A pair of small-school Iron Range districts are taking big steps to collaboratively advance each district's academic and operational futures.

A shared director of teaching and learning who leads curriculum development.

A shared transportation director and assistant director who oversee school bus route planning, bus drivers and bus purchases.

Shared bus maintenance that keeps each district's bus fleet running smoothly.

Payroll processing for both districts.

A shared head of nursing who manages nursing staff at all schools.

And a shared superintendent.

St. Louis County Schools and Mountain Iron-Buhl, a pair of school districts headquartered in the Quad Cities, are quietly and steadily increasing collaboration to strengthen academic offerings and both district's futures, say school officials.

“St. Louis County has always had five independent schools with their own identity, so taking in Mountain Iron-Buhl was natural in that each school has their own identity and independence,” said Reggie Engebritson, who has served as superintendent for both districts after in January 2018 becoming St. Louis County Schools superintendent. “For me, it's about education and making sure the students have that rigor of education. We have a shared vision of what's best for the kids. It's allowed us to meet the needs of students.”

Declining enrollment, resulting budget challenges, and in some districts, the need to replace aging school buildings, have traditionally independent Iron Range districts increasingly looking for opportunities to collaborate.

In a short period of time, the Mountain Iron-Buhl, St. Louis County Schools collaboration has grown to become a model of how more Iron Range school districts are looking to partner with neighbors in educational programming, administration, sharing staff, and physical needs.

“Senator (Tom) Bakk came to one of our school board meetings and told me that with Mountain Iron-Buhl coming on board, this was such a good model,” said Dan Manick, St. Louis County Schools board chair. “He looked at it as a good business model and it's been very good.”

Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, says from west to east, more Iron Range districts are eyeing collaboration.

“I have certainly seen an uptick in districts having conversations about having more cooperation and more collaboration,” said Giorgi. “It's become more and more apparent that districts need to think outside the box and school boards need to be a little less parochial. We have to step up the education of our kids.”

St. Louis County Schools is a rural district of 1,954 students with K-12 schools of Northeast Range in Babbitt, Cherry Campus in Iron, North Woods near Cook and Orr, and South Ridge in Culver. Headquartered in Virginia, the district also operates an elementary school in Tower. At 4,000 square-miles, it's the state's largest district geographically.

Mountain-Iron Buhl has an enrollment of 584 students with its K-12 school in Mountain Iron.

Jeremy Jesch, chair of the Mountain Iron-Buhl school board, said the partnership with St. Louis County Schools is working well. It's allowed the district to maintain its independence and identity while still offering the type of education students deserve, said Jesch.

As a result of the collaboration, Mountain Iron-Buhl has been able to add a dean of students, a curriculum director and a technology director, said Jesch.

“The collaboration has worked better than I had hoped,” said Jesch. “Dr. Engebritson did a great job bringing the two boards together. The benefits of having two districts working together is that we are able to share resources. It is these shared resources that allows everyone to offer the kind of educational opportunities typically available only in larger districts. The St. Louis County school board has been a pleasure to deal with.”

Initially, it took a couple meetings for the two school boards to set a direction, said Manick. Since then, the collaboration has gone smoothly, he said.

“At the very least, we expected it to go well, but it's been better than expected,” said Manick. “It made sense to do it with our headquarters right there in Virginia and the entire collaboration just made sense. I think it's going real well. It's like nothing has caught us by surprise. There really haven't been any pitfalls.”

Together, the two districts are not only sharing services and staff, but ideas, said Engebritson.

“I think we've been learning what each other has been doing and ideas we haven't thought of,” said Engebritson. “I want teachers in both districts to think outside the box on how to reach kids. Each student is different and we want to be able to reach each of them.”

On Minnesota's Iron Range, where communities and schools dot the iron formation along Highway 169 and in rural areas, collaboration among schools is a sign of changing times.

“We have new superintendents in some of the districts and there's more conversations taking place,” said Giorgi. “There's new conversations taking place between Nashwauk-Keewatin, Hibbing and Chisholm. They are in early talks, but it's been easier because there's new leadership in those districts.”

With a new Mountain Iron-Buhl high school and two new St. Louis County Schools K-12 buildings, thousands of students in the two districts are learning in modern buildings that replaced aging structures.

Yet, some Iron Range districts still operate century-old buildings.

“Hundred-year-old buildings are the norm (on the Iron Range),” said Giorgi. “They're not economical and not easy to operate. When you're spending money on heat and maintenance, the money is not going back into the classroom. We have to ask ourselves is it truly sustainable for communities to have these small districts or do we move to something different? Maybe it's time for people to step back and look at how we deliver education.”

Collaboration among K-12 schools on the Iron Range and within the 13,000 square-mile Minnesota Department of of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation's service area, is being supported heavily since the 2016 development of an Iron Range School Collaboration grant program.

The grant program has provided a massive new source of funding for collaborative programs and buildings.

The program in 2018 utilized 24 cents per ton from the $2.751 Taconite Production Tax paid by Iron Range mining companies to help fund regional multi-district collaborative initiatives. Eligible initiatives increase availability and access to high quality education for students, teachers and communities.

Based on 2018 iron ore pellet production, the fund generated $8.3 million for distribution in 2019.

Since guidelines in 2016 were moved forward by the nine-member Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, the program has helped fund building initiatives for the Mesabi East, St. Louis County, Mountain-Iron Buhl, Grand Rapids, Eveleth-Gilbert, and Virginia school districts.

An expansion of the region-wide Applied Learning Institute, Education Innovation Partners, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiative in the Nashwauk-Keewatin, Greenway and Grand Rapids districts, a multi-district STEM Summer Institute, and a Chinese language program offered via telepresence to other districts through Mountain Iron-Buhl, have also been funded through the program.

One of the larger school partnerships to benefit from the program is Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia, where the two districts are merging programs, building a new high school and two new elementary schools under a $178.4 million budget. The program contributes $4.9 million per year for 20 years to the collaboration.

This summer, a collaboration of six districts offered STEM Summer Institute programming to students in grades 5-8, an initiative which Engebritson helped develop.

Engebritson hopes to expand collaboration by offering summer trades courses to 9-12 graders through a partnership of St. Louis County, Mountain Iron-Buhl, Chisholm, Hibbing, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Mesabi East, and Ely school districts.

Meantime, Mountain Iron-Buhl and St. Louis County schools are looking to forge a tighter relationship.

“The collaboration is and will remain an ongoing process,” said Jesch. “We will remain open minded and continually look to find ways to improve our district academically, socially and financially. Sometimes, that means having the hard conversations about identifying the areas we can improve upon and being open minded enough to do so. We will continue to build on our relationship with St. Louis County in areas such as telepresence offerings and teacher sharing.”

Manick said the two districts could look at additional collaboration by developing trades programs and expanding offerings such as robotics.

“We've crossed the big bridge,” said Manick of the collaboration. “I'm hoping it will lead to more benefits with curriculum. All we're supposed to be doing here is to benefit the kids in the long run. You have to get over the boundaries and the rivalries. It's all about the kids.”

“We're open to options,” said Engebritson.

Students in the two districts, meanwhile, are also collaborating.

“For the first time, Mountain Iron-Buhl and Cherry had their prom together last spring,” said Engebritson. “They all know each other and date each other. I think it's awesome that they did that.”

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