The Ely School Board was wise to hit the pause button recently and refocus their time and energy on finding a new administrator to lead the district into the future. With their able superintendent, Kevin Abrahamson, hoping to leave in just over a month, finding a quality replacement has to be Job One.
As we reported last week, it now appears unlikely that Ely and the St. Louis County Schools will be able to reach a mutually-beneficial plan for sharing a superintendent. Ely board members want a three-days-a-week superintendent and ISD 2142 superintendent Reggie Engebritson already devotes one day a week to the Mt. Iron-Buhl School District. Even devoting two days per week to Ely would leave Engebritson stretched far too thin to benefit any school district.
School board members in ISD 2142 have already questioned how that district actually benefits from the arrangement with MI-B. That question became all the more urgent with the prospect of adding a third district to Engebritson’s already hefty workload.
In some ways, the discussions with ISD 2142 were an unnecessary diversion since the opportunities for sharing administration are limited and wouldn’t necessarily save either district much money.
Unfortunately, the rush to engage in “collaboration” has been fueled by the carrot of facilities funding through the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, which many school boards across the Iron Range have found to be irresistible. Ely was exploring whether some kind of administrative sharing arrangement might be enough to qualify for a piece of the action. While understandable, it’s not the ideal incentive to get school districts working together, because the benefits to students are largely indirect.
Finding ways to work cooperatively is certainly worthwhile when they provide benefits to students and area schools have actually made strides in that area, through programs like the Applied Learning Initiative, which has proven to bring direct benefits to students by helping to train them for good jobs here on the Iron Range. Area school districts are also pursuing Iron Range collaboration
Such efforts put dollars directly into education, rather than facilities. While we routinely hear the story that new buildings somehow help students learn, there’s remarkably little data to support such claims. As we’ve argued for years in these pages, buildings do little or nothing to improve students’ learning. It’s quality teachers, with good administrative leadership and support, who make the difference.
Unfortunately, too much funding is focused on facilities because there’s a built-in constituency that benefits mightily from the more-than-a-billion dollars spent by school districts in Minnesota each year for facility improvements. Consultants, architects, contractors, and building trades unions are all among the beneficiaries when school districts focus on facilities, so it’s no wonder that they are coordinated in their message that new buildings somehow help students learn better.
While schools, including Ely, do have facility needs, they need to keep their focus on the things that matter, which is hiring great teachers and providing them with leaders who help them do their jobs better. That has to remain the top priority for every school board, including the Ely School Board. Getting back on track with a superintendent search makes sense.