Round Lake-Brewster schools return to voters with a $30.48 million for buildings

An exit sign is attached to a structure above a stairwell.
An exit sign hangs on temporary bracing supporting sagging walls in a stairwell at the Round Lake-Brewster school. The school district says it needs over $30 million to rebuild several buildings some which date back to World War One. The school houses classrooms for preschool to eighth grade and has 503 students.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Aged floorboards squeaked in protest as Round Lake-Brewster Superintendent Ray Hassing led a tour of repairs made to the original 1914 school building walls in Nobles County.

In 2021, officials noticed cracks in the basement’s foundation walls and northeast stairwell running up the second and third floors. There’s more cracking on the third floor walls. 

A crack in a plaster wall
After a crack formed on the outer plaster of a wall at Round Lake-Brewster school, a section of the plaster was removed to see if a crack had formed in the masonry underneath. The first building of the school was built in 1914 and needs repairs in certain areas.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

“This was one of them right here, it wasn’t this big,” Hassing said standing by some of the damage. “But, we had some cracking and you can see all these walls were all brand new and redone.”

The masonry and clay tile are deteriorating. Shoring supported walls on all three levels. The building is safe for now, Hassing said, but the situation calls for more than repairs.

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“We don’t want to do another bond referendum, we don’t want to raise people’s taxes,” he said. “But unfortunately, for school districts, referendums pay for buildings and this building is 109 years old.”

A man points towards wall siding in a hallway.
Round Lake-Brewster superintendent Ray Hassing shows the temporary shoring along a wall in the oldest section of the school that was built in 1914. Hassing said that people are more informed about the upcoming referendum and added, "It's a need, not a want. Our future depends on it."
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

New buildings needed

The Round Lake-Brewster district is asking voters to approve a $30.48 million bond referendum on Tuesday. If passed, the referendum would add $384 annually to the property taxes on a $150,000 house. 

Funds would pay for the demolition of the 1914 building, another built in 1938 and a portion of a third built in 1962. It would also finance a new 72,000 square-foot addition in three phases to maintain school operations throughout. 

Voters rejected a similar bond referendum in August, but only by seven votes.

The exterior of a school bulding.
A contrast in styles can be seen of the two gyms at Round Lake-Brewster school from the outside. The gymnasium on the left was built in 1938 and the one on the right was built in 2020.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The state recommended building a new school on a new site, but Hassing said this option was the best one without it being too much of a burden on taxpayers. 

Mounting enrollment

District projections showed a doubling in student enrollment within the next several years. During a time when small rural districts experienced declining student enrollment, Round Lake-Brewster is trying to prepare spaces for the future. 

A man stands in a school gymnasium.
Ray Hassing, superintendent for Round Lake-Brewster school, stands in the gymnasium that was built in 1938. The school is holding a referendum for repairs needed at the school.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The district isn’t the only one asking voters for money this month. Three other districts are also holding referendums: Crookston, Melrose and Cromwell-Wright. 

In 2022, voters in 34 Minnesota school districts passed referendums and 23 voted them down. 

Kirk Schneidawind of the Minnesota School Boards Association said districts are finding it increasingly difficult to approach voters for money, especially as inflation is increasing the costs of everyday living.

Meanwhile, that same inflation raised the cost of insurance and supplies for projects schools want to build. 

“Districts don’t, or boards, don’t go out and ask unless they really feel that there’s a need,” Schneidawind said. “And so, it’s important that schools share the need and it’s very clearly understood by the public so they understand what they’re voting for, and what they’re going to get in return.”

Part of a process

A small turnout of community members attended the public meeting
A small turnout of community members attended the public meeting held by Round Lake-Brewster School on Thursday about an upcoming $30.48 million bond referendum. The referendum failed in front of voters in August 2022.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

There was a small turnout for the last of three public meetings on the bond referendum for Round Lake-Brewster on Thursday night. Community members sat on wooden bleachers inside the 85-year-old gym and could see damage in the ceiling caused by a recent leak. 

Even if the bond referendum passed, it’d take more than a year before students and staff can move into the newer building addition. 

Mike McCarvel is a long-time resident and farmer in Brewster. He was also a student in the district years ago and supported the referendum, having already voted absentee. 

“I was disappointed that it didn’t pass last time, but that’s the way it goes,” McCarvel said. “Sometimes, you gotta bring it back up and make people aware of where we’re at on the thing, and if we don’t do it, what’s going to happen?”

If the referendum fails on Tuesday, Superintendent Hassing said Round Lake-Brewster planned to keep returning to voters to ask the same question again until it passes. 

“It’s just part of the process you have to go through and hopefully, the work that you do we’ll get others to see and so hopefully our communities will support the referendum,” he said. “We move forward.”

A small turnout of community members attended the public meeting
A small turnout of community members attended the public meeting held by Round Lake-Brewster School on Thursday about an upcoming $30.48 million bond referendum. The referendum failed in front of voters in August.
Hannah Yang | MPR News