Posted on November 4, 2019

Worthington, Minn., Schools a Test of Immigration Policy

John Reinan , Star Tribune, November 3, 2019


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. {snip}


“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.


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.

{snip} 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.


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.


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.”


Opponents weigh in

Some opponents of the school bond issue bristle at accusations of racism.


“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.


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.”


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.