Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

School collaboration

School board members are asking the right questions

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There are only so many hours in a day— which is why members of the St. Louis County School Board are justified in their skepticism about their collaboration agreement with Mt. Iron-Buhl.

While we certainly support any effort to trim administrative costs in the district, it’s not at all clear that such a goal will ultimately be achieved by this proposal.

The broader issue, of course, is focus and mission.

The collaboration with Mt. Iron-Buhl was never a priority or strategic objective of ISD 2142. From the beginning, it was pushed by Mt. Iron-Buhl primarily as a means of meeting the criteria for facilities funding under the IRRRB’s school consolidation and collaboration fund, which requires school district consolidation in some form. Mt. Iron-Buhl needed a new school, so they pushed the collaboration plan in order to get it. We understand that some area legislators pressured ISD 2142 into, reluctantly, going along.

Board members have had legitimate concerns about the proposal from the start. Perhaps the most significant is their belief that a district as complex as ISD 2142 actually needs a full-time superintendent, not one whose time is split with another district. It’s been suggested that adding Mt. Iron-Buhl will be no different than simply overseeing a fifth school within the St. Louis County district, which would boost the superintendent’s duties only marginally. But that’s clearly not the case.

Every school district has to meet a massive and ever-growing list of state mandates, which a superintendent is going to have to oversee. The workload is not determined so much by the size of a district as it is by the fact that it is an independent governmental body. And while St. Louis County and Mt. Iron-Buhl are collaborating, it is not yet a consolidation, which means that the superintendent will be involved with the entire range of duties associated with running two independent school districts. That means negotiating employment contracts for two districts, working with two independent school boards, administrative employee evaluations for two districts, and on and on. To suggest this can be done adequately in 10-15 hours a week is pure fantasy.

It’s also unclear how one superintendent can serve two neighboring districts whose interests don’t always align, particularly in an age of widespread open enrollment. School districts are in a competition for students, like it or not. You don’t see the same person sitting as CEO of competing businesses because it’s a built-in conflict of interest. Whether its attracting students or applying for competitive grant dollars, negotiating the various interests of two neighboring districts will be fraught with some of the very same issues.

If the school board legitimately believed that ISD 2142 could be run by a part-time superintendent, it presumably would have hired one on that basis when it replaced former superintendent Steve Sallee. They didn’t do so because they believe it’s a full-time job, and then some.

In the end, something has to give. There are only so many hours in a day and only so many hours that anyone can maintain focus on their mission. You can maintain the illusion for a while, but eventually things will begin to fall through the cracks. Important issues won’t get the attention they need. And then will come the calls for an assistant here and a deputy there, and the administrative savings that could provide at least some rationale for such a collaboration, will quickly vanish.

In the end, it isn’t clear that either district benefits from a collaboration that was developed without a clear strategic objective, other than obtaining funding for Mt. Iron-Buhl’s new school.

School board members have complained that they have never really had the chance to discuss the overall objectives of the collaboration and air their concerns together. Maybe it’s time to have that discussion.

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