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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Dozens of students quit Ely school since start of year

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/20/21

ELY – The administration’s last-minute mandate of requiring face masks indoors at Ely schools as the new school year began apparently led to an unprecedented plunge in school enrollment …

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Dozens of students quit Ely school since start of year

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ELY – The administration’s last-minute mandate of requiring face masks indoors at Ely schools as the new school year began apparently led to an unprecedented plunge in school enrollment at ISD 696, as many families followed through on threats to pull their kids out of school because of the requirement intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The smallest enrollment numbers in school history were already reported at the beginning of the school year, 530 students as of Sept. 9, alarming district officials.
Less than four weeks later, on Oct. 5, Ely school enrollment was reported to the school board at 504 students. Enrollment in Fall 2019 was 573 students, and fell to 559 students in Fall 2020.
Total enrollment at the beginning of a school year is a primary factor in determining state aid for the district and revenue in the operating levy referendum.
In reviewing the latest data at the Oct. 11 school board meeting, board chair Ray Marsnik said, “Any time you lose enrollment it is a concern. What we have to remember, however, is that this is not only in Ely.”
Without directly tying the unprecedented enrollment drop to the face mask requirement, Marsnik did note the coronavirus pandemic as a factor in the decrease.
“As a matter of fact, the State passed legislation in their last session for pandemic enrollment loss support. This is based on declining enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year, and under that we (received) $35,825,” he said.
Marsnik cited other regional 2020-21 enrollment losses reported to the Minnesota Department of Education.
“Last year we lost 33 students, Cook County lost 65. Chisholm lost 51. St. Louis County (lost) 142. Mesabi East, 28, Mt. Iron–Buhl, 22, Nashwauk-Keewatin, 23, International Falls, 49, Greenway, 32, and Lake Superior, 35. So this is a problem that is happening not only in Ely and on the Range, but throughout the whole state of Minnesota. COVID-19 has basically caused an enrollment decline.”
At the start of the current school year, as a new variant of COVID-19 surged across the country, state and local communities, the ISD 696 administration, with the support of the local school board, acted on the strong recommendations of state and local health professionals to require mask-wearing indoors in all school buildings.
Within days, more than 300 people signed a petition, authored by former ISD 696 student Micah Larson, a senior and president of the school’s student council, calling for the reversal of the face mask mandate.
Larson threatened to leave the high school if his petition request was not honored. At the Oct. 11 school board meeting, Larson confirmed that he did drop out.
“I don’t have to be here tonight,” he said. “Why? Because, sadly, I am no longer your student. That all ended on Sept. 27 of this year. At 4:17 p.m., the school district received my transfer paperwork. I never imagined I would be forced to make such a decision. Should I support an institution that doesn’t share the same ethics? Absolutely not.”
Larson spoke during the open forum portion of the meeting on a topic that was not related to the meeting agenda,violating board protocol.
Matt Larson, Micah’s father, confirmed that five of the family’s children were also recently pulled out of ISD 696, “because of the administration’s inability to make decisions or plans.” He added, “It seems that trying to come up with a COVID plan has distracted from responsibilities in education.”
Teacher contract
School board members approved a new two-year contract with the Ely Education Association. The pact covers the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years and provides for salary scale increases each year of roughly two percent.
The wage scale starts at $46,476 for first-year teachers and increases to $73,077 for those at the top of the scale with 11 years of experience and a master’s degree, and includes longevity pay up to $1,855. In the second year of the contract, the scale starts at $46,376, and increases to $74,539 at the top end.
Under the Q-Comp alternative compensation program, teachers can receive approximately $3,000 in additional pay each year if specific goals are met.
ISD 696 provides up to $10,000 per year for health insurance premiums for single teachers, and up to a maximum of $20,000 for families.
The new contract was approved unanimously and without discussion.
Other business
In other business, the board:
• Received the home school enrollment list that showed 34 students are being home schooled this year, up from 31 last year and 17 the year before.
• Heard from facilities director Tim Leeson, who responded to safety concerns regarding the facilities renovation and building project. He asked the public to contact him directly at 218-343-3457 with future concerns.
• Approved a new Ice Arena contract with Ely Blue Line, Inc. at the same rate, $14,000, as last year.
• Approved the annual senior class trip to Washington, D.C., for March 24-28, 2022.
• Accepted the resignations of paraprofessionals Amanda Mattila and Bobby Ridings.
• Hired Kayci Zorman as a paraprofessional.
• Hired Richard Kovall as a cafeteria aide.
• Renewed the following head coaches for the current school year -- Tom McDonald, boys basketball, Max Gantt, girls basketball, Paula Anderson, boys and girls Nordic skiing, Desirae Cram, dance team, and Donna Kari, speech.
• Approved the following assistant coaching or volunteer assistant coaching positions for the current school year- Tim Omerza, boys basketball assistant, Tom Omerza, girls basketball assistant, Louis Gerzin, hockey assistant, Tyler Fish, boys and girls Nordic skiing assistant, Nate LaFond and Todd Hohenstein, co-coaches for junior high boys and girls Nordic skiing, Mark Sponholz, Sarah Sponholz, Liz Anderson, Jeff Nelson, Carl Skustad, Mary Grayson, Jerritt Johnston, and Christian Cavalier, volunteer Nordic skiing assistants.

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