Immigration looms over contested Minnesota school referendum
WORTHINGTON, MN – When voters in this southwestern Minnesota town weigh nearly $34 million in new borrowing to expand schools filled to overflowing in recent years by an influx of immigrants, Miguel Rivas will be among those saying yes — and hoping his neighbors do the same.
Rivas is eager to make sure his two young sons and the rest of Worthington's children have what they need for the same success he's had since arriving here 20 years ago from El Salvador. But approval Tuesday is far from certain, with residents rejecting five similar measures since 2013.
"We need to help every kid because they are kids — they deserve help from us," he said.
Worthington, a growing community of about 13,000 residents, sits in farm country, and its pork processing plant is a major employer of immigrants. In September, the town was roiled by a Washington Post story that spotlighted the school district's struggles to absorb all of its new arrivals from Central America, Africa and Asia, and quoted some supporters saying that racism played a part in the referendum defeats.
Residents who are part of a group that helped sink previous bond proposals say the opposition is fiscal, not racial. They say voters distrust school administrators and believe the district already has enough money.
"Worthington has a very caring heart for its immigrant population — and it should," said Dave Bosma, a trucker who co-chairs the group Worthington Citizens for Progress. "I'm a 38-year-old man who has lived here all my life, essentially. I've never known Worthington to be any different. Worthington has had a large immigrant presence all my life. I think that's a great thing."
But Mayor Mike Kuhle said Bosma's group has raised the immigration issue. By his count, the city has now 47 minority-owned businesses, which all create jobs and pay taxes, and he said it's stronger for them.
"It's unfortunate that race has become part of it," said Kuhle, an independent. "The bottom line is Worthington is growing and immigration is a big part of it. We simply couldn't grow without immigrants moving to Worthington."
With plentiful jobs at the slaughterhouse, low crime and a low cost of living, many immigrants have thrived in Worthington. Now, many feel that the school needs to expand to secure their children's futures.
"The reality is this is our world, this is our town, and this is our school," said Sandra Pineda, 35, who works as the faith formation director at St. Mary's Catholic and has two children in school. "Those are our children. There could be many doctors and teachers in there."
Rivas, who operates two cellphone stores and sells pinatas his son makes, said it didn't look to him like the opposition was motivated by racism. But he acknowledged that some old-timers may not like the changes in the community, where Hispanics now outnumber whites.
"There are very nice farmers, very good farmers who are friendly and nice," he said. "But again, there are farmers who don't think what has happened is good."
Kuhle said some voters might genuinely have found the earlier requests too expensive. But he noted that state law was recently changed to reduce property tax burdens on farmers by shifting costs to state government, which he thinks makes this request more affordable.
The last referendum, in February, failed by only 17 votes. Fed up with converting hallways and closets into classroom space, administrators aren't giving up.
David Skog, the district's director of management services, said the opposition has not been as visible this time, and leaders of the anti-referendum group acknowledge they haven't been very active lately. Yard signs supporting the ballot measures dot lawns all over town; signs against it are rare.
Ken Jansen, 88, has been in business in Worthington for 65 years and owns the Craft Corner quilting shop with his wife, Zuby. He described himself as a staunch Republican and strong supporter of President Donald Trump. He said some people in Worthington probably question why they should pay to build schools for immigrants. But he said it's important to educate the people who are there, whoever they are.
"Our kids went to school here," he said. "We know we have a fine school system. We know it's going to cost us some money, but what doesn't cost money?"
Karnowski reported from Minneapolis.
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