtown houses several Mexican restaurants, Asian and Hispanic food markets, and stores selling imported goods. And each day around 4 p.m., after the early shift has let out at JBS, families stream into Panaderia Mi Tierra, a Latino bakery, where they pluck pastries from glass cases.
“In the downtown, all the storefronts are full and it’s busy,” said Sharon Johnson, a lifelong resident who owns a downtown jewelry store and also serves as director of community education. “The cultures we are exposed to through music and food and art have really made this a wonderful place to live.”
Bill Keitel owns Buffalo Billfold Co., a leather goods shop, and also owns rental property.
“As a landlord, if I didn’t have these immigrants, my property values would plummet — as would everybody’s,” he said. “I look on them as our salvation, not our problem.”
But some immigrants and activists say the newcomers often don’t feel accepted, let alone embraced.
Jessica Velasco, a community organizer with Navigate/Unidos MN, said racism “is here. It’s always been here. It’s never going away. I already know what they think when they look at me.”
The Rev. Jim Callahan, pastor at the Catholic Church of St. Mary, has been booed, threatened and spit upon after delivering sermons on immigration at his parish, home to about 1,000 families, more than half Latino. Despite that, Callahan said he believes the community is making progress.
“I think people are trying to educate themselves,” he said. “But there are always some who, if Christ himself came and talked to them, they’d question him.”
Opponents weigh in
Some opponents of the school bond issue bristle at accusations of racism.
“It offends me when someone thinks I’m against Worthington because it’s changing — because I have never known it to be anything other than what it is,” said David Bosma, a truck driver who’s chairman of the Worthington Citizens for Progress Committee, which organized several years ago to rally opposition to the school bond requests.
“It boils down to one thing and one thing only: a school board that thinks it has an open checkbook from the taxpayers of this community.”
Mark Schutte, a local farmer, echoed those comments.
“The entire reason I’m against it … has nothing to do with the students or teachers or anything like that,” Schutte said. “I simply feel like the school board does not know how to manage money properly.” Schutte fears that if school taxes go up, the price he pays to rent farmland will, too.
Opponents point to what they consider wasteful spending by the district on such things as bus sheds, paving of dirt parking lots and additional rooms for school music programs. Bosma said he began to question the district’s spending when it bought land some years back as the site of a future high school — before asking residents to vote on whether a new one was needed.
“That was where the mistrust was started,” he said, “that you can’t trust this superintendent and school board with taxpayer money.
“I don’t think we need a wall,” Bosma added. “I think we need more immigration. The fiscal aspect is what has driven this [opposition] from the very beginning.”
Landgaard said he’s proud of the district’s financial management. Five years ago, the district built a new wing on the high school and paid the $6.3 million bill in cash. This summer, seven new classrooms will be added to the high school, and the district has the cost covered, whether or not voters approve the bond issue.
The question of school funding, he said, is a question of the city’s future.
“You get the segment that says, ‘My kids are done — I don’t have a dog in this fight,’ ” Landgaard said. “I want people to get a good education because if I wind up in the nursing home, I want qualified people to take care of me.”
Easy to say ‘hell, no!’
Matt Widboom is a third-generation farmer and a Worthington High grad. He grows corn and soybeans on about 1,300 acres and tends 1,000 head of beef cattle. He’s also a Nobles County commissioner.
Five days a week, Widboom hosts a two-hour farm program on local radio station KWOA, sometimes broadcasting from the cab of his tractor. He jokes that the station’s call letters stand for “Keep Widboom Off the Air.”
This has been a bad year for Minnesota farmers. Between the rainy weather and federal agricultural tariffs that have disrupted prices and markets, many are struggling.
“The last five years in farming have been the most difficult I’ve experienced,” Widboom said. “The yields this year were dismal and were dismal last year.”
And Minnesota’s education tax system hits farmers hard, despite passage of the state’s Ag2School tax credit in 2017, which will gradually reduce the school tax burden on agricultural land by 40% over the next few years.
After feeding his pigs and prepping his combine for the first day of the corn harvest, Widboom sat down at his kitchen table and passed over a handwritten sheet of figures. They showed what the Worthington bond issue will cost him if it passes: about $59,000 over the next 20 years, or almost $3,000 a year.
Still, he’s decided to vote for it.
“It’s a lot, but it’s an investment,” he said. Nobles County and Worthington are among the few places in rural Minnesota that are rapidly growing, he said, and education will be a key to sustaining the growth.
“There are two jobs for every person in Nobles County,” Widboom said. “We don’t have the people to fill the jobs. We need to retain these kids.”
The school board, in his view, has done its due diligence and taken pains to communicate with the voters.
“It’s easy just to say, ‘hell, no!’ which has been the chant for a lot of folks,” Widboom said.
“The biggest disappointment in this,” he added, “is how it’s separated our community in so many ways.”