By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Next week, voters in a southwest Minnesota city go the polls to decide whether to build a new school to alleviate crowded classrooms. It’s the sixth time in as many years that residents in Worthington will face the decision.

WCCO’s Liz Collin grew up there. She found, this time heated immigration rhetoric and a controversial newspaper story fuel both sides of the debate.

For 27 years, Chris Brouwer has been teaching English to third and fourth graders learning it as a second language.

Now, she does it in a commons area outside the classroom as the number of students at Prairie Elementary has skyrocketed.

“On my caseload are eight newcomers that have moved from the United States from mostly Guatemala this summer. They don’t speak any English at all,” Brouwer said.

Brouwer is one of three English teachers at this grade level, each guiding more than 50 kids through a new language and in some cases a new country.

“My thought is these kids deserve better. I think I deserve better. I’ve been here long enough to deserve a classroom,” Brouwer added.

For the last decade, 100 new students have joined Worthington schools every year.

School Board Chair Brad Shaffer is part of a team trying to figure out what to do with them all.

“This is our first grade hub right now. We have para professionals out in the commons area,” Shaffer pointed out.

“This is our sixth attempt to build some kind of space in our district,” Shaffer said.

On Nov. 5, a three-question ballot will ask residents to build a new intermediate school for fourth and fifth-graders.

It’s a scaled down plan from what they’ve asked of taxpayers in the past in hopes that this time it passes.

But in this community of 13,000 there is more than school space at play. Immigration and concerns over how much farmers could pay are subjects often only discussed in private.

A meat processing plant is the largest employer with a majority immigrant workforce. It’s turned the town from a mostly Caucasian population to a now white minority.

It’s something Liz Collin saw firsthand. The changing faces of Worthington High School since her own graduation 20 years ago.

Donna Schroer is one of very few who will publicly admit she’ll vote no.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to be affected: farmers, little old lady living down the street collecting social security, things like that,” Schroer said.

“I just don’t think we should have to pay for it all,” she added.

She believes the district is taking in too many kids and that citizenship issues should be settled first.

“Then, if you say things like that you’re racist,” Schroer said.

A Washington Post story published last month profiled a school bus driver who wished for another ICE raid to rid Worthington of any undocumented immigrants. The story went viral, leading to swift backlash from city and school leaders.

“I really don’t want that to define our district. I really believe that we are better than that,” Shaffer said

The Office of Refugee Resettlement says 400 unaccompanied minors have been placed in Nobles County in six years — the second highest per capita in the country.

Last year, more than 70 students were placed in the freshman class, alone. Growing pains perhaps felt even harder in a small community.

In a rural area like Worthington, farmers pay more for school referendums. While this tax increase might cost a homeowner in town a couple hundred dollars more a year, it will cost farmers thousands at a time when profits are plunging and trade concerns rising.

“I can’t disagree with them, it’s not fair,” Shaffer said.

The district acknowledges what many consider an outdated tax system. But, unless changes are made at the capitol, they say it’s the only option they have.

Liz Collin