The Bobcat Update: Finance and history

Submitted by Douglas D. Embray

Associate Superintendent, Benton Community Schools

March 9, 2020

The Benton Community School District located in southern Benton County has a rich tradition in providing quality education and activity programs. The mission statement “Quality Education for a Lifetime of Learning” is the central focus for all efforts in staff training and student achievement. Staff engage in student-centered classrooms, teach for understanding, assess for learning, create rigorous and relevant curriculum and accommodate diverse learners in their classrooms. Benton Community School District employs over 200 staff, supporting administration, instruction, food service, custodial, transportation, support staff, technology, and clerical.

The school district geographic footprint that covers 342 square miles and includes the communities of Atkins, Blairstown, Elberon, Keystone, Newhall, Norway, Van Horne, and Watkins. Each community has rich traditions and celebrations that provide the character of our school district. Small town atmosphere and many community opportunities to raise a family in safe and secure neighborhoods. Visitors will find local commerce, a rich offering of religious institutions, and many community support organizations. School District Communities are encircled by a vibrant farm industry that annually produces grain and livestock. Recent valuations of our school district for Fiscal 2020 were $647,185,713.00. The current school district general fund levy rate is $10.69 per thousand. Currently, Fiscal 2020, the school district operates and maintains a $17 million dollar General Operating Fund. The School General Fund, supported by an ISL, (Instructional Support Levy), generates around $800,000.00 per fiscal year to support instructional supply, technology, and staff development. The district currently has no general obligation bonding but does support two sales revenue bonds that were implemented in Fiscal 2009 and Fiscal 2012 to improve district infrastructure. The 2009 sales revenue bond was refinanced to take advantage of better interest rates in Fiscal 2019.

The school district has no voted PPEL, (Physical Plant and Equipment Levy) but does through annual budgeting support the .33 cent PPEL which provides for funding to maintain school district HVAC in multiple facilities.

A seven-member school board as defined by the 2010 census governs the Benton Community School District. Directors include President Pat Stepanek Director District #4, Vice President Roy Becker Director District #1, Director Emily Upah Director District #7, Director Theresa Thompson Director District #2, Director Brenda Werning Director District #6, Director Matt Nolte Director District #3, and Director Theresa Ludeking Director District #5. The School Board generally meets on the third Wednesday of the month starting at 6:00 P.M. at the Central Office Board Room in Van Horne. Please visit our school website at ( for more specific information on policy, procedure, monthly meeting agendas.

The board annually sets goals and aligns efforts in policy review that revolve around the following themes: Educational Excellence, Teamwork, Continuous Growth, and a Caring/Belonging Atmosphere. More specifically the board annually promotes opportunities for students, staff, and patrons to engage as creative problem solvers, effective communicators, responsible citizens, self-directed learners, cooperative contributors, and complex thinkers. Monthly, the board through administrative and staff presentations on district program are provided achievement results through data share. This cycle of consistent reporting keeps the board informed and ready to react to recommendations and policy revision.

In recent board discussion and action, a goal around the current state of district facility and planning for future infrastructure was created. Recent growth in the community of Atkins has generated discussion on the district’s ability to meet the needs relevant to classroom space, quality learning environments, and current school facility capacities as it relates to school facility geographic location. The need to better understand our school district demography was also identified as an influencing factor for review.

Specifically, the board desires the assessment for current school facility longevity and master planning for facility use in the span of 3-5 years, 5-10 years, and 10 years and beyond. This conversation evolved to the release of an RFP, (Request for Proposal) this past fall that set the criteria for district infrastructure study and planning.

The School Board has narrowed the pool of interested firms and will be interviewing for selection at a future date. This work will be comprehensive and specific to infrastructure, demography, state of facility, and provide guidance on planning for improvement. This comprehensive approach will require committee work, many board work sessions, and coordination of data for review. It is a study! It will provide our board the necessary information to make decisions on how to best allocate district resources to current and future facility enhancements that meet the needs of our school community. Please stay informed and visit our school website at ( for information on committee meetings and future actions to this improvement theme. If you have interest in this topic please contact your building administrator and share that interest and willingness to participate!

School Board members serve four-year terms and are elected out of the geographical district they reside. Boards of Education spend many hours in study, review, and policy development. One of my duties with Benton Community is the role of Board Secretary. This work involves board meeting facilitation, public record of meetings, archive data management, communication with current directors, and board meeting preparation. This work is very rewarding and offers a glimpse of the present and past each month in my filings for agendas and publications. As I have engaged with board members over the years, I am impressed with the passion, desire, and focus given to this work. It is not always easy and can be very stressful as the weight of decision-making is processed. Recently we were able to update our boardroom with some very unique photography of our past school facilities. This photography comes from the early 70’s and offers a glimpse in time of the school buildings. I have had a few very good conversations with patrons who have stopped to view and share memories of those buildings. Stop in and and view if in Van Horne!

In recent reorganization of the board archives, many boxes and labels, I have been reading past actions and various historical notes. Wow! What a rich history! The Benton Community School District organized by vote on March 10, 1964 with the first Benton Community Board elected by special vote April 10, 1964.

I was able to access a historical note developed for the span of time 1965 to 1979. This series of notes compiled by past board secretaries was a fascinating read, outlining the beginning of Benton Community. It covers many years with many actions and processes. As you read this excerpt you may find a connection with a family member, friend, or have actually participated in this historical record. It was a very challenging historical period with many passionate examples of leadership and community action. The engagement and energy in this work comes out with each passage. It is always good to ‘look back’ and to appreciate the journey.

As the School Board of 2020 moves forward with facility study and master planning for the next generation of students it is important to be actively engaged and informed!

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey


(1965 – 1979)

On March 10, 1964, the vote on the reorganization proposal of the Keystone, Van Horne, Newhall, and Blairstown School Districts carried with 1,133 for the reorganization and 894 opposed.

Three-fourths of the school districts involved had to pass the proposal, and all districts with an ADA (average daily attendance) of more than 300 had to approve the proposal to form the new district. Blairstown, Van Horne, and Keystone had an ADA of more than 300, Newhall did not.

A special election was held on April 10, 1964 to elect the five members of the new Board of Education. Those elected were: L.H. Clausen of Blairstown (I), Louis Wallace of Keystone (II), Donald Werning of Newhall (III), Herman C. Brehm (IV), and Leland Skoog of Keystone (Director-at-Large). Roland Hellwig of Keystone was elected Treasurer.

The Board members of the Benton Community School District met at the Blairstown School Monday evening, April 13, 1964. An election of officers was held and Benton County Superintendent Floyd L. Ellson administered the oath of office to Herman Brehm, who was elected President, Louis Wallace, Vice-President, and L.H. Clausen, Donald Werning, Leland Skoog, and Roland Hellwig.

Dale Grabinski was selected as the first Superintendent of the newly formed district. Mr. Gabrinski had previously taught in the LaPorte City Community Schools and served as Superintendent of the Keystone School District during the 1963-64 school year, prior to the reorganization.

Raymond Manship was appointed as assistant superintendent. Mr. Manship had previously served as Superintendent and Newhall and Van Horne.

The Benton Community School District became effective on July 1, 1964. The District included over 230 square miles and had an assessed valuation in excess of $19,000,000. The student enrollment was approximately 1540 in the 1964-65 school year. The General Fund was about $900,000. The new district employed nearly 150 people, including a professional staff of 90 teachers and administrators.

The formation of the Benton Community School District was not accomplished without controversy.

On April 8, 1965, a petition for writ of certiorari was filed in Benton County District Court by 32 objectors naming the Boards of Education of Benton, Tama, and Iowa counties, the consolidated school districts of Van Horne, Blairstown, Keystone, and Newhall, the Benton community School District, Benton County Superintendent, the State Department of Public Instruction and Paul F. Johnston, the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Iowa, as defendants.

The Plaintiffs, I the writ, charged a number of improper and illegal acts related to the proceedings, the election, and the reorganization itself.

In addition, the plaintiffs charged that the petitions instigating the re-organization proceedings were “invalid”, null and void, and that signatures were obtained through misrepresentation and coercion.”

District Court Judge M.C. Farber of Marshalltown ruled in favor of the defendants stating in part:

“The plaintiffs have failed to establish any of the material allegations of their petition sufficient to entitle them to any relief herein; there is no evidence of proof to establish that the Benton Community School District was not properly formed, organized, consummated, and established, or that any of the proceedings in connection therewith were not properly had and done; that plaintiffs’ petition should be and is hereby dismissed.”

The plaintiffs appealed the District Court decision to the State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision.

During the 1964-65 school year each of the four former districts operated as separate K-12 attendance centers.

The Board located the Central Administration Offices in Van Horne in the house owned by the Carl Brehm trust.

In September 30, 1964, the Board met with a newly formed steering committee. It was decided to maintain three (3) kindergarten through ninth grade centers, one each at Blairstown, Keystone and Newhall.

In March of 1965 the Board selected Phillip England as the first principal for the newly centralized high school.

Attendance boundary changes were also made during this period. Seventh, eight, and ninth grade students in the Blairstown attendance center were transferred to the Newhall Attendance Center, except for those living west of Highway 82. These individuals attended the Keystone Attendance Center.

On July 1, 1967, the Elberon Independent School District was merged with the Benton Community School District. This same year the Board turned down a request from the Norway Board to discuss future possibilities of reorganization between the two districts.

The Benton Community Girls’ Softball team defeated Kingsley-Pierson 2-0 in the finals of the 1966 State Summer Tournament.

On February 21, 1967 residents turned down a bond issue in the amount of $1,250,000 for the construction of a new senior high school. The vote was 674 yes and 1147 no.

Raymond Manship was appointed Athletic Director for the 1967-68 school year.

On March 27, 1968 Benton Community High School was accepted as a member of the North Central Association of College and Secondary Schools.

Voters rejected a bond referendum for construction of a new senior high school. The issue, which called for expenditures of $1,380,000 received 842 yes votes to 1065 no votes.

On July 1, 1968 the Atkins-Fremont Consolidated School District was assigned to the Benton Community School District.

At the annual meeting on July 8, 1968 the Board approved the lease on the Dean Curtis property to be used by the Benton Community School District for a central administration office.

On July 25, 1968 the Board exercised its option and purchased 32.36 acres of land from Miss Euzella Barry.

In May of 1968 voters rejected for the third time a bond referendum calling for the construction of a new senior high school building. The vote was 924 yes to 1241 no.

In the spring of 1969 a site referendum by mail showed 1,331 voters favoring a town site and 592 a country site.

A bond issue calling for construction of a new senior high school was defeated in October 7, 1969. The vote was 1210 yes and 971 no for a favorable percentage of 55.5.

This same year the Board sold the land formerly occupied by the Elberon School to the town of Elberon.

On February 11, 1970, the Board of Education passed a resolution which recommended that the Benton County Board of Education merge the Benton County School System with the Joint County School System.

In April of 1970 voters rejected a $1,800,000 bond issue for construction of a new senior high school. The vote was 1074 yes and to 1311 no.

The North Central Association of College and Secondary Schools advised the Board of Education that the high school had been placed in the accreditation second warning category due to the failure of the District to make necessary improvements in facilities. The Board was informed that failure of the District to provide adequate facilities by March 19, 1971 would result in loss of NCA accreditation.

The Board entered into a lease agreement for a central warehouse and storage facility located adjacent to the Central Administration office in Van Horne.

On November 24, 1970 voters rejected a proposed bond issue for $985,000 for a high school academic facility. The vote was 1,025 yes and 1,076 no.

The board was informed by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools that Benton Community High School would be dropped from membership in the Association effective June 30, 1971.

On February 10, 1971 the Board approved the centralization of the Junior High (grade 7 & 8) at the Newhall Center and the ninth grade at the Keystone Center. In addition the Board approved moving grade 4 from the Newhall Center to the Akins Center.

Dr. Dale L Grabinski resigned as superintendent of the Benton Community School District, effective July 15, 1971. Dr. Grabinski has served as superintendent since 1964.

The Board requested that high school principal, Phil England make a personal appeal at the NCA National Committee meeting in Chicago concerning the loss of accreditation. Despite this appeal effort the NCA dropped the Benton Community High School from membership effective July 1, 1971.

Phillip England, Benton Community High School principal from 1965-71, was appointed Superintendent of Schools for the 1971-72 school year. He succeeds Dale Grabinski, who had previously resigned.

Benton Community defeated Burlington High School to win the 1971 State Summer Baseball Championship before a record-setting crowd at Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.

On September 13, 1971 the Board agreed to conform to President Nixon’s Price and Wage Freeze. This action held salaries for most Benton employees at the previous year’s level.

Ray Manship, Assistant Superintendent and Athletic Director, resigned effective at the end of the 1972-73 school year. Mr. Manship had previously served as Superintendent for the Van Horne Consolidated School District.

In May 1972, voters rejected a bond issue for the seventh time. The issue called for the expenditures of $2,380,000 for construction of a new senior high, an elementary building at Newhall, and remodeling at Keystone. The issue received a 51% favorable vote.

In September of the same year voters rejected a 2 ½ mill levy by a vote of 286 yes to 317 no. However, voters did authorize the expenditure of $78,914 in the schoolhouse fund. Those funds were used for the construction of an elementary library addition to the Keystone Center.

Voters rejected a proposal for 1 $1,950,000 senior high facility. This was the eighth bond issue defeat over a six year period.

In July of 1973, the Board accepted a bid of $87,002 for the construction of an elementary library addition to the Keystone Attendance Center.

High School Baccalaureate Services were discontinued the Board action of November 14, 1973.

On May 28, 1975 the Board adopted the following resolution:

“In recognition of his many years of service in the field of education and for his dedication to and interest in high school interscholastic athletics, the Board of

Education of the Benton Community School District does herby dedicate the high school baseball field….Manship Field….in honor of Raymond Manship.”

The District purchased the property and building housing the Central Administration office and warehouse from Dean Curtis and Murial Curtis.

The Public Employment Relations Board election held on August 27, 1975, certified the Benton Community Education Association as the exclusive bargaining representative for the certified employees of Benton Community.

Voters rejected a proposed $975,000 bond issue for an addition to the high school. The vote showed 734 favored the issue and 580 opposed.

On March 10, 1976, the Board ratified the first master contract with the Benton Community Education Association.

Work was completed on a new bus storage and maintenance building constructed west of the high school football field in Van Horne.

The Board approved the transfer of all first grade students from the Newhall Center to the Atkins Center for the 1976-77 school year. This represented the first stage of a two year plan which would complete the transfer of all elementary students from the Newhall Center to the Atkins Center. The final phase was completed in the 1977-78 school year.

Voters rejected bond issues in September of 1976 and again in March of 1977. Both issues called for building additions to the high school and junior high centers. The referendums received 59.7 and 55.7 percentage approval.

The Department of Public Instruction conducted a three day visitation in April of 1978 to evaluate the entire school system. Following the visitation, written recommendations were presented the Board and administration.

A citizens task force was organized in October of 1978. The purpose of this committee was to analyze District needs and make recommendations to the Board regarding facility needs of the District.

The Committee presented its recommendation to the Board in the Spring of 1979. The recommendation called for building a new 7-12 facility on a country site.

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