Voters in the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia school districts will have a chance to make their voices heard in May on the future of the districts.

Both the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia school boards voted Monday to call a special election May 12 to allow voters to decide if the two districts can consolidate July 1.

According to Virginia Superintendent Noel Schmidt, the boards decided to call a special election, prompted by a petition coming forward. The boards wanted to make sure a vote would happen before July 1.

There are only five days an election can be held in Minnesota, all of which have filing deadlines. The filing deadline for May 12 is Friday. The next available election days after that are Aug. 11 and Nov. 3.

The Minnesota Department of Education commissioner approved the consolidation between the two districts Jan. 29. Both boards approved it Feb. 10.

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After a notice of the consolidation ran in the districts' legal newspapers of record, it triggered a 30-day period in which both boards could vote to send the consolidation to an election, or a petition with 5% of eligible voters could also trigger an election. If neither of those situations occurred, the consolidation would happen July 1.

Schmidt told the News Tribune that because a petition was coming forward, the boards were worried it would be submitted after the May election filing date, causing the vote for consolidation to be delayed until August, which would put off consolidation until July 1, 2021.

Consolidation can only occur at the start of a new fiscal year, which is July 1 for school districts.

"We don't want to delay consolidation because we have so many systems that we have to merge together and we would rather do it slowly and meticulously than rush through it to make sure everything is in place when the new high school opens," Schmidt said.

For consolidation to move forward, each district would need a simple majority vote. If the majority of voters in just one district vote no, the consolidation will not move forward.

Schmidt said if consolidation were voted down, the high school and elementary school projects would still move forward. Virginia would become the fiscal agent of the new high school, which would be run by the joint powers board.

"Also there will be an additional $520,000 minimum in expenses because it would cost more to run the districts separately versus consolidation," Schmidt said.

The districts would also lose about $450,000 in state funding that districts can access to help offset the cost of consolidation, Schmidt said.

Schmidt also wanted voters to know that if consolidation were to move forward, the tax increase voters approved in the May 2019 referendums would either stay the same or be lower, regardless of whether a person lives in the Eveleth-Gilbert school district or in Virginia.

Voters from both districts approved a combined nearly $180 million referendum in May 2019 that allowed the districts to move forward with building two new elementary schools and a new high school, now dubbed "Rock Ridge High School," which is set to open in fall 2023.