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Iron Range Residents Question Co-Located Campus

Created: 01/28/2014 10:54 PM WDIO.com
By: Travis Dill
tdill@wdio.com

Despite the bitter cold on Tuesday, 80 Iron Range residents turned out in Virginia to learn more about a potential co-located campus for the Eveleth-Gilbert, Virginia, and Mountain Iron-Buhl school districts.

School officials said it is a unique and promising idea, but residents weren't sold yet.

Parents at the public meeting said the main concerns are the unknowns as the cooperative 7-12 grade building was debated. Residents questioned how finances would work, will athletic teams remain separate, and what will happen to current school buildings. Officials didn't have answers to every question, and called for public input so they can better develop the plan.

The concept of coexisting with rival schools made the crowd a little tense in the Parkview Elementary School gym on Tuesday night.

“All these districts have a strong pride in their community. Each individual district is very proud of who they are. They all have their individual identity that everybody seems to be proud of,” Erik Wedge said.

Wedge graduated from Virginia High School, but said bringing 1600 students together could give his children better technology and class offerings.

“I'm very intrigued by this co-location facility that would allow for the best educational opportunities for our students,” Wedge said.

School officials at the meeting said the rough idea will only move forward if residents want it.

Right now the concept keeps the Eveleth-Gilbert, Virginia, and Mountain Iron-Buhl districts separate, but operating in one building. Officials said students would potentially share classes during the day, but go off to separate athletic teams after the bell rings. A joint powers agreement would mean the three districts would equally share control of the new building and curriculum, but revenues would still be divided by district. The proposed building would only serve grades 7-12 so districts would retain separate elementary schools.

Officials wanted public input and said the plan can change or be abandoned depending on the response, but the ability to offer more elective classes and a better facility is worth the debate.

The proposed building would cost between $80-100 million, but Bill Hafdahl, director of the Virginia School Board, was confident that state lawmakers will hand over taconite tax revenue for the plan if it has community support.

“We'll find that the legislators will be happy to see that and we think, we're pretty confident, that'll work and that they'll go ahead and approve the funding for it,” Hafdahl said.

School officials said the districts are doing fine on their own, but maintenance costs on aging buildings will get worse in the near future. The Virginia District spends $1 million a year to keep the high school going.

Some parents were worried about keeping each town's history, but others, like Susan Lehto, were fine with melding together.

“I think combine the schools, combine the mascots is the best for all,” Lehto said.

The process is far from decided and school officials emphasized that they want to hear from residents. Residents said they do want to be heard.

“Our voice, through these community forums can be heard,” Wedge said.

The next public meeting will take place at Merritt Elementary in Mountain Iron on Wednesday at 6 p.m. The proposed new school would be built adjacent to that site.

School officials said plans will have to move quickly to lock in tax revenue before state lawmakers wrap up in April or May.

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