IRRRB boost for school project raises important issue

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board is winding up its business for the year. As usual, the commissioner brings a number of projects to the docket. One provokes an important discussion about regional strategy regarding school consolidation.

The IRRRB oversees a unique state agency, which is actually run by a commissioner appointed by the governor. Not without controversy, the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation still plays an important role in economic development and public works in the Iron Range region. (If you’re new here, I’ve prepared a special page quickly explaining the IRRRB).

Awaiting approval early next month, the agency now proposes a $4.7 million grant to fund infrastructure for two new K-5 elementary schools in the western Mesabi city of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

For background, the four elementary schools in the Grand Rapids district are outdated and overcrowded. The district sought $80 million from voters for a very vague plan to build two new buildings in 2015. That referendum failed badly.

The money for this proposal comes from a fund set up to encourage Iron Range school districts to share curriculum, staff, technology and to consolidate when appropriate. It’s often referred to as the “consolidation fund” in short. But so far, the fund has only been allocated to a single district.

The Mountain Iron-Buhl district passed a $29 million plan for a new school in April of 2016. The IRRRB consolidation fund paid for 80 percent of that tally, with another five percent coming from the state. The referendum passed easily, because it was a slam dunk for local taxpayers. Originally, the district promised to consider sharing services and a superintendent with the St. Louis County schools, but that has yet to happen.

The MI-B deal came together after a larger plan to create a shared high school for Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert and MI-B fell apart. That plan was the reason the fund was created in the first place.

While the Grand Rapids proposal is nowhere near as expensive, it continues the model of using the consolidation fund to boost building projects.

Phillips defends the move. Here’s what he said in the John Myers story in the Duluth News Tribune:

“It’s not consolidation, really, but Grand Rapids is such a big district, it serves such a large area, that this makes sense,” Phillips said, noting other districts already had merged into Grand Rapids, the goal of the IRRRB plan.

To make it more palatable to prospective critics, Phillips said, all of the IRRRB funds will go to basic infrastructure, not the actual buildings, things like cleaning up the land, street access, utilities and sidewalks.

“We would do infrastructure all the time for (public buildings), so we’re not doing anything unusual,” Phillips said

If approved, Grand Rapids would go back to the voters in April asking for less money, with the caveat that failure to pass the referendum this time would cost them the IRRRB grant.

This then becomes an attractive strategy to gin up votes as well as pay for part of the project.

I’m close to this story. My children attend Grand Rapids schools. I particularly love that they had a small neighborhood elementary school full of teachers who knew ever kid in every room. My wife and I voted against the referendum for this reason. We couldn’t support moving away from something that worked very well to a plan that wasn’t even defined yet.

In the time since, my wife Christina got involved in a district strategy committee to revisit the issue. She came to the conclusion that the status quo for elementary schools was indeed not sustainable. But she again left feeling that the committees’s entire purpose was to advance a new version of the same proposal that had been rejected.

Here we see that happening again.

Listen, I might vote for the thing. I believe in public schools. If it’s the best for kids, I’ll vote for it. But it’s frustrating the degree to which schools and school boards become intertwined with consultants who also design and construct large buildings.

The so called “guidelines” issued by the department of education — the ones that drive districts like Grand Rapids into plans like this — include provisions based on composites of wealthy suburban districts, as though the physical constitution of those buildings is why the students there perform better on tests. For instance, the state now essentially requires new schools to have so many acres of green space — preventing building schools in town and favor building them outside of town, forcing more families to drive more miles for school and activities.

This isn’t just a Grand Rapids problem. It’s happening across Minnesota and beyond. My friend Chuck Marohn and I talked about this drive to construct conforming school buildings during one of our Dig Deep podcasts this year.

So why does all this matter? Well, with the IRRRB now two for two on requests to provide seed money for non-consolidating building referendums out of the consolidation fund, the precedent is clear.

It’s not a consolidation fund at all.

And that means districts will invariably request money to keep buildings open, rather than what was originally intended: World class curriculum made available to every child on the Iron Range, a bold vision made practical by paying districts to form logical partnerships.

If the IRRRB wants to fund school infrastructure, that’s within its authority. But doing so moves districts away from consolidation and toward the usual old scrum for cash. Great for a while, until the money runs out.

UPDATE: This post has been amended to reflect the fact that the IRRRB didn’t meet Monday as scheduled. The meeting was rescheduled for January.


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