The story of a school levy and what it means for Minnesota

Jessica Lee Velasco, 37, and Leticia Rodriguez, 58, were co-leaders of the schools referendum campaign, which received help from nonprofit groups like Unidos MN and Seeds of Justice. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

WORTHINGTON — Before 2016, cheer coach and youth leader Jessica Lee Velasco, a 37-year-old mother of seven, mostly worried about coaching the girls on her squad and shuttling her kids to soccer and hockey practices on time. 

JBS pork processing plant in Worthington
The JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minn. is one of the largest employers and has long drawn immigrants and refugees to this southwestern Minnesota town. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

The south Texas native, who met her husband here, had come to love the small-town life of Worthington, where she moved nearly 30 years ago after her father got a job at the JBS pork packing plant, one of the town’s biggest employers.

But 2016 would become her political awakening. She worried over the worsening racial divisions that Donald Trump stoked. And she feared that a series of failed school levies — including one in 2016 — threatened to leave the immigrant community behind.

“I knew we were going to get targeted no matter what, even though we’ve lived here for years and years,” said Velasco, whose husband is Laotian. “I worried about the second-hand trauma my children and the children I’ve worked with were going to face.” 

Velasco set out to transform the immigrants’ anxieties over Trump and local racial divisions into political power. Though unschooled in politics, a team of activists — including about 50 high school students — finally won the votes in November for a $33.7-million school levy that will pay for a new intermediate school. 

“People were waiting to see if our referendum was going to pass,” Velasco said from the downtown Worthington bakery that served as an occasional meeting space for the 2019 referendum campaign. “When it passed, that wasn’t just a win for Worthington, that was a statewide win.”

Five times, Worthington voters had rejected school levies in divisive campaigns led by Iowa consultant and anti-public schools crusader, Paul Dorr.

The defeats anticipated an ominous future for education advocates in a state and nation becoming more and more like Worthington, which is now one of Minnesota’s most diverse cities. 

The levy defeats suggested that older, white residents were unwilling — or financially unable — to support schools that are increasingly populated by students of color. And that the students and their parents were unable to organize effectively against the sentiment. 

If the same pattern were to hold statewide, the future of Minnesota’s school funding would be at stake: Students of color now account for 35% of the student body throughout the state, growing about 1 percentage point per year. 

The infamous bus driver

This school levy battle and the racial divisions they revealed were the source of plenty of media coverage, including a much discussed Washington Post story in which a district bus driver openly expressed resentment toward the city’s immigrants. 

JBS and other manufacturers, like bread-tie maker Bedford Industries, for decades drew workers from places like Texas and California, but also immigrants and refugees from Asia, Central America and east Africa. 

The demographic shift has remade Worthington — most evident in the area’s three schools, where nearly two-thirds of students are Latino, Asian, black or multiracial. 

The immigration-led population growth has strained the school district’s resources, particularly as Nobles County has received more than 400 unaccompanied minors — the second most per capita in the country, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement data.

Worthington High School, like other schools in ISD 518, is overcrowded but will soon see the construction of additional classroom space. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

The school district has crammed hundreds of students into every available square foot of space, including storage closets. 

Despite the evident need, Worthington’s taxpayers have their own struggles. 

In rural school districts, much of the land is owned by farmers, whose wealth can be tied up in real estate while farming operations suffer from cyclical economic pressures, which currently include a trade war with China. Rural school districts like Worthington’s routinely ask them to help pay for the education of children who are often not their own. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that nearly 60% of Nobles County farmers, who are mostly white and male, are 55 and older.

But Worthington also offers a path forward for education advocates. Aided by a boost to an agricultural tax credit, the campaign led by local activists showed how political power can be harnessed successfully in increasingly racially diverse, rural communities in Minnesota and around the country. 

As it turns out, the students themselves were their own best advocates. 

RETOOLING POLITICAL MESSAGES IN MINNESOTA

The 2016 election raised fears among Minnesota Democrats, who had to reconsider their political message in a state that Trump nearly won without much of a campaign.

Anat Shenker-Osorio, a researcher and political consultant who has advised on successful progressive campaigns in Australia and Ireland, co-created the “Greater than Fear” campaign in Minnesota, which she called a direct response to “dog-whistle” messaging intended to divide residents along racial lines. 

The rural-urban divide narrative that took hold in Minnesota in recent election cycles is heard by some as shorthand for white versus non-white, Shenker-Osorio said. Other seemingly economic issues — like school levies or child care assistance — are also given a racial cast, she said.

She likened the debate over Worthington school funding to California’s Proposition 13 in 1978, which cut property taxes, a main source of education funding. Opponents of Prop. 13 made their case by railing against California taxpayers footing the bill to educate the children of immigrants, Shenker-Osorio said. “When you look at the op-eds then, they were all ‘Why should we be paying for ‘those people’s’ kids … they’re driving up costs” she said, adding that similar sentiments could be heard in Worthington. 

“It’s really nothing new,” she said. “Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book.”

David Bosma, 38, chair of the Worthington Citizens for Progress Committee, which had opposed the previous school levies, said members of his group were unfairly painted as anti-immigrant or racist following the Washington Post article that centered on bus driver Don Brink, a co-chair of the committee.

Rather, Bosma said, the opposition centered on the school district’s stewardship of tax dollars. 

“We had a school board that wanted to go over and above what was needed,” he said, explaining that the November referendum for $33.7 million was one his group could support. 

The committee, he said, is in the process of disbanding. “The school thing is over and done, it’s beyond and passed,” he said. 

But the divisive campaigns and the media attention, he said, left lingering bad feelings that he hopes Worthington can sort out. “We gotta start working as a community again,” he said. “We have a lot of issues that no one seems to want to acknowledge.”

Bill Keitel, owner of Buffalo Billfold Company, in downtown Worthington, said the schools referendum campaign had created tension in a town that has struggled around issues of race. Rumors that immigrants posed safety threats sometimes circulated. 

Bill Keitel, owner of Buffalo Billfold Company. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

But immigrants, Keitel said, have saved Worthington from the fates that have fallen on other rural towns in states he has visited, including Kansas and Oklahoma. As rural populations decamp for better work and school opportunities, once bustling rural downtowns have since hollowed out. 

“I live in a town of 13,000, so these people have become our salvation,” he said, referring to Worthington immigrants who spend their earnings on local goods and services. 

STUDENTS TURN TO POLITICAL ACTIVISM

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the sixth attempt for the schools referendum succeeded, but one thing advocates agree on is that the involvement of about 50 high school students delivered a one-two punch. First, the high school brigade meant more calls and more doors knocked. 

More importantly, however, voters were hearing directly from those most affected by the overcrowding at the schools. 

“At lunch, we will have really long lines and there are barely any places to sit, and that’s just at the high school,” said Selam Gebrehiwot, a Worthington High School sophomore, who knocked on doors. 

Students also staged protests, calling on the school district to fire bus driver Don Brink after the Washington Post article published. Nearly a month after the Post story ran, school officials issued a statement saying, in part: “Worthington and the surrounding area is a strong community only made stronger by the students who are taught in the school district. … ISD 518 does not condone or support bullying, harassment, or racism directed toward anyone, especially our students.”

About 50 Worthington High School students knocked on doors and called Worthington residents to urge them to vote in favor of the November school levy. They included (left to right) Selam Gebrehiwot, 16, Nayzeth Muniz, 16, Saleen Thepmontry, 16, Jessenia Ybarra Muniz, 15, and Sofia Montoya Mendez, 15.

It’s unclear if Brink is still employed. The district contracts with Worthington company, Bud’s Bus Service. A woman who answered there declined to comment for this story, hanging up on a Minnesota Reformer reporter. 

Velasco was part of a multicultural and multigenerational coalition of Worthington activists who poured their energy into ensuring every voter made it to the polls in November 2019. They included Unidos MN, and Seeds of Justice, two nonprofit groups that advocate on education and other issues affecting Minnesota’s immigrant populations. 

Leticia Rodriguez, 58, a co-leader of the effort and a longtime Worthington resident, said some Latino residents can be politically disconnected because they are worrying about making ends meet. 

“It’s not because they don’t want to, but because they’re so busy with their lives and like, who has time to be knowing what’s going on when you have to work and raise your kids and you work a really hard job,” she said. 

The Twin Cities DFL establishment clearly understands their challenge — and potential — in Minnesota cities with large immigrant populations. State Reps. Ryan Winkler, Rep. Fue Lee, Rep. Jay Xiong, Rep. Aisha Gomez, traveled from the metro to help in the final days. Others helped from Minneapolis, where volunteers from Unidos, as well as labor activists, made phone calls and sent text messages to voters. 

The referendum passed with a 136-vote margin — 1,780 in favor and 1,644 against. 

A globe covered in flags from countries like Mexico, Germany and Nicaragua greets visitors to Buss Field, a Worthington park. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Velasco, who harbors her own political aspirations, said the referendum campaign helped students and Worthington’s immigrant and refugee communities realize the power they can wield if they work together. 

Ahead of a December gala, hosted by the progressive group TakeAction Minnesota, that some Worthington students were set to attend, Velasco recalls warning them they might attract attention. 

“I don’t think everybody in the community that went out to vote or took a role in it realizes the amount of power we won,” she said. “They didn’t understand that until they got there and people started telling them like, you’re badass for the work you did.”