Monumental school vote approaches in Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert districts

Site map of the proposed Virginia-Eveleth-Gilbert high school.

This Tuesday, May 14, voters in the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts will vote in a school bond referendum. The result will shape the future of these communities and, quite possibly, the entire educational strategy of the Mesabi Iron Range.

If that sounds like I’m laying it on a bit thick, consider the following:

If the measure passes, two historic Iron Range rivals will instead share a new state of the art high school. A model for school consolidation and collaboration will be established here that eases the financial burden on local taxpayers but that could quickly expend large amounts of state and local mining tax revenue. New concepts in educational strategies will use non-traditional classroom layouts and curriculum to reach different kinds of learners.

If the measure fails, Iron Range parochialism might well prove to be an unassailable force, something that will make it even more difficult for future school consolidation ideas. Local voters would reject the financial involvement of the Department of Iron Range Resources in local school initiatives. And two districts would be stuck trying to figure out how to upgrade two century-old high school buildings in need of repairs.

The result will influence decisions made across the region. Efforts to build similar new shared schools could gain momentum. Greenway and Nashwauk-Keewatin, for instance, or Hibbing and Chisholm (gasp) might one day use the same combination of state and local funding to consolidate.

And that could be a good thing, or perhaps “necessary” is the right term. Iron Range school enrollments are starting to level out after years of sharp decline. We now find several districts with buildings too big and too old to for the local tax base and student population to properly support.

In Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert, the pro-referendum crowd argues this is a financial no-brainer. The State of Minnesota and Department of Iron Range Resources puts up most of the cost of the new shared high school. Local voters would bond for less than the cost of upgrading the two old high schools. If the measure fails, the outside funding goes away and the districts would be on their own.

But I never dismiss the traditionalism of the Iron Range. The silky smooth talk of educational consultants cause some to bristle. Marshall Helmberger of the Tower Timberjay published a controversial story this week. He calls into question the use of local tax dollars to advocate for the referendum, an issue he’s railed on since the St. Louis County Schools referendum in 2009. This prompted a response from the local superintendents this morning.

Further, this new school epitomizes a trend in education toward large campuses on the edges of town. These locations make it impossible for walking or biking, requiring vast parking lots and idling pickups in the turnaround.

Support for the referendum *seems* stronger than the opposition. We’ll know for sure on Tuesday, May 14. If you live in these districts, research your position and get to the ballot. Your decision will affect the lives of students, teachers and families in your community, but also much more than that.


  1. Aaron Jensen says

    I am curious as to what happened with the similar consolidation proposal that included MI-B? From my very brief time spent living and working in the communities of The Range, one of the most striking observations was how fiercely each community carved and defended their own identities in such close quarters geographically, the mantle of which was their school. This defense was on full display during the previous consolidation discussions which proposed a campus in MI. Having left the area, I simply lost track of the issue and surrounding dynamics.

    • Interesting story, actually. Mt. Iron-Buhl used the same IRRRB “consolidation” funding sources to build their own new school — even though it wasn’t a consolidation by any reasonable definition. Political connections had a lot to do with that. Virginia and E-G are now picking up the leftover elements of that old proposal and doing their own thing. The original shared high school concept with the three districts included a lot of strange, unworkable language that would have included the schools maintaining separate identities despite sharing a building.

  2. I don’t have a dog in this fight but I get suspicious when a new building is advocated as part of the process.

    I hope Johnson Controls isn’t still riding the circuit as a consultant like they were in Duluth and rural St. Louis County. They always recommend a new building. That’s worked out so well.

    Then there’s the lure of free money. Apparently all the other problems are taken care of around here.

    What will they do with the empty old buildings?

  3. Cassandra says

    Johnson controls is not involved. This was a fairly organic process that built on itself – truly. I know when we renovated Parkview (in Virginia), there was a pretty clear steering of people to go for what the school had already decided. It was not a good feeling. That really wasn’t the case. I sat in on design meetings where the end product look like a conglomeration of what folks had actually done. The (new) elementary schools came into play when the consensus of people involved said ‘wait a minute, if these buildings are good enough (temperature control, air quality, electric system, leaking from the ceiling in the media center), then why are they good enough for the younger kids?’ Many of those involved were concerned about going after that big of a scope, but it just made sense.

    The empty buildings will be for sale for a minimum of two years. There are demolition costs built in to the project, but there is also already a group discussing ways to market the buildings so they get used.

    • Cassandra says

      Can’t edit… was supposed to say ‘if these buildings aren’t good enough for the older kids…”

    • Tucker Nelson says

      I was on the Facilities Task Force that recommended building the Parkview addition, but had things worked out differently, that was a temporary solution, and the consulting firm leading the process definitely seemed to steer us in one direction. They came up with several options that made no sense, two of which would have made James Madison the building for the youngest students even though Parkview was specifically designed for them. Several people in the task force wanted to look more seriously at reopening James Madison, which maybe shouldn’t have been closed in the first place, although I assume that decision was largely financial. Many of the issues brought up at the time were never brought up again.

      It worked out in the end, considering what’s on the table now, but it’s interesting to think about the dozens of ways school construction could have played out in the past few decades. What if Buhl had consolidated with Chisholm and Mountian Iron with Virginia? What if Virginia’s referendum had passed in 1992? What if Eveleth-Gilbert had created a K-6 campus and a 7-12 right after they consolidated? I guess it doesn’t really matter now, though.

      Regarding the elementary schools, I think that became the big point of contention for E-G folks since now neither community would have a school in the middle of town. I wasn’t sure about that at first, but I’d love to work with community members to find the best use for the campuses that would remain. Do you know who is talking about uses for the old buildings? I’m definitely interested in being involved.

  4. I already voted on the referendum – voters can vote early at either superintendent office. I have tried to keep up with the published info & made sure I was making an educated choice. We have a chance to bring our schools into this century & give the kids more learning opportunities than they have now. The funding is a one time offer & we won’t get a better offer. My Dad was the welding instructor at the Eveleth VoTech for 30+ years. He started teaching in the old Historic Industrial Arts building on the high school- it was the first high tech Vocational School building in MN -the VoTech built their building down by the highway about 50 years ago & the HS used the old building until they closed years ago. The new elementary school will be built behind the current VoTech. I actually prefer the school sites down by the highway (I live 4 houses from the EG high school & it’s a madhouse around here 3 times a day during school & again if there is an event in the evening). I also questioned why we don’t just merge the elementary schools & build a bigger one or two near the new high school. The rumors that all schools will end up merging have been told my whole life & the Range can’t support 3 school buildings, multiple churches, separate fire, police, etc. in every town! There are many towns within a 20-30 mile radius & not enough money to support everything. School Merges have been happening since the 70s & 80s so they aren’t new. My church has merged 4 times since the 1960s! Gilbert & Biwabik share police. There’s talk of merging fire depts. Nobody wants to lose anything from their community, but they also don’t want to pay more taxes to support anything. I get the sentimentality some feel – I started school in Gilbert but graduated from EG a few years into the merge. We are spending a fortune on buildings we don’t use! The extra space problem has been an issue since EG merged in 1987- Eveleth stopped using their junior high so Gilbert’s building could house the junior high & Gilbert’s elementary. We built large additions in both towns in the 1990s & parts of those aren’t being used as originally intended. The issues go on & on – we need to do something before the only option left is online school for all. Online schools don’t have building maintenance!

  5. Mike Worcester says

    At one time, pretty much any existing school building that was “good enough for me/us” was a brand new structure that someone opposed because the previous existing building was also good enough. But enough someones felt that the kids in their community needed to be able to keep up with changes in education that “good enough” was just not enough.

    • There is also the argument that school district employees just make do because that is what they have for space and buildings. However, it does not mean that the needs of different spaces don’t exist. Children don’t learn the way they did 50 years ago, and teachers certainly don’t teach the way they did 50 years ago. Just like housing design evolves and changes, so too do schools. I understand the suspicion of free money, but this sounds like a win-win. In a world where we want kids to be global citizens, doesn’t working with your neighbors (even if you’re rivals) seem like a good place to start?

  6. Joe Musich says

    I ended my teaching career at Mpls South. There was an old South was remindful of the classic old buildings all over the place up there. A new South was built in 1970. The building has big open spaces, common areas and schedules devised to respond to student needs. Those innovations did not last long, walls were put in, and scheduling became more conventional again. Some say that the experiment of open education did not work. It was the days when parents were to have three broad choice for their children-open alternative, classical top down, and magnet technical focussed. South was the open or alternative choice. That was the program my children went through their entire k-12. I sort of felt betrayed and the all the choices ended up compromised. Many factors affected the pull back but mostly revolve around finding the dough to pay for it all. As a retired teacher I have the position that the high minded should be thoroughly funded. I am sure without having sat in on any of the meetings for this new mega school that this is the case for many. But I would suggest a continual finding package be created for many years forward to pay for the new building, staffing etc. otherwise it will be another short shrift to education.

  7. As an outsider reading this (but not an outsider to school district promotional bullshit) I find Marshall’s article very convincing. There seems to be a widespread bias towards capital projects over such operating costs as employing teachers. And there is often a focus on facilities over the intellectual processes that are supposed to be the point. The notion of solving excess space issues by building yet more space speaks for itself.

  8. Gray Camp says

    I’m all for the consolidation of public services throughout the iron range. It is really the only way we have a chance of thriving in the future. It is however disappointing that these school consolidations come at the expense of taconite relief money. Just think of how many more chairlifts and lodges we could put at Giants Ridge with that money😀

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