Mesabi schools ask for new buildingby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Some Iron Range residents vote Tuesday whether to replace an 85-year-old school building in Aurora. The Mesabi-East School District is in the heart of the area hit when LTV Steel closed its taconite plant in 2001. That left 1,400 people out of work. Now, school officials think there's a new optimism on the range. They hope "rangers" are ready to invest in the schools.
Duluth, Minn. — Tuesday's referendum would let the district bond for $15.2 million, part of an almost $19 million project. They hope to replace the old high school, now serving kids in 13 grades.
The Mesabi East Schools are based on a campus in Aurora - with grades K-12 spread among six structures, including the 85 year old high school, and various additions and annexes. The oldest building would be demolished around its historic auditorium, which they hope to save. New classrooms would be rebuilt around it.
A year ago, a fire marshal toured the high school and found many serious deficiencies. So, according to Superintendent Gene Paulson, the district brought in a facilities specialist from the Minnesota Department of Education, to see if it could be fixed.
"At that time, he went through our building, and he said he would not recommend allowing us to put that kind of money into this building," Paulson says. "You need a review and comment process for any projects over $500,000. And he told us at that time that his recommendation would not be to spend that money on this building."
And Paulson says, even if it were feasible to repair the high school, it still leaves the district with very old buildings.
"You know, we've got the 85 year old building," Paulson says. "But then we've got another building on this site which houses our gym and all those other ones, which is about a 1960s version. So, keep in mind when you're talking about our newest building you're still talking about buildings that are close to 50 years old."
The Mesabi East district is mostly rural, including small towns like Aurora, Biwabik and Hoyt Lakes. Many of the residents lost their jobs when LTV Steel closed five years ago. School enrollment has been falling; and times have been tough. Voters turned down a district excess operating levy request two years ago.
But now, there's real hope in the near future. The region's iron mining has been a stable money maker. And two new employers have plans for Hoyt Lakes. More than 400 jobs are expected at Mesabi Nugget's iron nugget plant and Polymet's non-ferrous metals mine.
School referendum promoters warn the district needs to be ready for an influx of new families. But not everyone's convinced.
Scott Dane is a member of the Biwabik City Council and he's on a committee opposed to the referendum. Dane says it's unwise to build now before the new jobs have materialized.
"We all hope that Polymet and Mesabi Nugget and all these projects will work," Dane says. "But the long term permanent jobs that they're projecting is only about 400 jobs. Now every job is important on the Iron Range. But when we had 1,400 employees working at LTV five years ago we still were experiencing declining enrolments."
Dane says, in the short term, it's a better idea to use a grant available from a state agency, Iron Range Resources, to fix the high school's deficiencies.
"And, if things change significantly, if there is an economic boom on the East Range, over here - we need to expand - then come back at us when the numbers actually warrant it, not based on projections and stuff," says Dane.
More importantly, Dane says, the district should be looking at consolidation with Mountain Iron-Buhl, Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert and St. Louis County Schools. All have been struggling with enrollment, he says, and are all within 15 miles of each other.
But school officials don't think they have the time for that. They say the old high school is in immediate need of replacement.
Superintendent Gene Paulson says the district's gone the extra mile to include the community in its decision, and to explain the need. And he says he's sensing a new mood on the range that may help the referendum pass.
"Some people are very, very optimistic, that this is the beginning of something that would revive this east end of the range, with the school starting the process and then Mesabi Nugget, and then Polymet," Paulson says. "So, I think that has added to the enthusiasm for this election."
District voters will make the decision on Tuesday.
- Morning Edition, 04/03/2006, 7:25 a.m.