District wants $6.45 million for fixes


January 27, 2023


Voters will weigh in on Feb. 14 on a referendum asking for $6.45 million to make improvements at Cromwell-Wright school. The impact on property owners would vary, depending on market valuations. A $250,000 home would see its taxes increase by $318 annually, while a $250,000 commercial property would see its taxes increase by $575 annually.

Voters in the Cromwell-Wright school district will go to the polls Feb. 14 with a chance to weigh a series of school improvements, costing $6.45 million and including updates to the second gym and improved safety infrastructure.

Voting for the referendum will take place from 1-8 p.m., at the Sno-Gophers Club building at 1247 Highway 73 near city hall. Mail and absentee options will be more limited than a general election.

"This building is, conservatively, about a $40 million asset," superintendent Nathan Libbon said. "We want to keep it updated and relevant as a flagship of the community. We want to preserve our school and continue to keep it a place of pride for our families, students and community as a whole."

Libbon spoke to the Pine Knot last week, outlining school needs and how prospective improvements would address those needs. With an enrollment of 295 students that, like a lot of rural schools, is in slow decline, Libbon was quick to say the proposed improvements weren't an expansion of the school.

Rather, he stressed the need to keep delivering for the students and community.

"This is a great school in a great community," he said. "We want to continue to provide facilities and services to our children well into the future."

As other rural schools in Carlton County struggle with finances, Cromwell-Wright maintains healthy fund balances, Libbon said. Its most recent building update, a $2.1 million industrial tech facility built in 2018, was paid for out of district funds. That facility houses a series of hands-on, skills-based courses for middle and high school-age students, including welding, woodworking and building construction.

Other than that, the school building hasn't undergone substantive changes since it was constructed in 1995. With referendum approval, the district would bond for the $6.45 million across 20 years. The impact on property owners would vary, depending on market valuations. A $250,000 home would see its taxes increase by $318 annually, while a $250,000 commercial property would see its taxes increase by $575 annually.

"The reality is, when a school district goes out for a bond referendum, it cannot spend one dime over that," Libbon said as a way of assuring voters the financial impacts related to the referendum are set in stone.

The proposed improvements and tax impact for a wide range of property values is available on the school's website: isd95-referendum.mailchimpsites.com/.

A survey conducted for the district by an outside agency showed district taxpayers support practical improvements proposed in the referendum.

Prior to the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the district had been exploring more substantive alterations to the school. But a more recent reanalysis of needs by Duluth's Architectural Resources Inc. showed the building had enough space, and the school board chose to go in a more practical direction.

"The board made some really good decisions to take our time with this and really gather information," Libbon said, citing a series of four community meetings, along with input sought from teachers, staff and students.

Libbon ticked through the proposed improvements, starting with safety updates proposed for the building's main entrance and other doors. Currently, an office staffer has to leave their workspace to let in visitors at the locked front doors. A new front entry would feature a vestibule with locked doors and a window to the office that would require visitors to be buzzed in.

"In most cases we know the person and why they're coming in," Libbon said of one safety advantage inherent in smaller schools.

Additionally, all other exterior doors would be made to feature locks that trigger alerts in the main office when doors aren't shut securely. Such safety measures are becoming commonplace in schools as a result of the country's lengthy history of school shootings.

Improvements to the second gym would be the most significant construction related to the referendum. Work would remove the south wall, so that the volleyball and basketball court could be made regulation size, while adding seating for up to 200 people. There would also be a student space created outside the gym for small group activities. The gym would remain a secondary gym to the competition gym.

"It's not a small deal," Libbon said of the proposed gym work. "It's a major construction effort."

In other work, bathrooms throughout the school would receive facelifts.

Regarding the parking lot, it would get significant improvements. Currently, the parking lot is littered with potholes and parts of the surface have deteriorated to nothing. Drainage is also poor, helping to create standing water at a low spot inside the school building. Earth improvements would be followed by resurfacing and the new lot would also incorporate a new drop-off/pick-up cul-de-sac solely for busing.

The lot would be configured in a way that students being dropped off by bus or their parents would never have to cross in front of traffic. Instead, they'd funnel right into the school entrance.

The lot improvements would also create some additional parking capacity.

"I don't want to mislead people," Libbon said, describing how big events could still create congestion. "Big games, grandparents' day, Christmas concerts, those get really tight around here. We have a lot of people at those. I can't promise we'll have ample parking for those events, but we will have better parking."

If the referendum passes, construction would begin this fall with completion targeted for fall 2024.

Finally, regarding absentee voting, Libbon noted that folks who normally receive mail-in ballots automatically for general elections will not be getting referendum ballots in the mail without requesting them by clicking an online link on the school's referendum site. People who want to vote early may also do so at the courthouse in Carlton.

Libbon concluded by saying he can't be a cheerleader for the referendum.

"I have to be pretty neutral," the superintendent said. "We just tell people, 'This is what you'll get for your raised taxes.'"


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