School closure may lead to 150 mile round trip for students

Residents fear losing an educational legacy
Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 6:11 PM CDT
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) - A growing deficit could force a Northern Minnesota school to close for good this spring, possibly leading students to travel far distances just to get to class.

The South Koochiching-Rainy River District, or ISD 363, is located near the Canadian border.

It’s made up of two K-12 schools which are about 80 miles apart from each other.

The first is Northome, just east of Red Lake.

The other is Indus, between Baudette and International Falls.

Locations of Indus and Northome
Locations of Indus and Northome(Northern News Now)

But in a recent school board meeting looking at ways to make up for big budget losses, members voted to explore closing the Indus school.

While it’s not official yet, it’s now left a rural community fighting to keep generations of learning alive.

Despite having just 104 total students from Pre-K through 12th grade, Indus may be more than just a school.

For senior Tessa Hasbargen, it’s a place to learn a trade.

“I take, like, three shop classes,” said Hasbargen. “I like to build with my hands, so shop class is my go-to.”

For Cathy Nelson, it’s a way to earn a living.

“My grandmother used to clean and cook at the school, and my mom used to drive a bus there,” said Nelson. “And now, I’m the janitor there.”

And for sophomore Rylee Mai, it’s a safe haven from bullies at a previous school.

“I got picked on a lot for being so small,” said Rylee Mai. “They broke two bones in my arm at the same time.”

When she transferred to Indus, life changed.

“I came and they just took me in for who I was,” Rylee Mai said. “That was just amazing.”

Now all three are joining together with students and staff past and present to fight a local school board’s decision to possibly close the school this spring.

According to the superintendent of the South Koochiching-Rainy River District, declining enrollment, a current budget deficit of $400,000, as well forecasted future deficits are contributing factors to exploring the option of closing the school.

In a school board meeting this month, four of the six members voted to initiate the process of closing Indus.

Scott Mai is one of two members who voted to keep it open.

“I blatantly asked each and every one of them that voted no on other options, what their reason was, and every one of them said money,” said Scott Mai.

Scott Mai is also an Indus alum.

“The fact that they’re losing 30-some jobs, 100 kids, their budget, it doesn’t matter to them. It’s just, a child is just money,” said Scott Mai. As a parent to Rylee, the board’s decision hits close to home.

“I just can’t think of a child as money,” said Scott Mai.

The closure would make Northome School, more than 80 miles away from Indus, the only one in the district.

If Indus closes, students may have the option to open enroll at schools in other districts in the region, such as International Falls.

But, the commute could be lengthy.

Some students could see round trips of over 70 miles. If they choose to stay in the district, that number jumps to an over 150-mile round trip bus commute.

But it’s not the long bus rides that students and community members are most upset about.

It’s seeing a local tradition of education come to an end.

“It’s heartbreaking and I’ve had families generations of my family going to this school, and it just breaks my heart because I still have a sister that’s in ninth grade,” said Tessa Hasbargen. “And I want her to be able to graduate from Indus.”

It’s a school with plenty of spirit, but potentially limited time.

A public hearing will be held at the school on April 3rd where community members can express their concerns.

Leaders with the district say public comments will be welcomed before the school board makes any final decisions.

We reached out to members of the school board who voted for the closure, all of whom live in the Northome area, but did not hear back.