Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely school board hits the brakes

Collaboration talk, supt. interviews, slow facility project

Keith Vandervort
Posted 5/9/19

ELY – After six hours of interviews with four superintendent candidates, and a discussion with a lobbyist on IRRR collaboration funding possibilities, the Ely school board took a hard stop last …

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Ely school board hits the brakes

Collaboration talk, supt. interviews, slow facility project


ELY – After six hours of interviews with four superintendent candidates, and a discussion with a lobbyist on IRRR collaboration funding possibilities, the Ely school board took a hard stop last week on a proposed facility renovation project as well as replacing the district’s lead administrator.

Superintendent interviews last Wednesday and Thursday brought mostly uncertainty, as none of the candidates stood out to the interview committee as a likely successor to current superintendent Kevin Abrahamson, who is planning to leave when his contract expires at the end of June.

Just two days prior to the interviews, district lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik, Iron Range political activist Jeff Anderson and St. Louis County Commissioner Paul MacDonald suggested that district officials seriously consider sharing superintendent services and other collaboration options with neighboring St. Louis County School District. They argued that those steps might strengthen a district bid for bond funding assistance from Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation. Such funding could go a long way in helping pay for a campus renovation project that could cost as much as $17 million.

Adding to questions on how to move forward was an admission by school board chair Ray Marsnik that an error was made in the screening process of the candidates for the part-time superintendent position, and that an unidentified candidate was unfairly disqualified.

Interviews for the four superintendent candidates went forward anyway. Kevin Ricke and Steve Thomas were interviewed on Wednesday night. Beth Zietz and Bruce Houck were interviewed on Thursday night.

Ricke is currently superintendent at Fosston School District in northwestern Minnesota. He has more than 30 years of education experience, including working as the former principal at Park-Audubon, and teaching at Wadena-Deer Creek.

Thomas is currently the superintendent at South Koochiching School District that also includes Indus and Northome- Kelliher schools. He also taught at Nett Lake.

Zietz formerly served as superintendent at Cook County School District. She resigned last year from the superintendent’s position at Parshall, N.D.

Houck was the superintendent of Russell-Tyler-Ruthton school district and left after being put on administrative leave in 2016. He also worked as the superintendent in southwestern Minnesota educational cooperative.

Following the interviews, the school district’s athletic director, who is employed as the editor of a local newspaper, claimed to have witnessed as many as seven searches for school administrators at ISD 696 over the last two decades, and was the first to answer Marsnik’s request for comments from the audience. “I’m sure (the four candidates) have qualifications, but I think you need to look beyond that,” said Tom Coombe. “Who would be a fit for this district, especially at this particular time? I didn’t hear anybody really tell us why they wanted to be in Ely. At this time, when you are looking at a major bond referendum, the person who sits in that chair has to be the cheerleader and the expert. To me, I think you are setting one of these four up to fail.”

Coombe urged the school district to slow the process of searching for a new superintendent and to seriously consider the option of pursuing funding from the IRRR.

Cerkvenik conceded last week that the IRRR collaborative fund account is quickly drying up because of various ongoing collaborative projects involving the Mt. Iron/Buhl, Virginia, Eveleth/Gilbert, and ISD 2142 school districts. “If you look at the next 20 years, the cash flow in that account does not sustain much more than an additional $2 million per year,” he said. “And there is a three-year period where (cash flow) drops below one million. They are getting to the end of money they have available.”

Other people who observed the interviews also voiced concerns that the candidates “did not understand the area” and “may have trouble adjusting to Ely.”

Krista Moyer, a middle school reading interventionist for ISD 696, said she approached the interviews from the perspective of being a superintendent intern next year. “I look at the role of a superintendent, and for me two candidates (Ricke and Zietz) focused on a balance of instructional programs, especially reading opportunities that are extremely important.”

Apalonia Homer, a junior at Memorial High School, said she did not consider the building renovation as the most important aspect for the next superintendent. “I understand the walking between buildings when its freezing cold, but I also think that it is important, even under the stress of a building renovation, to consider the students themselves. I have undergone some questionable years as a student where the teachers didn’t seem that they were totally qualified for the rigors of the course.”

Grades 6-12 Principal Megan Anderson called for “strong leadership in this exciting time” at Ely schools. “We need someone who is going to be passionate about being here. I was not inspired by any of the candidates,” she said. “We have some time to continue the search.”

K-5 Principal Anne Oelke agreed with other stakeholder committee members. “The school board is in a really tough spot, and this is a critical time with the building facilities project practically underway,” she said. “There is a pull to try to find somebody who might fit that project only, but I don’t know if that’s the right decision.

“Really smart people that are passionate about this job and this area can probably get the answers that are needed, no matter what, if they were really vested in this position. I will echo what other people were saying, that none of them were really drawn to wanting to be here in Ely, which is a little disheartening.”

Marsnik asked the board if they were ready to begin the process of considering the candidates who were interviewed.

School board member Tony Colarich made a motion to delay the superintendent selection decision in order for the board to pursue any IRRR collaboration funding. “This is too important of a project to cut it short and not consider all alternatives,” he said. The motion was supported by board member Tom Omerza.

Marsnik agreed that collaboration funding should be pursued. “I think the public would expect us to do that if there is money there,” he said. “(ISD) 2142 people are willing to sit down and talk with us. Nothing is decided. I myself think we should have a meeting and listen to where we could do some collaboration.”

He stressed that ISD 696 is not considering consolidation with the St. Louis County school district. “I’ll be the first one to fight consolidation,” he said.

He noted that just one of the areas of possible collaboration is sharing a superintendent with ISD 2142. “But that alone is not going to do it, nor sharing a business office or a transportation director. That won’t carry much weight. We are going to show how the kids will benefit from this. It won’t hurt to take a look at this.”

School board member Heidi Mann pointed out that the agenda only called for the four interviews over two nights and no further action on selecting a superintendent was stipulated.

Colarich agreed to rescind his motion with the assurance that the board would meet with ISD 2142 officials to discuss collaboration options.

Previously, Abrahamson told the school board that he would consider staying with the school district on a temporary basis after his contract expires on June 30.

Marsnik said the board will continue their discussion on the four interviewed candidates, as well as a potential meeting with the ISD 2142 school board to discuss collaboration, at their next meeting on Monday, May 13.


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