Two Iron Range school districts say working together will help create better educational opportunities for their students.

To move forward with the collaboration, voters will have to approve a referendum in May that would not only increase taxes, but also allow the districts to partner on a new career academy high school.

For almost two years, Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia school districts have been working together to create a plan where they would collaborate and build a new career academy high school.

What is a career academy high school?

"It's much more focused on business-school partnership," said Virginia superintendent Noel Schmidt.

There are three career academies that students would have to decide from once they begin their sophomore year: business, management, administration, arts, communications and information systems; health sciences technology and human services; or agriculture, food, natural resources, engineering, manufacturing and technology.

The purpose of this form of education, Schmidt said, is to give students a better idea of what they want to do once they graduate high school.

"This way they don't go to college and change majors halfway through and find themselves $20,000 to $30,000 in debt all of a sudden," he said.

Schmidt said this type of educational structure helps prepare students for life after high school, whether that means attending a two- or four-year college or going right into the workforce.

"We're trying to make high school education more relevant to the realities of what the kids will actually be experiencing. It's still high school. We still have the standards. All the courses are there, but we're going to modify them and make it so it's much more realistic to life and to the realities of the workforce," Schmidt said. "So, we want to create multiple paths for all kids, not just some kids."

Within the academies there are an array of career paths students can explore from banking and journalism to mining and teaching. Last summer a committee was formed to look over a career cluster chart from the Department of Education and craft the academies for what was most relevant to the Iron Range.

"The kids will also have more internships and practical application, so if a kid wants to be a nurse they'll actually have some experience with it and they'll have a much better idea if that is a good fit for them," Schmidt said. "It's important for kids to find out what they don't want to do, too."

The cost

Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia are looking at building a new high school and two new elementary schools. The cost of their partnership and the three new buildings is estimated to be about $178.5 million and taxpayers are expected to pay for about 20 percent of the project.

On May 14, residents of both school districts will have a chance to make their voices heard on the project. Virginia school district voters will be asked to approve a more than $147.5 million referendum, while Eveleth-Gilbert residents will be asked to approve a $30.9 million referendum.

"We are leveraging Virginia because the state of Minnesota considers it to be the poorer school district," Schmidt said. "So we get the best deal if we have Virginia carry the most debt. In the end the taxpayers in both districts pay exactly the same."

This is due to money approved by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and money coming from the state, both of which are lowering the tax burden on residents of the districts. The IRRRB unanimously approved $98 million over 20 years during a meeting in February and the state is adding an additional $120 million over 20 years.

"This is an incredible opportunity for our area and the kids for our area. Considering the amount of money it's going to cost taxpayers," said Eveleth-Gilbert superintendent Jeff Carey. "We're never going to see this again. It's an opportunity of a lifetime. It could be a jump start to an economic revival up here. It's just going to be a great thing for all of our communities."

For the districts to move forward with this project, they need a majority of voters in each district to approve the referendum in May. If one district gets a majority voting yes and the other doesn't, then the project will not be able to move forward. The districts only receive money from the IRRRB if voters approve the project.

If voters do approve the referendums in May, the tax impact on a home valued at $75,000 will see an annual tax increase of $115 no matter what district the house is located in. A home valued at $125,000 will see an annual tax increase of $252.

If voters don't approve the project, both districts are looking at self-funding a minimum of $40 million each to renovate current buildings, which could cost residents with a home valued at $125,000 about $511 annually in Eveleth-Gilbert and $345 a year in Virginia.

Currently, between the two districts, more than $2.5 million above the state average is being spent on building maintenance.

"The fact is the learning spaces that they use in elementaries in modern education is vastly different than what they used years ago," Carey said. "Regardless of what you do, as far as remodeling goes, you still have a 100-year-old building when you're done."

As for the current buildings, the plan is to try and sell the buildings as-is and if they don't sell within two years, demolition will be considered.

"We completely understand that this is difficult because buildings have emotions attached to them," Schmidt said. "But we are looking at educating the kids of the future, not the education of the kids in the past."

'What's best for our kids'

Most school districts begin talking to each other when one or both are in financial trouble, but neither Eveleth-Gilbert nor Virginia are in that boat. With neither district in financial trouble, the conversation has been all about education and the students.

"It's really refreshing that it's all in the name of education instead of fighting over money or mascots or school colors," Carey said. "It's been great seeing both communities work together."

According to Eveleth-Gilbert board member Brandi Lautigar, the two school boards started talking about maybe working together on transportation needs, especially since the districts are near each other, and the conversation evolved from there about what else the districts could collaborate on.

"Let's be realistic - our high schools are 5 miles apart," said Virginia school board member Murray Anderson. "We have to do what's best for our kids, what's best for our communities, what's best for our families. We have to make this educational system work for our kids, so that we become one."

Both Lautigar and Anderson said the discussion between the two boards has been productive and positive.

"Everybody has worked super well together. It's been very uplifting," Lautigar said. "It's been nice to see the cooperation and collaboration between the boards."

Both districts have organized over 100 community meetings and 12 combined board meetings over the past two years regarding the collaboration.

"When we first started talking between the two districts, we were trying to help the districts become more responsible with more shared service-type things," Anderson said. "But as we continued on I believe that we saw there was a need to help our students develop more of a 21st century-type of education."

Collaboration or consolidation?

As of now, both school districts are just talking about collaborating on one seventh- through 12th-grade career academy high school. Neither district can consider consolidation at this point due to where the money is coming from for the project, according to Schmidt.

"Now everyone is jumping to consolidation, and that could happen down the road, but that is not something that the two school boards are talking about right now," he said. "But that could be a possible outcome down the road; and if that was the case, the logical time frame would be three years down the road, which would give both districts lots of time to do what they needed to do to prepare for that."

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, to consolidate, the districts would have to come to agreed-upon terms at the local level and lessen the number of school board members from 13 to six or seven members within three years of consolidating.

If the districts do not consolidate by the time the new high school opens, one district would have to claim fiduciary responsibility for the new school, which would also have to be determined by and agreed upon by the school boards.

If the referendums pass May 14, construction on the new high school could begin in 2020 and take about two years to complete.

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Have questions or concerns?

Follow Eveleth Gilbert Virginia Collaboration on Facebook to receive updates and information on the possible partnership between the two districts.

Questions can also be directed to either districts' superintendent or school board members.

Eveleth-Gilbert:

• Jeff Carey, superintendent

• Bill Addy, board chair

• Brandi Lautigar, vice chair

• Thomas Gentilini, board member

• Derek Malner, board member

• Kelly Sather, board member

• Matt Sjoberg, board member

• Pollyann Sorcan, board member

• John Uhan, board member

Virginia:

• Noel Schmidt, superintendent

• Murray Anderson, board chair

• Stacey Sundquist, board member

• Tom Tammaro, board member

• Gail Baribeau, board member

• Tim Riordan, board member