Last May the public voted for collaboration between the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia school districts and build three new schools for $181 million. We were going to “work together as equals” in the project. At that point many felt we were rushing into collaboration – we did not have land secured and the school plans were very vague – but the public voted yes, so I accept that.
Before that vote, we were told that our taxes would increase less with new schools versus maintaining the current ones. There were 105 planning meetings, the community and coaches were involved, and everything was going to run smoothly. The state-of-the-art high school would open Fall of 2022. We had “more than enough land”. We would have “everything” we could imagine in these schools and we had “three years” to figure it all out.
Fast forward to May 2020. None of that is happening. Here is what HAS happened; and taxpayers, coaches and students are upset. We are trying to consolidate three years early, Virginia took over all consolidated sports head coaching jobs, we are involved in an ugly eminent domain lawsuit with East Range Academy of Technology and Science (ERATS) due to an ill-advised land purchase, we lost our large capacity auditorium, we lost the second swimming pool, the size of the technology center is considered too small, our sports complex resembles nothing of what we were promised, the high school will not open until Fall 2023, and we were overbudget on the Eveleth Elementary by $3.48 million. Mr. Schmidt, we were not as ready as you promised, you should have scheduled that 106th meeting.
Our administration is proposing a consolidation in July 2020 on the upcoming May 12 vote and again the papers are flooded with one-sided opinion and scare tactics; with reasons that life cannot go on without voting YES. To clarify, we do not LOSE $450,000 if we do not consolidate in July, that amount has been available since the 1990s and will be available whenever we are ready to consolidate. Technically, with the delays we have experienced thus far, they are pushing to consolidate a year earlier than even should be considered.
There were a few large mistakes made in this current consolidation proposal. Administration chose to leave the current operating levies in place. This along with other factors will result in E-G taxpayers paying $71 more for 2021 taxes and Virginia paying $50 LESS per $100,000 market valued home, if the consolidation vote passes. Personally, this by itself should get a NO vote from E-G.
Did everyone forget we still have students that are in E-G and Virginia high schools? Do these students matter? In fact, the E-G school website still features photos of students from last year, but all the consolidation rhetoric is current. Consolidating before the new school opens is not about the kids, it is starving these kids of the support they deserve. The school boards just voted to make Noel Schmidt the highest paid public Superintendent in the State of Minnesota, per enrolled pupil. He had to run against no one, and his salary was not negotiated down. Impressive for a couple districts that did not have enough money to fix a roof and buy a heating system a year ago.
Will E-G learn anything from rushing into the collaboration? As one board member stated, maybe we should stay “engaged” for a few years to make sure Virginia is marriage material. The fact of the matter is NONE of the big questions have been answered about consolidation. What is the cost of merging the teacher contracts? Or, faculty benefits, and most importantly RETIREMENT benefits? After a consolidation, the statute enables a district to levy for three years, WITHOUT VOTER APPROVAL, to pay for retirement incentives if the Transition Aid is not enough to cover transition expenses. That provision means the top is off the cookie jar, which is just flat out dangerous to taxpayers. None of this has been discussed or disclosed to the public.
We are not ready to consolidate, just as we were not ready to collaborate last May. Eveleth-Gilbert, vote NO on May 12 until the consolidation proposal makes sense for E-G taxpayers and we have a solid, well thought-out plan. Please put on a mask, be safe, and go out to vote. E-G is depending on you.