A plan hatched by three adjoining Iron Range school districts to build a new high school fell through more than a year ago after the boards in two of the districts backed out.

But though the idea fell through, it has generated a new discussion on the Range about how its small districts might work together — taking advantage of their unique position as beneficiaries of the surrounding mines — to build modern schools.

The combined school project would have served students from the Mountain Iron-Buhl, Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert districts while providing a measure of autonomy for each — through independent sports teams, for instance.

Part of the idea was to build a joint, regional school while avoiding the kind of traditional consolidation that can sap the morale of communities that lose their schools. For a time, it appeared that the project might be eligible for money in a new fund, created from the taxes paid by taconite mining companies, for school districts that come up with creative proposals for working together.

“We felt, early on, that this joint school idea might be the signature project right out of the chute,” said Mark Phillips, the commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), which approves projects for the new taconite-derived funding. “But it didn’t have grassroots support.” The Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert districts ultimately opted out.

The Legislature, hoping to spur innovation in aging Iron Range schools, created the school fund in 2014. The fund, which captures a sliver of the money generated by production and occupation taxes paid by the mines, currently has about $7.3 million, according to the IRRRB.

The agency plans to review the law this fall and begin writing guidelines for projects that will be eligible for funding — welcome news to superintendents and school board members who have been waiting for guidance.

Phillips said he envisions many kinds of collaborations, from a sharing of transportation costs to investments in communications technology that will help districts share curriculum.

Mountain Iron-Buhl High School, in the wake of the failed “co-location” plan, now plans to build a new, $29 million high school. The school, which serves grades 7-12, was built in 1910 and suffers from poor energy efficiency and other age-related problems, according to school officials. (A 1956 addition is still referred to as the “new wing.”)

Recent graduating classes are holding steady at around 30 students. Officials hope to know whether they will receive any money from the IRRRB before asking voters to approve a levy referendum in the spring.

The closeness of Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert — known collectively as the Quad Cities — reflects the way Iron Range towns evolved, more than a century ago, around the mines, creating loyalties and factions, particularly around high school sports.

“People so much relate to the school in their district and the alliances to sports and fine arts and competitions,” said John Klarich, Mountain Iron superintendent. “Up North, that is just the heritage of the people.”

Still other Iron Range districts have joined forces over the years, such as Aurora-Hoyt Lakes and Biwabik, which formed Mesabi East High School more than two decades ago.

Virginia School Board Member Stacey Sundquist said that while change is certain, the challenge is to uncover new ideas and rethink what Iron Range schools can be.

“People are not opposed to some kind of consolidation or co-location,” she said. “But to have three schools in one building — each school basically run independently? I’m not sure that was the way to do it.”

 

Gregg Aamot is the author of “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees” and teaches English at Ridgewater College.