Schools brace for a boom on the Iron Range

Mesabi East School District Superintendent Shawn Northey says of growth: "It's a nice problem to have."
MinnPost photo by Catherine Conlan
Mesabi East School District Superintendent Shawn Northey says of growth: “It’s a nice problem to have.”

DULUTH — As the Iron Range faces the possibility of massive construction and expansion projects totaling billions of dollars over the next 10 years, school districts are taking notice.

After years of consolidation and contraction, the possibility of holding steady — or even growing — has superintendents ready for the boom to start.

“We’re excited to add teachers and we’re looking forward to more enrollment,” Hibbing School District Superintendent Deborah Hilde said.

There are several large-scale projects under way or in the process of being approved on the Iron Range. These include a $1.6 billion plant at Minnesota Steel near Nashwauk (which broke ground Friday), a $2 billion Mesaba Energy project near Taconite and a $602 million Polymet nonferrous metals mining development near Hoyt Lakes. These massive projects will require thousands of construction workers and will create, along with baby boomer retirements, hundreds of new jobs in the coming years. The Minnesota Steel project alone is expected to provide 2,000 construction jobs and establish 700 permanent employees by 2012.

These demographic shifts will put pressure on facilities on the Range, and the school districts are preparing for change.

“We have an informal plan in place,” Hibbing School District Superintendent Robert Belluzzo said. “We know that we are capable in our current format without significant changes, up to about 10 percent growth.”

It will be difficult to prepare specific, year-by-year plans for growth until more projects are greenlighted, construction begins and permanent employees are hired. But after years of consolidation and contraction, it’s hard for school officials not to get excited about the prospects for growth.

Belluzzo said that while younger families with younger children would be likely to come into the district, it’s difficult if only one or two grades have a big increase in class size. “We can handle 10 percent growth easily if it’s spread out across the grades,” he said. “That’s not always the case. If you get an influx of 20 fifth graders, that makes it more difficult.”

‘It’s a nice problem to have’
Belluzzo was recently appointed to represent K-12 schools on the Iron Range Resources Range Readiness Committee, which has been meeting for about a year. The committee aims to bring together business, government and social groups to address the challenges sudden growth could pose for the area.

And in Hibbing’s case, “We’ve had several meetings with city government and close contact with legislators” as possible growth approaches.

Mesabi East School District Superintendent Shawn Northey said the district has already seen some growth. In the last year the student population has risen 2.5 percent. “We’re starting to see some of this now and we’re excited,” he said. “It’s a nice problem to have.”

The superintendents said each district has room for about a 10 percent increase in student population before they would need to add to facilities. The challenge, they said, will be to find qualified teachers.

“The most difficult positions to fill are usually industrial arts, special ed and business,” Northey said, adding that the district is keeping in close contact with the mines and area businesses to see if there are specific programs the schools should add. Northey said Mesabi East added three full-time employees this year to deal with the bump in student population.

“There are shortages in some teaching areas and it’s of some concern to us,” Hilde said. “If we’re struggling now, will it be more of a struggle into the future? Will we be in competition, in the same area? We have to be concrete about it. How do we make our district more attractive?”

The uncertainty of the projects can be frustrating. “We’ve been waiting forever for these projects to begin,” said Hilde. “There have been delays for environmental certification, for funding; we can hardly wait for people to start being employed.”

Iron Range Resources Commissioner Sandy Layman said that expectations have been on hold, but with the groundbreaking on the new steel-making facility on Friday, “cautious optimism is a positive approach. Decreasing enrollment experience has taught them to be cautious, all across northeastern Minnesota. But now one of the expectations and hopes is that this will bring a long of young families with young children.”

Layman said the Minnesota Steel project, with its expected 700 permanent workers, could bring “several hundred new families” to the area.

The influx of temporary and permanent workers could provide some challenges in the schools. “One thing we haven’t faced on the Iron Range is a lot of diversity, and that might require a little more training for the staff,” Hilde said. “Maybe we’ll see more people coming to the district with different backgrounds and different perspectives.”

More extracurricular activities?
There will be possibilities for changing programs and extracurricular activities as well. “With an increase in enrollment, we could go back to having our own [athletic] teams,” Hilde said.

Belluzzo said co-curricular activities across the districts were a valuable offering and said that if enough students came to his district, it would allow for a broadening of electives, such as music, art and foreign languages.

Some of the districts have been working to improve their facilities, although that work was generally unrelated to any expansion that may come, and that most buildings had room to expand before any new construction would be needed.

“Our newer buildings were built in the 1950s, and we’ve been in the process of renovating buildings,” Hibbing’s Belluzzo said, much of it in air quality and high school upgrades. “Beginning next summer, we’ll be starting on several years of construction and renovation over the summer months, depending on budget cycles, dealing with ventilation and cosmetic changes.”

Ron Dicklich, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, said the schools have the flexibility to take on more students. “The concern comes from how many students will come and when they’ll be coming. There are two phases to this: the construction phase, and part of that is temporary growth. … It’s hard to get a hold on how many of those will be permanent, and then will zero-in on the final numbers.”

And while the prospect of a boom is thrilling, the superintendents said they’re waiting to see what might happen.

“If this does become a boom town, there are lessons that we’ve learned so that we don’t make the same mistake twice,” Northey said. “There is a different feel this time. There’s always talk of it’s coming back, but this time there’s a different feel.” He said the Polymet project, located in the area, holds particular appeal.

Hilde, who started her superintendent job on July 1, said she has been with the district for 35 years. “We’re looking forward to more enrollment,” she said. “It’s exciting to think of the effects this will have.”

“The planning is the problem,” Dicklich said. “It’s a problem we haven’t dealt with in a while.”

Belluzzo said he grew up in Chisolm and taught in the Hibbing district. “Having been from the Range, I’ve seen the boom and bust, and I’m thinking I have an idea of what we can expect when the process starts. We’ve been in a cutting mode because of declining enrollments, it would be a breath of fresh air to at least remain stable over the next two years and then grow after that.”

Catherine Conlan reports from Duluth and covers rural developments and issues.

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