REGIONAL— The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board’s approval of a $1.37 million allocation to the Mt. Iron-Buhl school district will not require a merger or consolidation with the St. …
REGIONAL— The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board’s approval of a $1.37 million allocation to the Mt. Iron-Buhl school district will not require a merger or consolidation with the St. Louis County School District, ISD 2142, nor will voters be asked to weigh in on any such merger, at least not any time soon.
Voters in MI-B will, however, vote on a proposed new school building on May 3, and the IRRRB funding approved Monday is expected to help reduce the cost of that proposal to taxpayers. But the election is not contingent on a collaboration plan between MI-B and ISD 2142, and the districts have reached no agreement at this point on sharing of services or other possible collaboration.
The two districts have been in talks for months on any of a number of possible options to share services, but those talks have been largely limited to an idea exchange and neither school district has offered a firm proposal or developed any estimates of what savings might be achieved as a result of a collaboration.
The funding being offered to MI-B is coming from the Iron Range School Consolidation and Cooperatively Operated School Account, a funding mechanism that the Legislature established in 2014 to encourage school mergers and consolidations on the Iron Range. Officials from MI-B approached ISD 2142 last year in hopes of establishing some form of collaboration that would qualify the school district for the special funding.
At the IRRRB meeting this week, MI-B officials presented a resolution passed by their own board, which claimed the district will reduce expenditures through a number of steps, including merging a number of services with ISD 2142.
According to the resolution, those steps will include “shared superintendent, consolidated business office, consolidated technology staff and programming, coordinated state and federal programs, merged health offices and nursing services, coordinated early childhood, early childhood family education, early childhood special education, and learning readiness programs, shared activities director, athletics, and fine arts offerings, coordinated transportation and food service, common curriculum, textbooks, and staff development, and common calendar, bell schedule and further educational and operational savings through shared planning between school boards.”
But the ISD 2142 school board has yet to approve any of those options.
And that prompted one lawmaker to question the funding during Monday’s meeting of the IRRRB. State Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said she supported collaborative efforts between the two districts but wanted some guarantee that MI-B officials would actually follow through with the proposals outlined in their resolution. “They’ve made a lot of promises,” said Melin, “but I’d like to see us have some teeth in that.”
Melin offered an amendment that would have required MI-B to repay the money if the district failed to follow through with promises that the new school and collaboration would bring about improvements to curriculum. “If MI-B passes a resolution that says they’ll do these things, why not require that they do them?” Melin asked. But other members of the board objected to Melin’s suggestion and her amendment failed on a 9-1 roll call vote.
State Sen. Tom Bakk predicted that MI-B officials would have to follow through if they hope to pass a bond measure for their estimated $30 million grades 7-12 expansion to the current Merritt Elementary School. The school bond, if approved, would mean the closure of the current high school and the consolidation of the district’s two school facilities into one.
“I do think that passing that referendum will be no easy task,” said Bakk. “I think if they don’t show significant improvements to curriculum, it won’t pass. They’re going to have to show how kids benefit.”
Does ISD 2142 benefit?
While school officials have suggested that consolidation of administrative services currently handled by MI-B into ISD 2142 administrative headquarters would save money, there’s no firm estimate of what those savings might be. In the past, projected administrative savings in ISD 2142 have often proven to be illusory.
And it’s less clear how ISD 2142 could benefit from the construction of a new grades 7-12 school on Hwy. 169 in Mt. Iron. ISD 2142 officials argued in 2009 that the construction of new or renovated schools would help the district compete with neighboring school districts for students, and the same could be true for MI-B if voters approve the May 3 referendum. A brand new MI-B secondary school could impact enrollment at the nearby Cherry School, operated by ISD 2142. In the occasionally cutthroat open enrollment environment today, school districts routinely see themselves as competitors when it comes to attracting students.
Bakk agreed that the short-term benefits to ISD 2142 aren’t clear, but he thinks district officials may be looking more towards the long-term, which could include bringing MI-B into the county school district.
Bakk said that would likely only be possible if MI-B voters approve the construction of a new school, and if the outstanding debt remained with the taxpayers of the MI-B school district, rather than taxpayers in ISD. 2142, even after consolidation.