Every supply closet at the elementary school had been converted into a classroom.
And still, there weren’t enough classrooms in the Worthington, Minn., schools. Teachers doubled up in the same room, or trundled through the halls — past other teachers teaching in the hallways — pushing their classroom supplies around on a cart.
Five times, Independent School District 518 asked the community for funding to expand the schools.
Five times, voters said no.
On the sixth ask, students and parents and grandparents in Worthington decided they weren’t going to take no for an answer.
The immigrant families, whose children sit in the majority of the desks in those crowded schools, fanned out across one of Minnesota’s most diverse communities, doorknocking, phone banking, translating ballots into some of the 37 languages their neighbors speak.
Fifty high-schoolers knocked on doors. Rush-hour traffic on Interstate 35, they joked, is less crowded than the school stairwells when the bell rings. They told their stories in English, in Spanish, in Karen, in Laotian, to anyone who would listen.
When the polls closed Tuesday night, all three of the school referendum questions on the ballot passed — one by a margin of 19 votes. Independent School District 518 finally had the money it needed to build new elementary and middle schools.
“I’m just really proud of my community,” said Aida Simon, who works several days a week as a translator at the crowded middle school her children attend.
Simon, a member of the group Seeds of Change, which mobilized the get-out-the-vote effort, said the election result made her feel like she belonged in Worthington.
“It felt like this is my town, my community. I’m going nowhere,” she said. “This is where I’m going to raise my kids and I’m going to invest all I have.”
Worthington wasn’t the only community celebrating. School levies passed all over the state this week, including in 42 rural Minnesota school districts where a property tax increase is a big ask. It’s an even bigger ask this year, when the farmers who shoulder a big share of the tax burden are being squeezed by trade wars, sagging prices and terrible weather.
The Minnesota Rural Education Association estimates that more than 80% of the rural school bond or operating levies on the ballot this week passed. That’s thanks in part to the state’s new Ag2School tax credit, which offsets a big chunk of the tax burden our school funding system tends to dump on farmers.
The Washington Post came to Worthington a few months ago, and told the story of its schools — crowded with the children of immigrants who had come to this corner of southwest Minnesota in search of work and a new life — through the eyes of a resentful school bus driver.
That’s the only thing most people in the country know about Worthington now. Home of the guy who only greets the white students who boarded his bus, not the “strange kids” from the immigrant neighborhoods. Why, he wondered, should his taxes go up to make room for people he doesn’t want around?
“Those kids had no business leaving home in the first place,” he told the Post reporter. “That’s why we have all these food pantries, because of all these people we are supporting. I have to feed my own kids.”
Talk like that, from the bus driver, from the president, fuels fear in a community of immigrants.
The members of Seeds of Change worked to channel fear into something more productive.
“We’re greater than fear,” said Jessica Velasco, a community organizer for Navigate Unidos in Worthington. “Fear keeps us in the shadows, keeps us voiceless, keeps us there with our arms tied and our mouths shut.”
A lot of teens and adults got their first taste of campaign and election work this year, and 2020 is just around the corner.
“This is just the beginning,” Velasco said. “We’re going to come back, regroup, and decide what’s next.”