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CL-B school board approves stripped-down referendum option

CASS LAKE -- Cass Lake-Bena voters will be asked to approve -- or not approve -- a stripped-down facilities plan in the fall.

The School Board voted 4-1 on Wednesday to put a $16.2 million bonding referendum on ballots this fall. Dubbed “Option A3” to distinguish it from a series of more expensive variations, the plan would upgrade and expand Cass Lake-Bena Elementary and renovate a few sections of the district’s secondary schools and its district offices and alternative learning center. The original “Option A” that was presented to residents at a trio of community engagement meetings this spring and summer would have cost $24 million, but district staff asked consultants to pare down that plan at a meeting earlier this month.

Removed from the newest plan: an upgraded science classroom at the district’s alternative learning center and district office building, upgraded mechanical and electrical systems at the elementary school, and a plan to replace an aging section of the “ALC/DRC” building with restrooms, gym storage and district offices. The plan also excises new bleachers and a fitness center ventilation project at the high school, and a dehumidification plan at the middle school’s cafeteria and gym.

The lone “nay” vote on Wednesday was board member Matt Erickson, who has spoken vociferously against the slate of proposed facilities options at board meetings and recruited local resort owners and other businesspeople to do the same.

“Our kids have nice facilities, we just have to maybe do something different with the facilities we have,” Erickson said.

Other school board members and Superintendent Rochelle Johnson pointed to generally supportive survey results from the community engagement meetings and the district’s burgeoning student population, which consultants predict will rise for the next six to eight years as a “bubble” of students matriculate through their district and others across Minnesota. Johnson said using money the district has on hand wouldn’t be enough to address the district’s projected space needs.

“So when we go for the referendum, this is stuff that's too big for the dollars that we have,” Johnson said.

The district has had to turn away students who would otherwise open enroll there, Johnson said, and won’t be able to ask for more early childhood education funding from the state because it doesn’t have the space for those students.

The referendum approved by the board is the cheapest of the options they’ve formally considered. Other variations of the “A” plan cost between $19 million and $24 million, and district staff shopped to voters a $37 million “Option B2” that would have built a 3-5 grade elementary next to the district’s existing middle and high school buildings.

Documents supplied at Wednesday’s meeting indicate the referendum the board approved, if voters agree, would tack on another $86 to the property tax bill for a home valued at $125,000. A commercial business valued at $250,000 would be asked to pay another $370 annually, and similarly valued “seasonal recreational residential” property would be asked to pay another $131 per year. Many of the business owners who’ve spoken against the various facilities plans worried aloud about the plans’ financial impact in a community where many residents live on federal land and thus wouldn’t pay the new taxes that would support those plans.

“If you don’t pay tax, you got no skin in the game,” said a man who identified himself to board members only as “Pablo.”

Cass Lake-Bena’s referendum plan will head to the Minnesota Department of Education for review and comment, but spokesperson Josh Collins said the department only considers a handful of specific feasibility issues and statutory considerations and makes no value judgements on the plan.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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