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IRRRB school funding

Melin stands alone in seeking accountability for government funds

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Give state Rep. Carly Melin an “A” for effort. The Hibbing legislator, the sole woman on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, stood alone this week in seeking to ensure that the Mt. Iron-Buhl School District actually does what it says it will do in order to tap taconite tax funds to help pay down the cost of a proposed $30 million addition to the current Merritt Elementary, to make room for junior and senior high school students.

Whether the new secondary school is needed is a question best left to the voters of the MI-B School District, but the process by which the school district has “qualified” for special funds to pay down much of the cost of the project leaves a lot to be desired.

At this week’s meeting of the IRRRB, MI-B school officials touted the collaboration they’ve developed with the St. Louis County School District. The only problem is that the collaboration is in its infancy and may never be achieved. It certainly won’t be achieved in any meaningful way by the time MI-B voters weigh in on the subject during a bond referendum set for May 3.

But that’s not the story that IRRRB members heard. They were, instead, presented with a resolution from the MI-B school board that said its collaboration with the St. Louis County Schools “will include” a shared superintendent, a consolidated business office, consolidated technology staff and programming, coordinated federal and state programming, shared athletics, fine arts, early childhood services, common curriculum, common calendars, shared textbooks, coordinated transportation, food service, and more. All of this was certainly a revelation to residents and board members of the St. Louis County Schools, since none of these ideas has been approved by the ISD 2142 board. We suspect that most items on the list would prove highly problematic to implement and would yield few, if any, actual savings for either district. St. Louis County school officials acknowledge there’s little real benefit to their district in pursuing the collaboration.

It appears it was little more than the usual quid pro quo that we’ve come to expect in Iron Range politics. St. Louis County school officials were seeking $2 million from the same Iron Range School Consolidation and Cooperatively Operated School Account that MI-B was hoping to tap. But access to the dollars requires that a school district show progress towards consolidation or some other form of collaboration or cooperation. While the nature of the St. Louis County Schools consolidation remains controversial, the district undoubtedly met the letter and the spirit of the legislation that established the special school account. MI-B’s efforts, at this point, appear to be little more than a fig leaf. It’s a fig leaf, however, that St. Louis County school officials were willing to hold up, having been told doing so was necessary to guarantee the seven votes required to get their own funding request approved.

While it’s possible the two districts could still work out some form of collaboration, there seems to be little incentive now that the IRRRB has given MI-B officials access to the money they sought. If voters there approve the ballot measure in May, it won’t matter whether MI-B and St. Louis County ever meet again to discuss collaboration.

The IRRRB board saw to that in voting down, 9-1, an amendment by Melin that would have required MI-B to actually follow through with its purported collaboration, or pay back the money.

“If MI-B passes a resolution that says they’ll do these things, why not require that they do them?” she asked.

It’s the kind of question most members of the public would no doubt ask if they had the opportunity. What Melin was seeking is basic accountability in government spending, something that, too often, seems anathema to those in charge of our government. Instead, IRRRB members voted to look the other way. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Melin deserves credit for standing up for integrity. She’s got the kind of backbone we need more of in politics.

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