Student Opportunities — Not Financial Crises — May Drive Minnesota’s Future School Consolidations

By Hinrichs, Erin | MinnPost.com, August 30, 2018 | Go to article overview

Student Opportunities — Not Financial Crises — May Drive Minnesota’s Future School Consolidations


Hinrichs, Erin, MinnPost.com


Before the kickoff of fall sports, staff at the Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High were busy selling tickets to die-hard Iron Range sports fans. Among them, Tony Tassoni — an Eveleth resident of more than 80 years — stopped by on Monday to purchase his season pass.

Nowadays, he has a grandson to support from the sidelines. But he’s been cheering on football players and other athletes in the Eveleth-Gilbert Public Schools district for as long as he can remember.

The rivalry between Gilbert and Eveleth that he’d initially grown accustomed to was disrupted back in 1993, when the two districts merged. And now his beloved Golden Bears may soon become a relic as well, if current talks between the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia Public Schools Districts over merging at the high school level come to fruition.

Asked how he feels about this possibility, Tassoni said, “The rivalries will always be there.” But it’s a move he thinks should have happened 25 years ago.

“They’d have a lot better team. They could compete,” he said of the possible merger, adding the academics would be a lot better as well.

His take on the situation runs counter to many past tales of school district mergers — whether it be a full consolidation or a partial blending of two districts. These stories are often fraught with hurt feelings over lost school mascots and sports colors and fears over closing school buildings that have become central to a town’s identity.

Those are the sorts of emotion-laden pitfalls that Noel Schmidt and Jeff Carey — the two superintendents currently leading the high-school level merger conversations in the Virginia Public Schools district and Eveleth-Gilbert Public Schools district, respectively — are hoping to avoid.

About a year ago, the two districts formally started conversations to explore the possibility of merging at the high school level. Many of the conditions leading up to these talks are not new when it comes to district mergers: declining populations, declining student enrollment and outdated facilities in need of expensive repairs.

What makes this scenario unique, however, is the fact that neither district is currently in the midst of a financial crisis, the superintendents say. So they’re able to take their time in gauging support. So far that’s included 40 listening sessions, along with surveys, which have shown that support for the merger currently sits above 70 percent in both communities.

“It isn’t the first time these two rival districts have ever had a conversation,” Carey said. “What is new is that neither one of us is in financial trouble at the moment. So it didn’t start as a financial conversation. It started as an educational conversation. And I think that resonated more with people, when you start talking about what can we do for kids … rather than ‘we’re all gonna have to pile into this building over here’ — that’s when anger starts forming. We haven’t had that.”

Fighting to stay relevant

Schmidt, a newcomer to the region who came from the White Bear Lake Area Schools district three years ago, and Carey, a lifelong Iron Range educator and resident, are framing the discussion around how to best provide 21st-century learning opportunities for their high schoolers — those who are the hardest to hold on to and the most costly to educate, when that education includes advanced classes, electives and extracurriculars.

“Everywhere on the Range, the student population is going in one direction — it’s going down. [If] we’re going to stay in our little fiefdoms, it’ll be death by a thousand papercuts,” Schmidt said. “At the high school level, size does matter, as far as being able to offer programming. We’re trying to be proactive and solve the problem before things become worse.”

The solution that these two districts are exploring involves merging at the high-school level to create an academy style experience for students in grades 9-12. In this model, students focus in on a particular career area of interest and take more specialized classes that help them better gauge their career interests and skills sets. …

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