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IRRRB, superintendents not seeing eye-to-eye on Iron Range school fund

A sculpture outside of the Virginia High School/Roosevelt Elementary School complex. Iron Range school district superintendents and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board are disagreeing over how to spend money from a fund created last year to encourage the districts to collaborate. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Virginia High School. Iron Range school district superintendents and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board are disagreeing over how to spend money from a fund created last year to encourage the districts to collaborate. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Plans are underway to begin spending money on Iron Range school districts from a fund created last year to encourage the districts to collaborate.

Although Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board officials say the first allocation of money is earmarked for new curriculum, superintendents say the money would be better used to update aging schools — and that a lack of direction from the IRRRB has led to the difference in opinion on how money from the School Consolidation and Cooperatively Operated School Account should be spent.

IRRRB officials strongly opposed Iron Range superintendents' initial plans to use the money — which comes from taconite production taxes — for building projects, Virginia Superintendent Deron Stender said. But Stender said the school districts haven't received an indication of which projects are eligible for funding and what the IRRRB members are willing to support.

"The whole system needs to be designed and we're waiting to see what happens," Stender said. "Philosophically, the belief of the superintendents is: That's money that would be eligible for districts in the taconite relief area that would help offset some of the expenditures for our taxpayers," including building projects.

IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips explained that the money is expected to become available in August and that the IRRRB, which administers the fund, is planning to write guidelines this summer. Phillips, who wasn't the IRRRB commissioner when the fund was created, said he doesn't know why the superintendents would move ahead on planning for the funds when they haven't received direction from the IRRRB yet.

"I don't know why the superintendents made a plan. They were never in charge of this money," Phillips said.

The fund is expected to total about $7 million this year, and any school district project using that money needs the approval of a supermajority of the IRRRB. The slowdown of Iron Range taconite operations won't affect this year's total amount because of the three-year production averages used to calculate taconite taxes. However, future years could be affected by the idled mining operations, Phillips said.

"If we have multiple down years in a row, then it could have a dramatic impact," he said.

There's not enough money in the account each year to be able to do a lot, said Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. The fund was created to promote cooperation between school districts, whether it's consolidating into one building or sharing programs, he said.

The IRRRB will start considering projects to approve after the funding becomes available in August, but planning has started on curriculum that could be used across multiple school districts on the Iron Range.

"There's a pretty large effort underway ... to expand curriculum through telepresence programming," Bakk said.

Phillips noted that collaborating on curriculum now could mean an easier transition if school districts need to consolidate in the future.

Iron Range superintendents agree that the districts should continuously improve curriculum, Stender said, but with school buildings between 50 and 100 years old, building needs are accumulating and those needs are more immediate than curriculum needs. Stender presides over a district with an elementary school constructed in 1930.

"We're appreciative of the work our legislators have done to help establish that fund, but we're just hopeful that they'll understand that we do have facility needs as well as curriculum needs," Stender said. "Sometimes our facility needs are greater than our curriculum needs because we do a pretty darn good job of providing quality education. Not to say we can't do better, we understand that."

The legislation creating the fund passed in March 2014 as the Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert and Mountain Iron-Buhl school districts were considering a now-defunct plan to co-locate their high schools into one new building.

Iron Range superintendents have been meeting in recent months to discuss the fund with an eye toward their districts' facility needs, a topic that grew out of both the legislation's passage and co-location discussions, Grand Rapids Superintendent Bruce Thomas said. The group didn't finalize a plan for the money, he said, but had a conversation focused on "how we can, in fact, work together as school districts to do what's best for children."

The discussions to use the fund for school buildings have been put on hold given the economic climate on the Iron Range and the lack of legislative support for the superintendents' idea, Thomas said.

The superintendents are waiting for direction from the IRRRB on how to apply and what projects are eligible, Stender said. But facility needs are foremost in their minds.

"Our philosophy is once we get our buildings up to educational needs, then we can start spending more of those dollars on curriculum rather than on our buildings," he said.

Bakk and Phillips disagree that building projects in individual school districts should receive funding, saying that isn't the intention of the fund.

"Some superintendents saw this pot of money developing and thought, 'Oh my God, we've gotta get our hands on it,'" Bakk said. "They went down a road where we can all just carve this up — and that's not the intention of it. That's not what the language says, so we're going to pull them back more to doing programming that benefits kids."

Phillips said the IRRRB has only recently started to dabble in funding K-12 initiatives — and the IRRRB isn't responsible for covering school district expenses when there's a shortage in state education funding, he noted.

"But if we can do some smart things to get districts to work together with a small amount of money, that probably makes some sense," Phillips said. "But we're not going to be gap-fillers and we're not probably going to fill the gap where communities need new facilities and they need to pass referendums to pay for them."

Thomas said the use of the money won't stay on the superintendents' back burner indefinitely.

"The legislation is there and I think when one looks at the needs of schools in Northeastern Minnesota, it makes sense for us to use whatever avenue that's possible to provide opportunities for children," he said.