Cass Lake-Bena Schools pursues bonding referendum for new elementary, renovations
Five years after voters denied a ballot measure that would have allowed Cass Lake-Bena Public Schools to borrow millions for a series of facilities improvements, the school district is conducting a second attempt to address spacing and safety needs that continue to affect the district.
CASS LAKE — Five years after voters denied a ballot measure that would have allowed Cass Lake-Bena Public Schools to borrow millions for a series of facilities improvements, the school district is conducting a second attempt to address spacing and safety needs that continue to affect the district.
Approving a resolution at an Aug. 17 special board meeting, the Cass Lake-Bena school board is now seeking permission from voters to sell $39.75 million in bonds to build a new elementary school for kindergarten through fifth grade and remodel the current elementary school to house district offices and the Area Learning Center.
When the Nov. 8 general election arrives, voters will answer the ballot question, "Shall the school board of Independent School District No. 115 (Cass Lake-Bena Schools) be authorized to issue its general obligation school building bonds in an amount not to exceed $39,750,000 to provide funds for the acquisition and betterment of school sites and facilities, including the construction and equipping of a new elementary school; and the construction of improvements to repurpose and remodel the existing elementary school facility for use as an early childhood and preschool site, alternative learning center, and district service center?"
Superintendent Sue Chase detailed several issues that impact the current ALC location that also houses the Boys and Girls Club. She noted the presence of asbestos lining tiles and wrapped around pipes throughout the building.
She also mentioned inefficiencies with the cooling and heating system along with managing insect and mice infestations.
“There are old window air conditioners in each room and during the winter, rooms have electric space heaters to make the temperature tolerable,” Chase detailed in a letter. “There are windows that don’t open, cracks in walls and plumbing that doesn’t work properly.”
In a district video regarding the referendum, Chase stated “I have a sticky trap under my desk right now and it’s full of spiders. We’ve pulled mice out of here and that’s not a healthy or safe environment for any people in this building, and we have kids in this building.”
The ALC building is also not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The building has two levels with both ALC and Boys and Girls Club using both levels,” Chase added. “A child, staff member or community member that has mobility concerns … would find it impossible to navigate the building.”
She added that the building has no elevators or handicap-accessible doors, and making the building ADA compliant would not be cost-effective.
Elementary Principal Josh Grover estimated the ALC building would need $15 million in renovations. With the property’s value sitting at $18 million, needed repairs exceed a 60% investment threshold of the value of a replacement building, which the Minnesota Department of Education discourages.
“The problem is that the building is $18 million itself,” Grover said, “$15 million of $18 million (of the property’s value), the Minnesota Department of Education won’t even look at that. They won’t allow that to happen.”
Chase referenced public suggestions that the district simply remodel the building.
“There’s nowhere to go with it. We can’t go up, we can’t go out,” Chase said. “There’s no way to make it bigger, no way to expand it. It’s at its biggest footprint it can be.”
If the referendum is approved, the current ALC building would be decommissioned with its services shifting over to the current elementary building.
Elementary school details
Currently serving pre-k through fourth grade, the existing elementary would undergo roughly $250,000 in renovations — according to an MDE estimate — to accommodate the Area Learning Center, Boys and Girls Club and early learning programs.
Facility improvements would include constructing separate entries for each program and replacing child-height toilets and sinks in the would-be ALC wing with adult fixtures.
Chase noted boiler and HVAC upgrades that could be avoided if kindergarten through fifth-grade students moved to a new elementary building, adding that the systems could keep up more efficiently with fewer students in the alternative programs.
Chase added that moving the fifth grade from the current middle school to the new elementary would be a developmental benefit for those students. When the middle school was built, the elementary had crowding issues which led to grades five through eight attending the middle school instead of grades six through eight.
“I had a parent (tell me) their child had just completed fifth grade going into sixth grade. The mom said ‘he managed, he did OK, but he had to grow up too fast,’” Chase recalled. “Because of that shift in having to become a middle schooler versus (remaining) an elementary student, they don’t necessarily get those play breaks and dedicated recess that an elementary student gets.”
Cass Lake-Bena’s elementary school including pre-k serves between 500 and 600 students. Traffic patterns between buses and cars at the current elementary school are a safety concern for Chase.
“When you watch the pick-up and drop-off, and we have parents merging in and out and kids running in and out, you’re seeing families, cars and buses in competition for space,” Chase said, “and it’s just not safe.”
Internal building safety is another issue that Chase wishes to address with the referendum’s passage.
“There really isn’t a way to lock down certain wings. One of the ways we make sure we keep students safe is having those entrances and exits that can be locked down,” Chase added. “Were we ever to have an intruder, we need to be able to isolate them and in the current elementary, we can’t do that.”
A new elementary
U.S. Highway 2 runs along the current elementary’s north side with streets surrounding its perimeter. Chase noted limited green space at the site, but that the new elementary — which would be located on the same campus as the middle and high school — is surrounded by forestry, trails and areas that could become outdoor classroom sites.
Such a location would allow the district to provide more personalized education, a concept that is made more difficult by the traditional design of the current elementary when it was constructed in the 1960s, according to Chase.
“Education looked different then. Children sat in rows, the teachers lectured … Now, we’re expected to do some things that would require us to have small group instruction and those kinds of things,” Chase said. “Our building just isn’t designed for that.
“There are no break-out spaces, no common spaces to work with others … Our teachers work really hard and they’re really good teachers. The space around them makes it very difficult to do the innovative things that they should be able to do with their students.”
Chase highlighted break-out spaces each grade level would have at the new elementary, which could be used as additional classrooms should an enrollment increase necessitate the need.
“It gives us some flexibility as we move forward,” Chase left off.
With the new site, Chase also referenced an easier transition of staff between the elementary, middle and high school when staff work multiple roles at different schools.
The new elementary would make up most of the project cost at $36.6 million for construction, site improvements, technology and other fees. The projects would be scheduled for completion in 2023 or 2024.
The property tax increase with the bond issuance would be roughly $18.75 a month for the average home in the district with taxes payable in 2023.
A residential homestead valued at $100,000 would see an estimated annual tax increase of $128, or $10.67 a month. A home valued at $200,000 would see a $322 annual increase, or $26.83 a month.
Grover said that the majority of payable taxes will come from industrial and commercial properties, and that the Enbridge pipeline running through Cass Lake will account for nearly 50% of funding.
Back to the drawing board
The district pursued a $37.8 million bonding referendum in 2017, which failed to pass by a vote of 442 to 144 — 75% to 25% — based on unofficial totals.
Had it passed, the district would’ve built a new elementary school for grades three through five, renovated the existing elementary school for pre-k through second grade, and updated other facilities.
Along with some multi-use rooms that would’ve been added to the high school, Chase noted the school board’s altered approach to the upcoming referendum vote.
“I think the community saw that as not being as necessary. It wasn't ‘what do we need’ but ‘what do we want,’” Chase said regarding the 2017 referendum attempt. “The board really did go back to the drawing board. What do we have to address and what’s in the best interest of our students?”
With rising repair costs coinciding with increasing deterioration of the ALC building, Chase’s sentiment is that something has to be done and if not now, when?
“I know we will have to explore other options and potentially keep coming back, asking the same question and it may get more expensive as we go along,” she added.
Understanding the upcoming vote as a “big ask” of the public, Chase views Nov. 8 as a chance for taxpayers to choose where their money goes and to invest in the future.
“We talk a lot about planning seven generations ahead,” Chase left off. “This is an opportunity to take steps that will have an impact on many generations of children to come.”