Baraga, L’Anse districts talk consolidation
Survey being sent to residents in October
BARAGA — Representatives from the Baraga and L’Anse school districts met Monday night to discuss what a potential consolidated school district would look like, and what questions to ask residents about the change in an upcoming survey.
The districts have both seen enrollment declines over the past decade, L’Anse Superintendent Susan Tollefson said at the committee meeting. In 2013-14, the two districts combined for 1,140 students — 673 in L’Anse, 467 in Baraga. Over the next decade, L’Anse’s population declined by 24% and Baraga’s by 32%. Between them the districts now have 830 students.
If the districts combine, each grade level would have about three or four sections, Tollefson said.
The expanded academic and extracurricular offerings and other features are one of the biggest advantages to the move, administrators said.
L’Anse has a social worker and a nurse, and would also bring classes Baraga doesn’t have, such as high-school band, metal shop and the ability to get college credit for English through Northern Michigan University. Baraga adds things like a transitional kindergarten class, a behavioral support specialist, astronomy and physics classes, and the ability to earn college credit through precalculus.
There would also be a bigger social pool for students and more efficiency in scheduling classes and transportation.
“If you talk to our counselors, I think they’ll let you know how much they struggle when there’s single classes of sections to get kids into them,” Tollefson said.
Consolidating has downsides and uncertainties, too, said Tollefson. The biggest obstacle will be school identity; it won’t be Vikings or Purple Hornets, but something new.
“People are really attached emotionally to school mascots and school identity on both sides of the bay, so broaching that conversation first with the stakeholder survey was really one of the goals,” she said.
Then there’s questions about what administration, support staff and school board positions would look like when the districts combine.
Administrators expected the same number of teachers would be needed to teach students.
“We would still need to rehire people, but there’s obviously a need,” said Baraga Superintendent Lori Wisniewski.
Rather than a formal reinterview, it could be as simple as teachers indicating whether they want to stay on, Tollefson said.
Teachers who returned would still be able to count their previous years of service.
With the creation of a new district, there would also need to be new bargaining agreements in place, Tollefson said.
Both schools have good fund balances, Wisniewski said. Both districts have sinking funds. Those, along with the districts’ operating millages, would go away and need to be revoted on as a combined unit.
L’Anse has a bond issue which expires in 2027; if the districts combine, the taxes for that will continue to be paid only by L’Anse district residents. The way the bond was constructed, it can’t be paid off in advance, Tollefson said.
“We’re both in pretty good financial situations, so that’s not really a concern where it might have been in years past,” Wisniewski said.
Some of Monday’s meeting was devoted to going over the questions and options of the survey, which is expected to be available in early October. Residents would have about three weeks to fill it out.
Beyond people’s thoughts on consolidation, the survey will also look at other preferences.
Residents can say how they think grade levels will be split between the buildings. One plan called for grades K-2 and 9-12 in one building, and 3-8 in the other; that arrangement taks advantages of facilities in both district’s main buildings, such as science labs, administrators said. Another had a more traditional split: K-5 in one, 6-12 in the other.
Continuing to run separate elementary schools is also an option, though that would cut into efficiency, Tollefson said.
A draft of the survey presented Monday included several possible names for the new district, including “Baraga County Schools” or “Keweenaw Bay Schools.” The draft also included both “Baraga-L’Anse” and “L’Anse-Baraga,” though the superintendents said those options would likely be dropped to focus on entirely new names.
Purple, part of both districts’ color schemes, will continue with the new district, administrators said. But residents can list their preferred secondary color from among options such as silver or black.
The committee held off on scheduling another meeting. After the survey results come in, they will be shared with each school board so they can decide on next steps.
Ultimately, voters would need to approve the consolidation. When that would happen is still unknown.
Once passed, the new district would be created the next July. Because of that, the districts may want to place the elections on an August ballot, rather than November or May, Tollefson said.
“You can’t choose to vote on it now and say it’s going to happen 18 months after then,” Tollefson said. “It has to happen on July 1 after that.”