Meadowlands, Minn. — Voters in St. Louis County head to the polls Tuesday for a special election that carries both a large price tag and potentially large ramifications for education across northern Minnesota.
The district is seeking property tax increases to pay for nearly $80 million in new construction and repairs in the St. Louis County School District. District officials have also said its very survival hangs in the balance.
St. Louis County is truly unique among Minnesota school districts. It's the state's largest district by area... spreading across more than 4,200 square miles, almost as big as the state of Connecticut. (Click here to see a map of the district.)
Its northern- and southern-most schools are 90 miles apart. Yet this district has just seven schools--in the towns of Cook, Orr, Babbit, Tower, Cherry, Cotton and AlBrook--and because of declining enrollment, seven is too many.
"If the system's going to survive, something has to happen," says St. Louis County Schools superintendent Charles Rick.
The district is asking voters to approve higher property taxes to fund a massive construction plan that includes closing four aging schools and building two new ones, leaving the district with a total of five buildings.
Rick says nothing in his five years as superintendent has provoked so much emotion from the public.
"For a long time we've been able to maintain our schools as they are, but we've now reached a point where we don't have the funds, we don't have the students," he says. "I understand change is very difficult and stressful for people."
Some schools have sections that pre-date the Great Depression and still use coal boilers for heat.
While new buildings would reduce the district's ongoing costs, the plan also means small rural towns would lose institutions that are central to their identities. Schools would close in Cook and Orr - a new one would be built somewhere between the two towns. The same would happen between the Cotton and AlBrook schools.
Melissa Morse was one of the many voters who packed a community center this week in the town of Meadowlands to learn more about the vote. Morse has one child at the AlBrook school and two others younger than school age. Looking over the plans, she declared her intention to vote yes.
"Because we want a new school for our kids; high tech and everything," she says. "I think it will be good - we don't want them to have to go outside the district to go somewhere else."
The tax hike would mean about $250 more in yearly property taxes for the owners of a $150,000 house. The bad economy will make it a pocketbook vote for some who just can't afford the higher taxes, but for most, that issue takes a back seat to the issue of how the plan affects communities.
Stephen Abrahamson is mayor of Tower, a town where the school sits a block off of main street, but where references to Tower-Soudan Golden Eagle sports teams are front and center.
"We just don't believe the plan is the right plan," he says.
The Tower school is not slated to close but would be converted to host students through the sixth grade. The high school would go away.
For Abrahamson, whose kids graduated from the school, this will be the first time he's ever voted 'no' on a school tax question. He says education isn't just book learning -- kids also have to be involved and engaged in their communities.
"...and you start busing them away, I don't see how you do that," he says. "They're not so much part of the community any more."
The district says it can't keep spending more money than it brings in to keep seven buildings open. St. Louis County has lost about 800 students in the past decade - which means less state funding. Continuing at the current pace will lead to insolvency.
Many of those lost students enroll into neighboring districts. St. Louis County hopes some will come back with the lure of nice, new buildings.
However, Abrahamson and others thinks that plan could backfire in Tower because of another of quirk of the St. Louis County district: It's not contiguous. Six other districts in towns from Hibbing to Virginia to Aurora cut through the middle of the district's enrollment area.
So while the St. Louis County district would send a Tower student to Babbitt, that student could also just as easily open enroll in Virginia, Mesabi East or Ely High Schools. They're all roughly the same distance away, and students going there would mean less money for the St. Louis County district.
It's a risk the district is willing to take, and to stave off the possibility of complete dissolution, school board member Bob Larson says one thing is for sure. Schools will close regardless of Tuesday's outcome.
"We're going to change, one way or another," Larson says. :If it passes, I think we'll change in a very positive way; we'll have new schools - I think we'll have excitement. If it doesn't pass, I think we'll change in a much less exciting way."
The uncertainty of what happens if the vote fails is also affecting the 19 districts that border the St. Louis County district. Those districts are wary to implement their own big plans right now because there's no telling how district boundaries might look in a year or two.