Investing in education: Cass Lake-Bena holds public meeting on school referendum

Opponents of the plan and referendum—some of whom are local resort and business owners—had shown up at previous school board and community meetings with pointed questions about the project’s cost, efficacy, or tax impacts, and they delivered more of the same Thursday evening in the White Earth Community Center.

Others in attendance said they were generally on board with the school district’s proposal to build a brand-new elementary school and renovate several others to accommodate a swelling student population, but still had doubts of their own about the impact on their finances.

“That’s a lot of money, that’s a big commitment for the community,” said Cindy Rogers, a pre-kindergarten teacher in the district. “But…we need to do something.”

District staff say they’ve had to turn away students who would otherwise open enroll into the district and can’t apply for the $50 million in new pre-k funding state legislators agreed on last spring because buildings here simply don’t have the space. Beyond that, other district buildings are simply outdated or in need of repair, staff said.

“Somebody paid for my education,” said Marilynne Davis, a teacher at Cass Lake-Bena Middle School. “This is an investment…It’s not a bad thing. I know sometimes we look at the money, but we look at the long-range investment that we’re putting in.”

“I think everybody’s in agreement that we need more room,” said Karen Bowley, who has a fifth-grader and sixth-grader in the district, as Davis and Rogers nodded in agreement. Bowley estimated that the bonding referendum would increase her personal property taxes by as much as $1,000 annually and her business’ property taxes by $5,000. “It’s just how we go about doing it.”

If voters approve the Nov. 7 ballot measure, the school district would bond for the entire cost of the project, which would mean higher local property taxes in a community where many don’t pay them because they live on federal land. Superintendent Rochelle Johnson told meeting attendees she and the school board paid close attention to the tax impact of their plan, which has gone through several options and iterations since district leaders started shopping it to residents last spring and summer.

Survey results from opinion-gathering meetings indicated strong support for the plan to build a new elementary, but they may have been hampered by relatively small sample sizes.

Documents supplied at Thursday’s meeting and others indicate that property taxes would increase by $167 on a home valued at $100,000. A representative from Ehlers, a municipal finance advisory company, who was at the meeting said the average value of a home in the district is $98,000.

The plan

Here’s the facilities plan the bonding referendum would pay for, if approved, according to the school district’s website.

Build a new elementary school for grades 3-5

• 75,000-square-foot building on the middle school/high school campus

• Larger gym for community and potential wrestling use

Renovate existing elementary school into a PreK-grade 2 primary school

• Renovate first grade wing for PreK classrooms

• Upgrade kindergarten rooms in existing locations

• Repurpose existing grades 2-4 wings into classrooms

• Renovate existing space for improved and additional special education spaces

• Replace lockers and renovate locker bays

• Replace boiler heating plant

Upgrade and repair the Alternative Learning Center and District Resource Center

• Upgrade ALC science classroom

• Secure entry and relocation of ALC administration offices to first floor

• Demolish the 1954 section of the building and replace it with an addition that includes restrooms, gym storage, special education classrooms, and district offices.

• Upgrade fire protection systems

• Upgrade ALC and gym mechanical and electrical systems

• Repair high-priority exterior items

• Upgrade security cameras (interior and exterior)

• Make gym upgrades

High school repairs and improvements

• Secure entry and office renovation

• Replace gym bleachers

• Add ventilation to fitness center

• Make mechanical improvements — add ventilation to the fitness center, data closet cooling and water heater replacement

• Repair high-priority exterior items

• Upgrade security cameras

Middle school repairs and improvements

• Boiler plant capacity improvements

• Secure main entry upgrade

• Add dehumidification to cafeteria and gym

• Upgrade security camera and paging systems

• Repurpose areas to create flexible small group learning spaces and additional special education spaces

Voting information

And here’s where and how to vote on the referendum, according to the school district website:

Hours for voting on Nov. 7 will be from noon to 8 p.m. Voters in Bena and Winnie Portage will vote at the Bena Community Center. All other voters of the district will vote at the Pike Bay Town Hall. Voters living in precincts that vote by mail in statewide elections will not receive a ballot by mail for this election. To verify where you vote, visit

For questions on polling locations and hours, voter registration, and absentee voting, contact Cass County Elections at 218-547-7260.

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