TOWER— The late June death of Troy Swanson left both a vacancy and a controversy over his replacement on the St. Louis County School Board. Swanson, who had served as the representative from …
TOWER— The late June death of Troy Swanson left both a vacancy and a controversy over his replacement on the St. Louis County School Board. Swanson, who had served as the representative from the Tower-Soudan attendance area for more than a decade, had been a strong advocate for the community and for ensuring the continued success of the elementary school here.
Yet it appears that finding an equally effective advocate for the community and its school was not a high priority for the school district’s administration. The school board never discussed appointing a replacement for the final six months of Swanson’s term, which would have been well within the normal practice for most public bodies in the state. Indeed, when the late school board member Lynnette Zupetz, who represented Cherry, died in September 2020, the school board had her replacement seated on the board two months later.
And the district never posted a filing notice in any local newspaper which might have alerted residents in the Tower-Soudan area when filings for the position were open and how and where to file for office. Superintendent Reggie Engebritson, when questioned, stated that the district did publish a filing notice on its website and in the Cook News-Herald, but the district’s official newspaper has virtually no circulation in Tower-Soudan, nor does it have a functioning website where residents in the community might have found such a notice.
Greg Dostert, a longtime community activist and member of the Breitung Town Board was one of those who’d been looking for such information. Dostert said he had been thinking of running for the school board even before Swanson’s untimely death and he said he’d been watching for filing information to show up in at least one of the local newspapers. But such a notice never appeared and the deadline for filing came and went before Dostert realized what had happened.
The filing notice that did appear in the district’s official newspaper was published in late May or early June. At that point, Swanson was still alive and most local residents likely would have been reluctant to challenge a long-time incumbent. That would have changed after his death, but by then the filing notices had already appeared in Cook weeks before. And the district never published any additional outreach for potential candidates in the News-Herald or any other newspaper.
The district’s administrative assistant Jeanne Sopp states that the district did maintain the filing notices on the district’s website and individual school websites, including in Tower-Soudan. Engebritson stated that she had also told school staff to encourage parents or community members who express interest in the school to consider running for the board. When questioned, however, Engebritson couldn’t name anyone to whom school staff might have spoken.
At least one person was able to track down the information and filed for the seat left open by Swanson’s passing. Ron Marinaro, a longtime Babbitt resident and former city council member there, is now seeking to represent the Tower-Soudan area on the school board and he’s the lone candidate on the ballot. Marinaro, who coached several sports at Northeast Range over the years, and now coaches for Mt. Iron-Buhl, has leased a cabin on Lake Vermilion’s Pike Bay for many years and now calls the area home. He said his experience in business and his 18 years on the city council have helped him understand budgeting and given him a wide range of other skills that he believes would benefit the school district. “I have no agenda,” said Marinaro, “but I see a lot of challenges coming up where I think I could make a difference.”
Marinaro said he waited to decide until late in the filing period thinking someone else might step up, but when no one else did, he decided to throw his hat in the ring.
Marinaro has run a number of businesses over the years, and currently manages a recycling operation at the regional landfill near Virginia along with a number of other side businesses.
The question of his residence has raised eyebrows with some, including members of the school board. Board members familiar with Marinaro said they assumed he still lived in Babbitt, where he continues to homestead a residence located next door to his elderly mother, who he cares for on a daily basis.
At least some members of the school board agreed that the district could have done more to let residents in the Tower-Soudan area know about the vacancy.
“I would certainly think that the Tower area feels it needs its own voice, and the district should have respected that by advertising locally, and I would agree 100 percent,” said Chris Koivisto, who represents the Babbitt-Embarrass attendance area on the ISD 2142 school board.
Board member Dan Manick said he wasn’t eager to appoint a replacement for Swanson, whom he considered a close friend.
“I wanted to honor the empty seat for a while,” he said. “It’s not that easy to replace Troy.”
He noted that it isn’t easy to find new recruits to the school board even in the best of circumstances, which is one reason Manick remains on the board even after he declined to file during his last election.
But getting the word out beyond the acquaintances of school staff or board members could be one way to start attracting new blood to the board.
While Marinaro would represent that new blood, Manick worried he could come to the board with mixed loyalties. “It’s wrong to have another Babbitt guy on the board,” he said.
Marinaro said he considers himself a “Tower guy” these days and argues he’ll be a passionate voice on the board. “I’m vocal at meetings,” he said. “I always have been.”
But Marinaro may first have to get past a potential write-in effort by Greg “Dusty” Dostert, a longtime Soudan resident and member of the Breitung Town Board. Dostert has also been a longtime advocate of youth activities, particularly sports, and has served as a Little League coach for many years. Dostert has a long history in construction, having been a union iron worker for decades, a career that has taken him around the world on major projects.
He said he has nothing against Marinaro, who he doesn’t know, but had already been thinking about running back in the summer. He said he’s 100 percent committed to maintaining the elementary school in Tower, which would be among his top priorities.
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