The recent comments by some members of the St. Louis County School Board regarding the future of the Tower-Soudan Elementary School suggests that district officials have some work to do in educating board members about the financial realities of the district’s facility in Tower. Yet they also suggest that parents in the Tower-Soudan area must recognize that their decisions on where to send their elementary-aged kids could have major repercussions down the road, both for the school as well as the community.
First, we must note that there is no reason to believe that the Tower-Soudan Elementary is at risk of closing, at least not anytime soon. The school’s enrollment has been stable and is forecast to remain so, the school’s staff is dedicated and the academic results at the school have consistently been among the best in the region. The Tower-Soudan Elementary is evidence that small schools and small class sizes can be very successful.
It’s not clear why the school’s success has failed to translate into growing enrollment, but there is little doubt that the closure of the community’s high school has complicated decision-making for parents in the Tower-Soudan area. That’s a basic reality of a school district restructuring that failed to address the needs of the northeastern portion of the district.
While district officials typically do not try to determine the cost of running any particular school building, there’s reason to believe that the finances for the Tower facility remain viable. The facility is small and efficiently staffed, and the district has a major tenant in an unused portion of the building, which houses the Scenic Rivers Health Clinic. At the same time, the district receives special payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT, for the school that were part of the law creating the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Given such additional sources of funding, we suspect that if the school district took an actual look, they would find that Tower-Soudan largely pays for itself.
At the same time, the vast property wealth within the Tower-Soudan attendance area pays far more than its fair share of the cost of the school bonds that made new schools in the southern portion of the district possible, as well as additional, subsequent capital investment in Cherry, South Ridge, and Northeast Range. What capital investment Tower-Soudan has seen since the restructuring has been mostly limited to fixing errors caused by the contractors on the project, including Johnson Controls, Inc. Some of the board members now raising questions about Tower-Soudan represent schools that have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the Tower-Soudan area’s tax base.
Talk of shuttering the school is entirely unhelpful to the district, since it raises doubts in the minds of parents about whether the school will be a viable option for their elementary-aged children. It also runs the risk of reigniting the long-simmering tensions and animosity that still exist below the surface for many in the northern part of the district. Folks in Tower-Soudan still resent the loss of their high school, their swimming pool, and their sense of identity.
Threatening to take away their elementary school would, at a minimum, reopen old wounds, and could well spark a battle reminiscent of the fight over the restructuring plan. School officials would be wise to avoid such a possibility.
School officials would do well to address this issue openly and, hopefully, provide the reassurance that folks in Tower-Soudan are looking for. And, at the same time, parents in Tower-Soudan need to assess their own role in helping to maintain the long-term viability of the community’s top-notch elementary. There’s a lot at stake for everyone.