Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

School officials should see delay as chance to confront reality

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/2/10

What a mess. That’s the only way to describe the current situation with the St. Louis County School District’s plans to build two new schools, one near Alborn and other just north of Cook. …

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School officials should see delay as chance to confront reality


What a mess. That’s the only way to describe the current situation with the St. Louis County School District’s plans to build two new schools, one near Alborn and other just north of Cook.

School officials had expected to break ground on the new schools by late May or early June. But following an epic screw-up by their consultant Johnson Controls (see related story page 1), the district will now be lucky to break ground before late summer, and the prospects for having the new facilities completed by the time they were supposed to open in the fall of 2011, just went from possible to darn near impossible.

And that’s if everything goes well, which so far it hasn’t. Representatives of Johnson Controls clearly viewed the conditional use permit application process as a slam-dunk, but they’ve since found out that some members of the planning commission actually listen to local concerns. It’s possible the school district may not be able to move forward at all with its plan for a new school in the north. And that would be a blessing in disguise, because it would give ISD 2142 time to confront some hard realities.

First and foremost is that their plan in the north will likely fail to achieve what it was intended to do, which is to improve the district’s finances. The district’s plan to build a new school north of Cook will certainly trim expenses, but the district never accounted for potential losses in enrollment and the corresponding drop in revenue that would follow. Those losses look more problematic in the wake of the Virginia School District’s announcement late last week that it will offer bus service from both downtown Cook and Tower starting this fall. It’s clear someone senses blood in the water, even if the ISD 2142 school board remains oblivious to the dangers.

Superintendent Charles Rick acknowledged to me last week that Johnson Controls is downsizing enrollment projections for the north school. Other district sources tell us the new figures may be downsized significantly.

The situation is no better in Tower-Soudan, where the district faces wholesale losses in enrollment if it goes ahead with its stated plans to shutter the high school. Legislators and other local elected officials in Cook, Tower-Soudan, and Orr, have urged the district to conduct an independent survey in the north to get a better handle on just how many students might leave, and what kind of financial impact that would have. But the superintendent recently rejected that proposal.

Without a clearer idea of what’s in store for the north, post-restructuring, district officials cannot guarantee that their expensive plan won’t end up doing more harm than good to the district’s budget. For more than a year, district officials have claimed they can’t afford to run the existing schools in Tower, Cook, and Orr. Still unanswered is whether or not they can afford to close them.

If the proposed school site north of Cook is ultimately rejected by the planning commission, it opens the very real possibility that the school district will abandon its plans for a new school to serve the two communities. Instead, some on the board are already suggesting the Orr School could be closed and the students sent to Cook. Trouble is, because the school district never incorporated a realistic Plan B into their final proposal, it could not spend any of the referendum money to renovate the Cook School.

That’s one more reason why special legislation to split the district is needed now. Under special legislation, it would be appropriate to allocate the $35 million in bonding earmarked for Cook, Tower, and Orr to the new district, and to give the newly-created school board the authority to decide how to spend it.

The new district might well find that the best way to ensure its survival is to renovate the three community schools, rather than close them. A new district that maintains the three community schools will be better able to fend off the aggressive tactics of neighboring school districts, like Virginia. Keep in mind, the ISD 2142 school board has constantly maintained that building new schools or renovating old ones will attract new students and keep others from leaving. So why wouldn’t that be the case if a new northern district opted to renovate schools in Tower, Cook, and Orr, rather than close them?

If the communities followed up those renovations with a community-based recruitment effort to try to plug open enrollment leakage, they could turn the financial challenges around. That effort won’t work if these communities remain part of ISD 2142. Whether or not the board wants to admit it, a huge proportion of residents in the north have lost faith in the district’s leadership.

If the three communities had newly-renovated K-12 schools and an innovative educational program, such as project-based learning and expanded use of technology, we would have something real to promote, and it becomes a victory for all three communities.

ISD 2142 may be ready to give up on our communities, but the residents of Cook, Tower, and Orr certainly are not, and we’re going to keep pushing for a plan that makes sense. At this point, splitting the district and regaining local control in our communities would be an important step forward.


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