School joins broadband initiative

by Tom Coombe -

The Ely School District is participating in an effort to expand broadband service in Ely.
Earlier in the week, school board members voted 4-1 - with James Pointer opposed and Rochelle Sjoberg absent - to allocate $10,000 in district funds for the initiative.
The contribution will help the city of Ely provide money to match a $25,000 grant awarded this year by the Blandin Foundation, to fund a broadband feasibility study.
It’s the next step in an effort to create a broadband fiber loop downtown and perhaps throughout the community.
While high-speed internet service already exists at the school, the district was eyed as a partner in the effort in part to aid students who need to use technology at home for homework, class projects or other assignments.
The feasibility study will be another milestone as the city looks to get cost estimates and a plan to develop its own broadband network, which in its first phase would presumably involve the downtown area with a loop extending to Camp Street.
“They did ask how many students lived within a half-mile of the school, so we did provide them with that (information),” said superintendent Kevin Abrahamson.
Pointer questioned the district’s involvement in the city-led project, but Abrahamson endorsed it and called it an investment that could perhaps extend learning beyond the classroom through technology.
Board member Tom Omerza said district participation would “show we are pro-connectivity.”
It’s not clear how a broadband project would be funded, but city officials have discussed operating broadband as a utility, and working with a private contractor to offer service.
High-speed internet or broadband has been a priority for Ely leaders, who contend it’s critical in both economic and community development efforts.
They jumped on the opportunity in 2016 to become part of the Blandin initiative. Ely was selected along with Hibbing, Chisholm, Aitkin County, the Mt. Iron-Buhl area and the Bois Forte Reservation/Orr/Cook areas.
The city has worked to develop a public solution as officials have voiced frustration with cost, access and speed issues associated with private service.
They contend that broadband is vital to bridging a rural/urban divide.
The broadband discussion was part of a brief, 35-minute board session Monday.
In other business, the board:
• Discussed the public roll-out phase of the district’s strategic planning effort.
A 20-member committee took part in several meetings with a consultant earlier this year, developing a mission statement and identifying several goals and objectives.
A fall public meeting is likely, and the committee may meet with consultant Ralph Brauer one time prior to that.
• Hired Anja Nienow for a full-time German teaching position.
• Approved a new two-year contract with MnSchool Services, operated by Spencer Aune, to provide financial management services for the district.
The contract calls for Aune’s firm to be paid $40,200 during the 2017-18 school year and $40,800 the following year.
• Renewed the contracts of winter sports head coaches Ben Johnson (hockey), Tom McDonald (boys basketball), Darren Visser (girls basketball), Amanda Vanderbeek (dance) and Paula Anderson (Nordic skiing).