A request for more time failed to win enough support from the St. Louis County School Board, which voted 5-2 to transfer 7-12 educational programs and students from Tower-Soudan to other schools in …
A request for more time failed to win enough support from the St. Louis County School Board, which voted 5-2 to transfer 7-12 educational programs and students from Tower-Soudan to other schools in 2011.
Monday’s action effectively closes the high school at Tower-Soudan at the end of the current 2010-11 school year. High school students will attend classes next year at either Babbitt-Embarrass or Cook (and eventually the new north school).
Andy Larson, who represents the Tower-Soudan attendance area, moved that the board table action on the school until January. His motion was supported by Gary Rantala and Zelda Bruns, but failed on a 4-3 vote. That eventually led to a 5-2 vote in favor of closing the high school with Bruns and Andy Larson in opposition.
Board asked to reconsider
The board’s action followed a study session where several urged the board to reconsider its plans to close the Tower-Soudan School.
Ray Toutloff told the board that Bois Forte was building dozens of new housing units, 16 of which are expected to be completed in January. Many of those units would likely house families, who would prefer to have a school closer than 25 or more miles away.
Toutloff, a member of the Bois Forte Tribal Council, noted that he was speaking as a concerned citizen and not on behalf of the council.
Troy Swanson, who will be joining the board in January as the Tower-Soudan representative, added that other development in the works at Tower promised to bring more families to the community. He cited the river project and new state park as examples.
Swanson added that the district’s own research showed that Tower was the community with the greatest potential for growth.
Marshall Helmberger, of Tower, questioned the savings that the board would gain by closing the school.
“In order to consider closing down a high school next year, there would have to really be something in it,” said Helmberger. “There would have to be a strong reason financially, otherwise you wouldn’t close the high school and subject students to a long bus ride, forcing them to make decisions on open enrollment and other things.”
Although the district projects a cost savings of approximately $2.2 million, Helmberger said that number is inflated. He noted that the district’s transportation plan, unveiled at Tower, called for doubling and, perhaps, tripling the number of buses delivering students to classes.
School Board Chairman Bob Larson countered that was a first draft and that the transportation plan was still being developed.
Helmberger also questioned the district’s enrollment projections, noting that the district’s own survey showed that 70 percent of the respondents in that region indicated that they expected students to open-enroll in other districts if the school were closed.
“This is a serious decision,” said Helmberger. “It’s going to have repercussions in the community, but it’s also going to have repercussions in the district. Unless you have a good idea of what your enrollment numbers are going to be and what your savings are going to be, how can you move forward?”
Superintendent Charles Rick said as far as enrollment, it’s not an exact science. “We won’t know exactly until the doors open in the fall, but I don’t think it’s going to be a 70 percent loss,” Rick said.
There was a suggestion that a new survey be conducted to determine where students will attend classes. Helmberger said if that were the case, the survey should be completed before the board acts.
Costs per student
The debate spilled over into the board meeting, where several Tower residents voiced concerns with the district’s plan, ranging from the loss of the swimming pool in Tower to the impact on students’ ability to play varsity sports.
Kathryn Fuson, a lifeguard at the pool, presented a petition with nearly 100 signatures requesting that the pool remain available in Tower.
“The pool is a very important part of our community,” she told the board. “It not only promotes health and well-being for many senior citizens but our youth as well.”
Dave Sorenson, of the Tower Economic Development Agency, agreed.
“Losing a swimming pool is a big deal to community members. Losing anything is a big deal when it comes to economic development,” Sorenson said. He said TEDA would like to work with the district to obtain portions of the building that could accommodate growth in Tower.
Board members indicated that they would still be willing to have those discussions regardless of the decision on the Tower School.
The tipping point for some board members may have been a document provided by Business Manager Kim Johnson. The chart showed that costs per student were highest at Tower-Soudan. According to her calculations, the costs per student at Tower-Soudan totaled $444,258 over the district average.
Board member Tom Beaudry, who represents the Cook attendance area, asked if the numbers were audited. Johnson responded that the figures were.
But Superintendent Charles Rick acknowledged that Johnson had done her own calculations to produce the document. The figures used for costs were audited, but the method she used to produce the chart had not been run by the auditors.
Indeed, the numbers that Johnson developed included obvious errors. Her claim that per student costs in Tower-Soudan are $444,258 over the district average is not accurate, since per student costs in the district typically run no more than $14,000 in total.
Several people questioned how the figures were achieved because they looked at general fund and food service expenses for each school site, but did not take into account differences in reimbursement such as funds for low-income or special education children at each site.
Some raised the implication that factors other than finances may have colored the board’s decision.
Swanson told the Timberjay that prior to the meeting, board member Darrell Bjerklie had told him that he was tired of criticism by some Tower residents. While Swanson said Bjerklie never cited it as a reason for his vote to close the high school, he was bothered by the comments prior to a critical meeting.
When Swanson contacted Superintendent Charles Rick with his concerns, Rick said he didn’t endorse that behavior. Rick declined comment for this story, saying he had not been privy to the conversation.
Bjerklie had a different take on the discussion, noting that he was voicing his frustration at trying to work with Tower-Soudan.
“You can’t ask to work with somebody and kick them in the next breath,” said Bjerklie, who said retaliation was not on his mind when he voted to close the school. “I wish them the best of luck in moving forward.”
But several Tower-Soudan residents complained that their district has abandoned them and they will choose to enroll their students elsewhere.
“No way am I going to send my kids on a bus to Babbitt,” said Julie Poderzay, who works in Ely but lives in Soudan. She noted that her kids will be attending school in Ely and, as a result, will not be able to play varsity sports for a year. “I told them we will choose that because there’s right and wrong. And what this district has done to our community is wrong. We will stand behind what is right.“