Voters in Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia on Tuesday owe themselves and our students an answer to this question: What is really holding us back from passing the school referendum?

It would be folly to think the same approach to an old problem concerning our schools is the answer. Doing that leaves the Iron Range in perpetual catch-up mode, chasing building repair to building repair and not ever financially focusing on the core curriculum that drives education.

Yet over the past several weeks, a group of citizens largely based in the Eveleth-Gilbert school district have stood in opposition to a $180 million school referendum — more than half covered by state of Minnesota and Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation — under the guise of a solution that does nothing more than reinforce the status quo to repair now, worry about the future later.

The opposition is rather strange. And we emphasize strange because those against the referendum have provided very little public discourse during almost two years of school board meetings, public listening sessions and letters exchanged in the pages of publication. That includes two school members that voted unanimously to send this plan to the voters in the first place.

Their opposition to Tuesday’s vote comes down to taxes, enrollment and the future of century-old buildings that are placed up on pedestals. The solution? Continue repairs on the buildings, replace the superintendent and increase enrollment. In short, it’s a lipstick-on-a-pig solution.

Maybe in a perfect world professionals visiting our area interviewing for skilled positions would look past the building repairs, the razor thin budgets to do the work and to the teachers in the classroom. But that isn’t happening. The foundation of education is changing and parents want school districts willing to keep up with the time.

It’s hard to do all of those things when the roof leaks.

New buildings don’t provide a good education, that we can agree on. But when more than half of the funding needed for two new collaborative schools — more than $100 million — is approved by state agencies to give away to these two school districts, it’s an opportunity to transform the face and future of Range education. It’s an opportunity for the Range to finally control its fate, unlike the numerous industries we have failed to reel in.

It’d be be turning a blind eye to the deeper issues of our communities to turn it down, which brings us to a number of factors voters should consider Tuesday beyond buildings.

Taxes

Make no mistake: Nobody wants to pay higher taxes unless they have to. We would argue this is one of those times with what the state and IRRRB have put on the table.

The projected tax increases seem rather moderate: $77 a year based on a home valued at $50,000 and that goes to $115 on a $75,000 home and $183 on a $100,000 home. At the high end, that’s $600 on a $250,000 home. According to the real estate website Zillow.com, average home values in Eveleth are about $85,000 compared to Gilbert ($75,000) and Virginia ($73,000).

Commercial and industrial buildings can expect a scale of $191 for a $50,000 property to $2,359 for a $500,000 property.

There’s an argument to be made for the how the cities and county will have to adjust their tax levies as the years go to pay for roads and other infrastructure repairs, social services or wastewater treatment. It’s a fair point to bring up that tax increases could continue further outside the school districts’ control.

A more desirable solution would be for the state to increase Local Government Aid and County Program Aid this session to help local entities rely less on property taxes to fund repairs. On the Range, increasing the share of taconite aid wouldn’t hurt either. Those proposals have been brought forth in the Legislature and currently held up in their deadlock.

Barring that solution, residents should demand better leadership out of their local governments and step up to fill that role. In some cases on the Range, years of mismanagement is to blame for wildly fluctuating tax levies and an inability to make basic infrastructure improvements, much less afford a new park or business development.

Looking out for the cities and their budgets isn’t the job we elected school board members to do. And for those cities, they have bigger problems to tackle than losing a school.

Declining population

Over the past few decades, the population on the Iron Range has trended downward, which is par for the course around Greater Minnesota. The Range, perhaps, was hit harder by this as the cyclical mining industry went through its ups and downs.

The number of people living here, and in turn the number of students, just aren’t there anymore to support three separate school districts in Virginia, Eveleth-GIlbert and Mountain Iron-Buhl, covering a total population around 25,000.

Part of that struggle is the fact the region has always pinned its hopes on chopsticks or wood siding factories to generate hundreds of jobs at once. When those projects fail to come to fruition, a population fails to locate, and instead our younger population tends to relocate elsewhere.

Think of it this way: New industries are hesitant to set up shop because of a lack of workers. There’s a lack of workers, among other reasons, because the jobs available are largely skill-based positions or there are better opportunities in other communities.

It’s a vicious cycle, but where does it stop?

If we aren’t bringing in new industry or new small businesses to attract a new population and larger tax base, the answer isn’t to idly stand by until it does happen. A new school, with a progressive new curriculum can be that attractive point for residents, emphasized by the fact the districts can tailor the career academy to the area’s jobs and industries.

Consider this: The nearest pediatrician on the Range is located in Hibbing, leaving the Quad Cities to rely on family doctors to fill the void. While the academies model, which has a potential health care focus, won’t produce a doctor out of high school, it provides students interested with in-field experience from the local hospitals before college. After graduating, if that need or a similar one is still prevalent, the Range has a student to recruit and in turn a good school system as a recruitment tool.

In Alexandria, Minn., the city and school district that Eveleth-Gilbert/Virginia have based their academies model off, have found these stories to be more common after the new school was built and career academy started. More homegrown talent returned to skill positions after college.

They also found laborers tended to stay home. Komatsu in Virginia said last month it would hire more than a dozen qualified welders on the spot if they walked in the doors. Instead, they’re backfilling jobs from other states for short stints.

The career academy is set up to do the same for welders as it would for future nurses or doctors. Get them in the field, give them a taste, and in the case of laborer positions, get them on track for certificates and union training to get out in the field professionally, even quicker — and locally.

Why new buildings?

So why can’t we do this with our current buildings? Aside from repair costs, the answer is technology — and not broadband and laptops.

In Alexandria, the school district used the career academy to leverage partnerships with local industries to not only provide the in-field experiences, but to get up-to-date technology into the classrooms at the expense of the business in many cases.

The school holds the latest welding and machinist technology, donated by the industry, to ensure students leaving the school for certificates know how to operate the exact machines and technology they see once hired. The same was true for students wanting to enter healthcare, media, education, the arts and more.

The interest in those same partnerships at the current buildings in our school districts doesn’t appear to be there, nor does the money for school districts to spend on those new technologies. What made the Alexandria school so successful was the overall appeal of the opportunities for their students and a new school that drove up excitement to get people in the door.

In short, the Alexandria community had the courage to shed the status quo, do something bold and collaborative, going all-in doing so.

It’s paid off big for them.

Which brings us back to the original question posed here: What is really holding us back from passing the school referendum?

Is it tradition? Fear of change? Old buildings?

The Iron Range has the rare opportunity here to control its own fate on the future. A yes vote on Tuesday capitalizes on $100 million in state funding — that likely isn’t available again — to provide state-of-the-art education for the region.

A yes vote means no more buckets on the floor when it rains or the snow melts.

A no vote resets the status quo of constantly chasing building repairs and declining enrollments.

A yes vote doesn’t kill any of our communities. A failure to adapt and a lack of courage to make a difference for the next generations will do that just fine.

When you go to the polls Tuesday, the time is now to step up and make difference. Vote yes on the school referendum.

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