Fewer students magnifies need for jobs, and an attractive campus

It’s not time to push the panic button or set off any alarms, but news from the Ely School District this week should give all community leaders cause for concern.
For the first time in a few years, enrollment has declined in the local schools and there are fewer students sitting at the desks or walking the hallways in the school buildings.
How many less? The district took a roughly five percent hit, with K-12 enrollment of 565 a noticeable drop from the 596 reported this time last year.
A tiny kindergarten class, with fewer than 30 students, is the source of much of the decline.
But the bottom line is that nearly all of the impressive gains the district has made since 2015 were wiped out in one year.
That’s concerning on several fronts.
First of all, the loss of 30 students creates a hole in the district budget, probably to the tune of about $300,000.
As board chairman Ray Marsnik correctly noted during discussion Monday. “that’s not pocket change.”
The district has been fortunate to build a very healthy reserve over the last decade, and a one-year hit in enrollment is not likely to cause severe pain for the district.
But over the long haul even a minor downturn will likely make school officials, and Ely’s students, make do with less.
Another and more serious red flag is the size of this year’s kindergarten class.
We can’t ever remember Ely welcoming a class with less than 30 students, and we have to believe the 29-member kindergarten group has to be the smallest incoming class in many decades.
Are classes of 30 or 35 students the new normal? How about 25?
If that’s the case do the math and enrollment could be heading in the wrong direction again.
That’s more worrisome than a one-year blip, and we hope it’s only that.
However the developments only magnify, in our eyes, two key points:
• Despite the rose-colored glasses and all of the positive spin, it’s clear that Ely needs more well-paying jobs that support families.
No matter what side you fall on in the age-old dispute over mining, there can be no doubt that Ely needs more jobs similar to those rather than those in the service industry.
Service jobs, heck multiple service jobs, could be had by anyone who wanted one in Ely this summer. Many of those positions of course are only temporary and are gone once the snow flies.
It’s clear that isn’t a model for which to build a healthy economy, or one that’s attractive to many who want a sustainable future in Ely.
To grow Ely’s school enrollment, we need more jobs - at small businesses, from entrepreneurs, in government agencies such as the Department of Revenue and yes - even in mining.
• Healthy schools have attractive campuses and the enrollment numbers highlight the need to renovate the school campus.
Plans to connect the school buildings and add more gymnasium space and make other improvements are long overdue and are more than just a want - they are a need.
One needs only to look at the new schools at North Woods and Mt. Iron-Buhl and the improvements at Mesabi East. Ely is falling further and further behind while neighboring districts make investments in their schools and their communities.
And keep in mind, families looking to move to a community will take a close look at the local school district, both in facilities and test scores.
It would be easy for current or future school board members to look at the enrollment decline and make a convenient pitch to delay or scrap those improvements.
We hope they resist that urge and instead press forward with the project. Our school and community will be depending on it.