ST. PAUL, MINN. – If totaled together, the age of Virginia, Mountain Iron-Buhl and Eveleth-Gilbert High Schools would be nearly 300 years old. The district leaders who run these aging, inefficient and mine blasting damaged school buildings have thought up an innovative way to combine and build a co-operative grades 7-12 high school and still maintain their independent status. They have enlisted the help of Senator David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), who introduced legislation this week that would provide legislative authority and funding for their partnership.
Sen. Tomassoni’s bill (S.F. 2247) would allow the districts to receive consolidation grants, increase the transition aid and modify equalization aid for the districts – all in the hopes of raising enough money to build a new $110 million, 325,000 square foot 7-12 high school. A bill like this is unprecedented, but attempts to offer a solution to a growing problem in rural Minnesota.
“By joining together to build a centrally located high school these districts are trying to give children on the Range the best possible education. Students would benefit from a new combined school through decreased travel times, enhanced curriculum and more electives, along with focused special educational opportunities for students with disabilities,” said Sen. Tomassoni.
The Education Finance Committee heard stark testimony from the three school districts this week about the curriculum challenges they face because of their very small sizes (the smallest Mountain Iron-Buhl High School has just 214 students in grades 7-12). The schools are only able to offer a small number of electives and two of the three districts have limited vocal music, fine arts and instrumental music programs. Testifiers told the committee that if combined, the districts’ school buses travel nearly 3,000 miles a day.
“If these three schools were to make all needed upgrades to their facilities it would cost more than $63 million. School district leaders and Range legislators agree that co-locating will improve educational, technological and vocational opportunities for kids,” said Sen. Tomassoni.
In addition to modifying equalization aid and increasing transition aid, the bill would create the Iron Range School Construction and Improvement Trust Fund account to help other Iron Range schools to improve their facilities. Sen. Tomassoni’s proposal would require voter approval by the citizens of each school district before the plan could be implemented.
“I’m introducing this bill because I believe in local control and the three school districts have voted to develop this plan. Moreover, I want the local voters to have the final decision,” said Sen. Tomassoni.
The trust fund will be funded by existing taconite funds and an excise tax on private royalty holders. Sen. Tomassoni adds, “There is no money coming out of the corpus of the Douglas J. Johnson fund, and in the bill money will continue to flow into the DJJ fund.”