School seeks Christmas stocking stuffer
by Tom Coombe
In some ways like children at Christmas, Ely school officials are waiting for lawmakers to fill the district’s stockings with cash to complete a major facilities overhaul on campus.
Cost overruns, created first by Covid-19, inflation and supply chain issues and more recently by the discovery of ledgerock, have put portions of the project on hold while the district scoured for additional money.
That could come once Minnesota legislators convene again in 2023, district lobbyist Jeff Anderson told board members on Monday.
Various proposals in the works could send several million dollars to the Ely district and allow the school to proceed with components of a project that were pitched prior to a 2020 referendum, but later scrapped because of budget constraints.
“I think we are in a good position, a strong position, and with a majority in the legislature that wants to spend on education we are in a positive place,” said Anderson, a 1995 graduate of Ely Memorial High School and part of the Costin Group lobbying firm.
A stalemate at the end of the 2002 legislative session derailed initiatives that would have helped the Ely district, including a $4.4 million appropriation for the Ely district and a sales tax exemption that would have saved roughly $400,000.
“We had every confidence we would have had a funding source specific to this project,” said Anderson.
Those items, as well as a provision that would have extended a five cents per ton production tax at Iron Range mines to fund a school collaboration account, had bipartisan support “but never made it over the finish line,” Anderson said, as lawmakers failed to agree on a broader tax bill.
But Anderson and fellow Costin Group lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik are back at it as the new legislative session nears, and “our requests have been met warmly” by incoming legislators that will represent Ely - State Sen.-elect Grant Hauschild (D) and State Rep.-elect Roger Skraba (R).
Both toured the school campus Monday with Anderson, Cerkvenik, district administrators, board members and staff, and have pledged to author legislation similar to what was proposed this year.
“They will introduce legislation on day one and are enthusiastic supporters,” said Anderson.
The $4.4 million appropriation is tied with funding for projects at Rock Ridge (Virginia/Eveleth) and the Mabel-Canton district in southern Minnesota.
“All three districts had the same scenario,” said Anderson. “Their referendum passes. Shovels are in the ground and then Covid and the supply chain impact the budget. We made our case with our representatives that this was a special situation and the state should help them out.”
Anderson said Ely’s request could be complicated by a longer line of districts who may make similar requests.
“These are districts that have passed a referendum and had the project laid out, but now when they go out to bids they are millions and millions over what their taxpayers passed in a referendum,” said Anderson. “They don’t have shovels in the ground but are trying to figure out how they will complete projects they initially had pitched.”
Given a two-year state budget surplus of better than $17 billion and a DFL “trifecta,” with the party controlling both the governor’s office and the House and Senate, Anderson said he anticipates more of an appetite for education spending and perhaps some use of “one-time” money to fund initiatives.
“I still think we have the best story to tell in terms of all we had to go through,” said Anderson.
Earlier in the day, superintendent John Klarich told Hauschild, Skraba and others gathered at the Joint Powers Board legislative meeting that Ely might put additional money into new windows across the campus as well as classroom renovations that fell victim to the budget knife.
Anderson hailed St. Louis County Commissioner Paul McDonald for his efforts in securing $1.5 million in additional funding for the district, money that can be used in part to offset a nearly $600,000 cost overrun for rock mitigation related to work done on the exterior of the district campus.
The district also stands to benefit by more than $400,000 if lawmakers pass legislation - proposed earlier this year and held up by the impasse - to exempt school districts from sales tax costs related to the construction project.
The extension of the “nickel” production tax also will pump more money into a school collaboration account controlled by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
As part of the original $20 million budget for the project, the IRRRB provided $7 million and the state agency is another potential source for additional funds.
Anderson hinted at that Monday.
“All I can say tonight is that we have been working very closely with Senator (Tom) Bakk, Representative (Rob) Ecklund, new Senator Hauschild and new Representative Skraba and especially IRRRB Commissioner (Mark) Phillips to provide a cash infusion to this project to help the Ely School District get close to the finish line and complete what was pitched to the taxpayers of this district,” said Anderson.
Anderson said he was hopeful the IRRRB would convene prior to the end of the year to take possible action.
DFL control of Minnesota government together with the surplus could bring more positive funding news for the district.
Anderson said there’s talk in St. Paul of as much as a five percent increase in state per student formula funding, as well as efforts to more fully fund special education.
“Those two things alone would really improve the financial stability of most districts in the state of Minnesota,” said Anderson.
Other ideas in the works include plans to give districts more flexibility to levy for long-term maintenance and facility maintenance, especially for districts with aging buildings.