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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Board hears pushback over Vukmanich transfer

Speakers allege others won’t speak out for fear of retaliation

David Colburn
Posted 1/25/23

VIRGINA- Four residents of the North Woods School attendance area expressed their displeasure to district officials here on Tuesday over the recent reassignment of former North Woods Principal John …

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Board hears pushback over Vukmanich transfer

Speakers allege others won’t speak out for fear of retaliation


VIRGINA- Four residents of the North Woods School attendance area expressed their displeasure to district officials here on Tuesday over the recent reassignment of former North Woods Principal John Vukmanich to Northeast Range School in Babbitt.
Vukmanich was moved to Northeast Range and NER Principal Kelly Engman was reassigned to North Woods effective Jan. 1. The swap was announced just prior to the schools going on winter break in December.
Leah Rogne and Fred Schumacher have been engaged with 2142 for many years, as parents of two children who graduated from the Orr school in 1996 and 2001 and as community advocates.
“I want to express my concern and distress at the lack of transparency and lack of respect for our communities, for staff and students embodied in the abrupt transfer of Mr. Vukmanich to another school,” Rogne said. “This was done just before Christmas break. Most people didn’t know about it before break, some students came back to school didn’t know about it, even after break.”
Superintendent Reggie Engebritson told the Timberjay on Dec. 12 that the rationale for the midyear switch was to give each principal time to learn about their new schools ahead of bringing in new support staff next year, including a new assistant principal at North Woods.
“Having two new administrators start at the same time at North Woods would not be beneficial,” Engebritson said.
Rogne took issue with that rationale.
“It takes time to develop relationships with the community and the students and understand the culture of the school at North Woods,” she said. “We have three distinct communities, Cook, Orr and Nett Lake, that come together, and especially Nett Lake, who come at seventh grade and where they come as outsiders at a vulnerable time in child development, where they are looking for who they are and how and where do they belong. We worked very hard in Orr to bring those two communities together, and now we join in Cook. It’s not overnight, it’s not just in one semester that a new person gets to know what this culture is like in the school, and who the people are, and develops relationships with the people that are needed to make that school a success. So, it looks to me like we’ll have two new (administrators) in the fall, a principal who’s only been there a few months and a new assistant.”
The dynamics of the switch are further complicated by demographic changes happening in the communities of both schools that should have been considered, Schumacher said.
“Twenty years ago, I did some substitute teaching in Cook and Orr. Cook had over 600 students, Orr had about 280. And we could see it back then we were going into demographic decline,” he said. “The community at greatest risk in the Arrowhead right now is Babbitt. That mine is not going to open up again. I don’t know if any of you have talked with Lourenco Goncalves from Cleveland Cliffs, but he’s not interested in opening up that mine. And you’ve brought in a principal from an end of the road community that’s going to go into serious demographic decline.”
Schumacher highlighted the difference in the Native student populations of both schools.
“Babbitt only has 11 percent minority in its middle and high school and at North Woods it’s 41 percent. Right now, your only area of demographic increase is Bois Forte, so you’re going to have to treat those people well.”
Schumacher also noted the stark difference in the median age of Babbitt, 53 years, and of Nett Lake, 27 years.
“Here at North Woods the Nett Lake percentage of students is going to continue going up, and that’s what’s going to keep the school open. I think you need to be thinking about those things.”
Rogne said she believes the board is unaware of the level of distress being felt over Vukmanich’s reassignment because the community, and particularly those in the school, are afraid to say anything.
“People aren’t speaking up,” she said. “I talk to people in the community, to students, staff, and they are upset and stunned at this action. But they won’t speak out on the record because of fear of retaliation. And retaliation has occurred in the school district in the past, you know that well. So, this kind of abrupt, arbitrary and capricious action undermines trust in the administration and in the school board. I can see after 30 years, this district has a very strong culture, even decades before I came into the community, and it’s so powerful, and it pretty much does the same thing of running roughshod over common people. And the students and faculty members get caught in whatever this is, you don’t know what it is, and get arbitrarily removed. And I’m sad to see that.”
Michelle Manick amplified Rogne’s comments.
“I think this needs to be said – no one who works at the school, no one who has any affiliation with the school will stand up and say anything when something happens because they live in fear of what will happen to their job, because it could disappear,” Manick said. “Or they could get sent to Babbitt to go to a dying school. And I don’t think that’s okay. I think that that’s something that the board needs to look at. People should not be afraid at their workplace to voice their opinions and to say what they think.”
Manick emphasized to the board their responsibility in providing safe places for kids who may need extra help because of challenging circumstances.
“It’s our job as adults, as elders, to be there for these children that don’t have somebody to be there, so that they have that safe place to fall,” she said. “And Mr. Vukmanich made North Woods a safe place for them to fall, and a lot of them didn’t have that anywhere else. They were comfortable going in to talk to him, they were comfortable telling him if they had a problem.”
Missy Roach spoke to the board about Vukmanich’s positive impact on her children.
“My kids are really great kids but occasionally they have had problems at school, and they have developed a really great relationship with Mr. Vukmanich,” she said. “He’s such an asset to the community and I just I see it in so many ways. My son connected with him and my daughter did and it is just such a shame to lose him because, in particular, we’ve dealt with some mental health issues and he’s been just really supportive of that.”
In line with their regular practice for the public comment portion of the meeting, board members did not respond to any of the remarks presented.
In other business, the board:
• Approved the shared services agreement with the Mt. Iron-Buhl school district for 2023-26.
• Approved a memorandum of understanding with Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College to allow students in their nursing and allied health programs to use district schools as placement sites for practical experience coursework.
• Hired Jennifer Fredrickson as a long-term special education substitute at Tower-Soudan.
• Hired Courtney Field as Site III Secretary and Health Office Assistant at NER.


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