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Students at Mountain Iron-Buhl High School walk to class Tuesday. Mountain Iron-Buhl is one of three districts on the Iron Range that would “co-locate” under a plan aimed at keeping schools and the Iron Range itself viable. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Iron Range school districts want to merge staff, buildings but maintain separate identities

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The sophomores, juniors and seniors at Mountain Iron-Buhl High School are taught social studies by the same teacher during the same hour.

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The school’s small enrollment —214 this year — forces the instructor to teach three levels during the same period.

“If we were in a bigger school, that wouldn’t happen,” Principal Angie Williams said.

That’s one reason behind a proposal to “co-locate” three Iron Range school districts.   

Iron Range schools, many of which are large, elaborate structures paid for by mining companies a century ago, have seen large drops in enrollment in recent decades, leading to extra space in aging school buildings.

The decline in the number of mining jobs since the 1980s contributed to the decrease, which has led either to consolidations of schools or years of hotly debated discussions surrounding the issue on the Range, an hour north of Duluth.

The Mountain Iron and Buhl school districts and the Eveleth and Gilbert districts consolidated 30 and 25 years ago, respectively, and some residents still smart over the mergers, Mountain Iron-Buhl Superintendent John Klarich said.

“Rangers — they fight to the death for each other, but they hold a grudge forever,” he said. “It goes back to the way the area was settled. Change comes hard.”

But change is exactly what officials from Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert, Mountain Iron-Buhl and some Iron Range lawmakers are trying to bring about in an effort to improve education for students.

The districts are proposing what’s been termed a “co-located” school: One administration, one set of policies and shared teachers, but separate mascots, extracurricular activities and sports teams, where the schools haven’t already combined.

“Mountain Iron-Buhl is already consolidated; we are consolidated,” said Deborah Hilde, superintendent of Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High School. “The communities have already given up enough of their personal identities, and — on the Range — that’s very important to people.”

The idea of a co-located school doesn’t exist in Minnesota. It would require changing the law, a move that’s being sought by Iron Range lawmakers this session. Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, and Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, both are working to pass identical bills in the House and Senate that would allow the three school districts to jointly operate a secondary facility while remaining separate taxing districts, said Gary Cerkvenik, a lobbyist for the districts.

Pending decisions, for example, would involve whether there is one teacher or transportation contract or three of each, Cerkvenik said. Elementary schools would remain where they are in each district.

The plan would put the school in Mountain Iron, near Merritt Elementary School and next to U.S. Highway 169, on land owned by the Mountain Iron-Buhl school district. It proposes a complicated funding scheme that capitalizes on taconite production tax dollars and also uses state equalization aid.Residents in each community appear torn on the idea of combining districts. For the cities that would lose high schools, governments worry about economic pain. For students, it probably would mean more course offerings and better technology. And some fear the long-term effects of the loss of a neighborhood school.

School proposal

The grade 7-12 school, estimated to cost $108 million and house up to 1,800 students, would be about 350,000 square feet. The site near Merritt was chosen for its green space, central location, proximity to the highway and infrastructure, Klarich said.

Whether the school would be built to accommodate space for practices for three teams of any one sport has yet to be decided, he said, because those involved in initial planning wanted more funding security before holding more detailed planning meetings.

The combining of districts would mean administrative and support staff job loss, because three administrations would merge into one, said Deron Stender, superintendent of the Virginia school district. About 17 positions are estimated for elimination in those areas, he said. People could re-apply for jobs.

Why co-locate?

While each high school building has sections that date back to the early 1900s, school officials and lawmakers are touting the need to improve curriculum and student opportunity as the more important reason for putting students and teachers in one school.

Students from Virginia High School attend certain classes at Eveleth-Gilbert and Mountain Iron-Buhl and vice versa. The travel time often makes students late to their next classes, Virginia School Board member Tim Riordan said.

A combined school would allow special education students to be placed in a classroom according to disability with a teacher specifically licensed to teach them, such as those who are developmentally cognitively delayed, for example.

In Eveleth, foreign language instruction has decreased from three teachers to one in 10 years, Hilde said.

Buildings have been well-maintained in Eveleth, but problems persist in Virginia and Mountain Iron-Buhl. Stender said it would cost $65 million to build a new high school in Virginia, an option immediately discarded because of the impact to local taxpayers.

“The money we have to allocate toward maintenance … it’s a large black hole,” he said. “They are beautiful facilities, but dollars that go toward maintenance are dollars that don’t reach kids.”

Mountain Iron-Buhl, with its ancient heating system, also has a pool that leaks, Klarich said. There are cracks from the frequent blasting at the nearby U.S. Steel Minntac mine operations. The pool must be filled on a daily basis.

“These are some of the nuances when you live in an industrial mining area,” he said.

Under the co-location plan and its proposed funding formula involving taconite production tax dollars, the burden on local property taxpayers would be minimized.

Teachers unions, concerned about jobs, are working together to get questions answered, said Lori Olson, co-president of Education Minnesota Mountain Iron-Buhl.

Co-location would bring about better curriculum and improved technology for students, she said, but many questions remain, and there is a lot of concern about each community having a “part-time identity.”

People worry even in Mountain Iron, she said, which would lose its neighborhood high school just as the other towns would. The new high school would be somewhat isolated on its campus, with the grounds emptying out each afternoon as students and staff return to their respective towns.

“After 3 p.m., everyone would have their own identity,” Olson said.  

Community response

The Virginia City Council has symbolically voted in opposition of the plan, and the Eveleth City Council plans to do so Tuesday, Eveleth Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich said.

The plan would have an emotional and economic impact on all but the town where the school would go, he said.

“There are jobs lost. It’s going to affect businesses. Every main street is struggling, and it will impact home values,” he said. “I want to slow this whole thing right down.”

The loss of the high school will hurt downtown Virginia, resident Niecie Strand said.

The school is situated next to the library and close to many local businesses. Its closure would “leave a gaping hole in the city,” she said.

“I would be in favor (of combining districts) if I felt that curriculum would be more diverse,” Strand said. “But I don’t have faith in the process. My concern is they will do this and there won’t be any substance.”

Eveleth resident Phill Drobnick said he likes the general concept of combining districts, but the process —only a few months in the making — has been rushed by lawmakers.

“There are certainly a lot of benefits that could come from a merger of school districts, such as smaller class sizes and more classes they could offer,” he said, “But they should spend more time to make sure it’s done the right way and get more resident input.”

Joe Begich, a former Eveleth mayor and state representative, said the closure of the Eveleth school would be hard on the city, which has struggled with the economic growth of Virginia.

“You’d lose the heart of your town; it’s over with,” he said. “That’s a shame.”

Britt resident Jessica Ganyo open-enrolls her kids in the Mountain Iron-Buhl district. She opposes the plan because she wants to keep her children in a small-school environment. If it has to be done, she said, she would prefer total consolidation.

“To be in one building but still compete; it’s confusing,” she said, noting it likely would cost more money to maintain separate athletic teams. She’s also concerned about kids enduring longer bus rides.

Mountain Iron-Buhl junior Trevor Winger agrees that sports teams should combine as classrooms do.

“I think it’s a silly idea to keep them separate,” the basketball and football player said.

He’s happy the school would be built in Mountain Iron, because “we do have the space. I wouldn’t want to travel to Eveleth,” he said. “But I could see how Eveleth or Virginia wouldn’t like it.”

Eveleth sophomore Haley Bierschbach said a bigger school would mean more classes and the chance to broaden her educational horizons. She likes the idea of separate teams because more students would be able to participate, she said, and “going to school in a different town wouldn’t bother me as long as there was transportation.”

Obstacles

School officials say they have a lot of work to do to bring a plan to the public. Whether it’s approved depends on how well they present it, Klarich said.

He defends the choice of Mountain Iron for a school site, which has received some criticism because of the town’s small size.

“We have the biggest taconite production in America, and Mountain Iron gets the least amount of return on this big investment,” he said, explaining that a large portion of the taconite taxes proposed to build the school would come from the Minntac mine in Mountain Iron. Riordan, the Virginia School Board member, bristled at the criticism he’s heard about lack of planning.

“They say we put the cart before the horse,” he said. “We did it the proper way. We waited until we had funding. Now we can lay it out so there is understanding.”

The funding he referred to comes out of the omnibus tax bill signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday.

If other necessary legislation passes this session, officials would go to work forming committees and meeting with residents for input. A Review and Comment document, which would detail the proposed project, must be submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education for approval. If approved, each district would put the plan to a vote. At least two of the three districts need to approve the plan for it to go forward. The plan has a tentative completion date of 2017.

Stender said school officials need to do a better job of spreading information to residents as things progress.

“We’re faced with many hurdles,” he said. “While this appears to be moving rather fast, people will have the opportunity to be part of the process. We expect public scrutiny.”

RELATED CONTENT: Taconite taxes tapped for school construction

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Jana Hollingsworth
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