Before the kickoff of fall sports, staff at the Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High were busy selling tickets to die-hard Iron Range sports fans. Among them, Tony Tassoni — an Eveleth resident of more than 80 years — stopped by on Monday to purchase his season pass.
Nowadays, he has a grandson to support from the sidelines. But he’s been cheering on football players and other athletes in the Eveleth-Gilbert Public Schools district for as long as he can remember.
The rivalry between Gilbert and Eveleth that he’d initially grown accustomed to was disrupted back in 1993, when the two districts merged. And now his beloved Golden Bears may soon become a relic as well, if current talks between the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia Public Schools Districts over merging at the high school level come to fruition.
Asked how he feels about this possibility, Tassoni said, “The rivalries will always be there.” But it’s a move he thinks should have happened 25 years ago.
His take on the situation runs counter to many past tales of school district mergers — whether it be a full consolidation or a partial blending of two districts. These stories are often fraught with hurt feelings over lost school mascots and sports colors and fears over closing school buildings that have become central to a town’s identity.
Those are the sorts of emotion-laden pitfalls that Noel Schmidt and Jeff Carey — the two superintendents currently leading the high-school level merger conversations in the Virginia Public Schools district and Eveleth-Gilbert Public Schools district, respectively — are hoping to avoid.
About a year ago, the two districts formally started conversations to explore the possibility of merging at the high school level. Many of the conditions leading up to these talks are not new when it comes to district mergers: declining populations, declining student enrollment and outdated facilities in need of expensive repairs.
What makes this scenario unique, however, is the fact that neither district is currently in the midst of a financial crisis, the superintendents say. So they’re able to take their time in gauging support. So far that’s included 40 listening sessions, along with surveys, which have shown that support for the merger currently sits above 70 percent in both communities.
“It isn’t the first time these two rival districts have ever had a conversation,” Carey said. “What is new is that neither one of us is in financial trouble at the moment. So it didn’t start as a financial conversation. It started as an educational conversation. And I think that resonated more with people, when you start talking about what can we do for kids … rather than ‘we’re all gonna have to pile into this building over here’ — that’s when anger starts forming. We haven’t had that.”
Fighting to stay relevant
Schmidt, a newcomer to the region who came from the White Bear Lake Area Schools district three years ago, and Carey, a lifelong Iron Range educator and resident, are framing the discussion around how to best provide 21st-century learning opportunities for their high schoolers — those who are the hardest to hold on to and the most costly to educate, when that education includes advanced classes, electives and extracurriculars.
“Everywhere on the Range, the student population is going in one direction — it’s going down. [If] we’re going to stay in our little fiefdoms, it’ll be death by a thousand papercuts,” Schmidt said. “At the high school level, size does matter, as far as being able to offer programming. We’re trying to be proactive and solve the problem before things become worse.”
The solution that these two districts are exploring involves merging at the high-school level to create an academy style experience for students in grades 9-12. In this model, students focus in on a particular career area of interest and take more specialized classes that help them better gauge their career interests and skills sets.
To start out, both districts brought students, teachers and community members to tour the academies model at the Alexandria Area High School. Then they created a joint task force to figure out how to adapt the model to best align with employment opportunities in the Iron Range.
“The biggest difference between us and Alexandria is there’s a farming presence there. Here, not so much,” Schmidt said. “Obviously, mining is much bigger here.”So they added mining classes to one of the three career clusters they’ve drafted for their own academies high school model. Those three career clusters, or pathways, are: health sciences, technology and human services; business management, administration, arts, communications and information systems; and agriculture, food, natural resources, engineering, manufacturing and technology.
Carey says that the main objective of this new model is to better prepare students to leave high school with a clearer vision of what they want to pursue, whether it be a two-year degree, a four-year degree or a job in the trades. Part of this vision entails exposing students to specialized skill sets and internships, so they gain hands-on experience. This approach has captured the interest of area businesses, says Carey.
“Right now, we’re just producing kids who want to leave. That’s all that’s on their mind — ‘We’re leaving and not coming back,’ ” he said. “This is one of those game changers. If they understand what’s available to them, maybe they’ll change their mind and come back.”
Heading into the fall, the two districts will form joint task forces to sort through the logistics — everything from transportation and finances to facilities needs, whether it be a remodel project or investing in a new high school building.
By November, they hope to present both school boards with a finalized plan for consideration. After another round of public polling, if support for the high school merger stays strong, Schmidt says they’d likely ask their communities to support a referendum to help cover the expenses this spring.
A shift on how to deliver education
So far, both superintendents are reluctant to hash out what school mascot would represent all high schoolers under this potential merger. Schmidt says some folks have kiddingly asked if they’ll become the Blue Bears, since Virginia is currently home of the Blue Devils and Eveleth-Gilbert is home of the Golden Bears.
At this point, he is certain of one thing. “If we do this, we’re not having two mascots,” he said. “We’ll probably have to make up a new one.”
If they let the students lead these sorts of conversations, they said, things will likely work out. It’s the adults — especially those who have lived through decades of deep-seated rivalries — who are generally the most reluctant to compromise on the identity pieces.
“With social media, these kids know each other, hang out online, date each other, go to dances together,” Carey said. “That line isn’t drawn in the sand anymore, quite like it was. Sure, when they blow the whistle, it’s competitive. … But in the last dozen years or so, we’re sharing athletics, classes. That part of it isn’t a mystery to kids anymore. So when you say to kids, ‘We’re thinking about merging with Virginia,’ they’re like ‘Oh, cool.’ ”
Growing up in the neighboring town of Mountain Iron, Carey says he’s experienced consolidations that didn’t go over so well with community members. In 1985, during his seventh-grade year, the Mountain Iron district merged with the Buhl district and students were bused back and forth to different buildings, depending on who sat on the school board at any given time, he said, noting top-down decisionmaking “disenfranchised kids.”
He also served as a principal in the St. Louis County district, when it absorbed the Babbitt and Tower-Soudan districts in 1993. That move was largely motivated by financial issues, he said. And when school buildings closed, there were “lots of hurt feelings.”
Dozens of mergers took place across the state in the mid-1990s. Then things slowed down a bit, before picking up again with a large wave of consolidations in both 2009 and 2013 with eight districts combining into five and four new districts, respectively.
Brandi Lautigar, board chair in the Eveleth-Gilbert district, and Chris Chad, a math teacher in the district, both experienced the initial stages of the 1993 Eveleth-Gilbert consolidation as middle-schoolers. But back then, all they had to form their expectations off of was the occasional interaction with Gilbert students at hockey games, Chad said.
Both sat on the academy design task force, as Eveleth-Gilbert representatives, and are excited about the possibility of bringing a new, blended, high school experience to their students. “I like the fact that we’re not doing this because of money,” Chad said. “It’s a shift on how to deliver education to our students. That’s the important part.”
Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, suspects that future district mergers will be driven by a similar motive, especially as we approach a period where “distance is really gonna be an issue” for remaining smaller rural districts currently going it alone.
“It’s how do we provide opportunities for students?” Nolan said. “I think people are finding blended models — such as in Eveleth-Gilbert where they may do a joint-powers high school,” he said, noting districts near the state border are also turning to tuition agreements with border districts in neighboring states and incorporating more IT, or video-based, classroom technology to provide high schoolers with 21st-century learning opportunities.