A schoolhouse divided will not stand

Iron Range newsLast week, the Nashwauk-Keewatin School Board voted to dissolve its shared services agreement with the Greenway School District on the western Mesabi Iron Range. Days later Greenway also backed away from most elements of the partnership. This marks the end of an experiment exposing many hard truths about the future of school and community collaboration on the Iron Range. The reasons for this are, on the surface, complicated. For instance, shared superintendent Mark Adams is going through a personal legal problem that has both districts wondering if he’ll be able to serve either district for much longer. But fundamentally, the reason the deal fell apart was because the two school boards at N-K and Greenway could not get along. This was wholly and entirely a human relations problem. You’ll find as many fingers pointed at someone else as there are board members and district administrators. I have family in Nashwauk and Keewatin, so I also got to hear some of the parent perspectives. To be honest, those aren’t much better. Rampant, oftentimes irrational distrust of people from a few towns over rules the day. Neither board had any interest or ability to see beyond the specific local concerns of their towns, and no one was willing to give up anything for a broader goal. That’d be fine if the districts had a clear financial plan to survive on their own. They don’t. One bump in the road and both districts could be scrambling to get out of debt all over again. But I’m not writing this to scold the school boards. This is all part of a much bigger process, and important lessons exist even in the failure of N-K/Greenway collaboration. Another example, the botched attempt to build a shared high school for the Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert and Mountain Iron-Buhl districts last spring, happened differently, but also shows the same problem. The Iron Range won’t be able to reform itself until communities and school boards actually *feel* like they are part of something bigger than the shriveled remains of the bigger, more vibrant communities that existed here in the late 1970s. A couple years ago I wrote this piece, “Iron Range 1969,” about an elaborate Iron Range regional economic planning document released that year. That document showed that even at the dawn of the taconite age, the communities and schools of the Iron Range faced many of the same problems we do now; in fact, most of the demographic changes predicted in the report came true. The authors had one solution that I have come to believe is inevitable, perhaps even preferable. The idea? Elite high schools offering college preparation and technical education in Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia. Regional middle schools. Local, community elementary schools. Is that the right solution? Well, it’s worth studying and I’m not going to tell you that I know everything. But I do know that half-hearted commitments to passive-aggressive collaborations won’t allow anything resembling necessary reform and innovation on the Iron Range. Some local political fiefdoms will need to fall. They’re going to fall anyway. What’s not known is if there is enough leadership and vision in Iron Range localities to plan beyond the next budget or election cycle. What serves students? What prepares kids for college and careers? If your response involves referring to sports rivalries or stereotypes of people from Coleraine or Keewatin, you’re doing it wrong.


  1. I’m not saying that this is a good idea, since the state where my son teaches is way way down in educational quality and at the bottom in pay, but in that state, the state government says what the pay will be for teachers, and the schools districts are by county. That way there are regional schools, rather than town by town. My assumption is that this was done because of the historically low educational standards in that state. My point in posting this comment is that it would be good to be open minded about other ways to configure school districts. When the so called St. Louis County School district came about, it was made up of the areas that the larger towns and cities didn’t want to be responsible for. The district has had ups and downs, for sure, but graduates from that district have not had to be ashamed about the quality of their education. And the EDUCATION of the students should be the priority. Unfortunately, when there is community bickering, it seems to focus on the smaller issues, such as school names, mascots, etc. and which school will those already graduated be loyal to.

  2. Gary & Mari Kaminen says

    Great article! 100% on the right way of putting it into words! Many years ago Dean Hendricksen had that plan for Regional Schools, but….of course…..”locals” didn’t go for it.

  3. Link to “Iron Range 1969” points elsewhere. Fortunately search revealed the right one quickly.
    href=”http://minnesotabrown.com/2010/07/column-iron-range-1969.html”> http://minnesotabrown.com/2010/07/column-iron-range-1969.html

  4. Erin Koivisto says

    I’m of like mind. But where and how does the necessary reform begin?

  5. I’ve also thought over the years that Grand Rapids & Hibbing centered High Schools serving the West and Central Range is worth looking at but I woudn’t begin by calling them “elite”. They already think they are which is one small part of why the Bovey’s, Coleraine’s, Taconite’s, Calumet’s and Marble’s of the world say – f**k you Rapids.. Same goes for the small communities with up Hibbings way with regard to Hibbing. Those two big fish towns in small water filled pits already think and act elitist .

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