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Carlton and Wrenshall to explore school consolidation

More than 30 people attend a joint Committee of the Whole meeting between the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards, which was held in the cafeteria at the Wrenshall school. Many members of the CAWS (Carlton and Wrenshall Schools) group, which has been pushing both districts to research consolidation, wore white to the meeting to show their support for the concept. Jana Peterson/ 1 / 2
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The towns of Carlton and Wrenshall sit less than five miles away from each other. In the past, the schools in each town have shared sports teams and classes, but not now. Now they meet to battle for ownership of the Little Brown Jug each sports season, then go their separate ways.

That may be changing.

On Monday night, both Carlton and Wrenshall school boards voted unanimously to formally work together to research consolidation and collaboration options between the two neighboring schools.

The Monday votes followed a joint meeting Wednesday, Aug. 13, of the Committees of the Whole for both boards, attended by more than 30 community members. Many audience members were wearing white to indicate membership in the grassroots CAWS (Carlton and Wrenshall Schools) group that has been meeting to discuss consolidation and putting pressure on an initially reluctant Wrenshall Board to do the same.

“I know a lot of people have been waiting for this meeting for some time. Some are excited; some are not,” said Wrenshall Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro, adding that the objective Wednesday was to determine if the two school districts were interested in studying more joint collaboration or even full consolidation of the two districts.

As the meeting began Wednesday, Carlton Superintendent Peter Haapala talked about his district’s strategic planning process and how one of the top priorities to come out of both staff and citizen meetings was a desire for the district to look at collaboration and/or consolidation with a neighboring school district.

“We’re at a point where maybe we need to take a step forward and see what is needed in the best interest of all our students,” he said.

Enrollment in both school districts has been on a downward trend over the past 10 years, explained Cathy Erickson of the Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium (ARCC), which works with 30 different school districts to help them meet data management needs in a cost-effective manner.

In the 2003-04 school year, Carlton boasted an average of 654 students in its K-12 system, while Wrenshall’s school population totaled about 381. By the 2012-13 school year, those numbers had dropped to 468 for Carlton and 326 for Wrenshall.

Erickson went through the history of enrollment and finances of both districts, explaining how many students live in each district and attend school within the district and how many open enroll into other districts.

Some students open enroll into Wrenshall and Carlton, she said, noting that a combined 389 students chose to go to other districts in recent years. On the flip side, between the two districts, there are 235 students coming into Carlton and Wrenshall from other school districts.

Wrenshall is currently a net winner in terms of open enrollment, Erickson said, explaining that the district attracts more students than it loses, and Carlton is a “not net winner,” because more students open enroll out of the school district.

“As you’re thinking about potential cooperation, there’s a big pool of students that could maybe be coming back in, depending on what is going on,” she said. “Keep that number in mind when you’re thinking about how to serve everyone.”

Financially, both districts have faced challenges over the past 10 years, but both are in “pretty good fiscal condition,” she said, praising Carlton district officials and voters for its rapid climb out of statutory operating debt over the past several years.

Mike Hoheisel, a financial consultant with the Robert W. Baird Company who has worked with other school districts considering consolidation, presented information Wednesday regarding the state rules, regulations, and statutes that guide the consolidation of districts.

“He basically explained how life would work [if the districts consolidated], what it would take to move ahead and what we’d have to give to the Minnesota Department of Education to make this process work if it’s what we decide to do,” Haapala said.

Both Haapala and Belcastro stressed that Monday’s vote was just the first step.

“The Boards have given their approval to investigate consolidation as an option — now it’s in the hands of the two superintendents to work with outside entities and others to really take a look to see if it’s beneficial to both communities,” Belcastro said Tuesday, noting that consolidation is a very complex issue that needs to be carefully researched. “We want to do things appropriately and respectfully because that’s what the topic and people in both communities deserve.”

Haapala said he and Belcastro will be meeting to figure out the next steps, which will certainly include more joint meetings between the two school boards. He added that Carlton is still looking into collaboration with other school districts as well, especially in high-cost programs like vocational education.

CAWS member Kyle Holmes was cautiously optimistic, noting the CAWS group plans to continue meeting and hopes to be part of the process of exploring collaboration and consolidation.

“It’s not a done deal,” Holmes said. “It could fall apart, but at least by passing the resolution, they can proceed with the study. Mike [Hoheisel] said he’s never seen anyone not go through with consolidation once people know what’s available.”

Haapala gave kudos to the CAWS group.

“I think they’re the reason the meeting happened last Wednesday,” he said Tuesday morning. “They’re the original impetus for this to happen and they will certainly continue to play a role.”

Haapala said residents of both communities can also force a consolidation vote by bringing petitions to the county auditor’s office.