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Carlton School Board approves SOD plans

It's been two months since the Carlton School Board discovered - via a letter from the state - that the district had not been keeping up with plans to get out of statutory operating debt (SOD). Since then board members have been scrambling, explaining and apologizing to citizens while working with a new superintendent to figure out what went wrong.

At a meeting Thursday, Aug. 5, the board approved a series of documents to be mailed to the Minnesota Department of Education that clearly demonstrate they and Superintendent Peter Haapala now understand what went wrong, and which detailed three different plans for getting out of debt.

Plan A outlines the district's future IF voters approve a $1,100 operating levy in November. Plan B explains steps the board and district will take should the referendum fail. Plan B-1 goes even further, making even more cuts based on a scenario that shows no operating levy plus a subsequent drop in student enrollment.

Unlike the meetings earlier this summer, when the small gym at Carlton High School was packed with community members and media, not a single outside person attended the Aug. 5 meeting. Board members Ryan Schmidt and Mike Soderstrom also weren't at the meeting: Schmidt was out of town and Soderstrom hasn't attended a board meeting since sometime in May.

"I think people have realized what's going on, the situation we're in," Haapala said Friday morning. "The board has to deal with the reality of the situation."

That reality? The Carlton School District has been in SOD seven of the last eight years. In addition, the district hasn't had a state-approved SOD plan since 2007. (Board members claimed they were never told by former Superintendent Scott Hoch that the previous plan had not been approved.)

Because of the district's inability to resolve its debt issues in a timely manner, the state essentially drew a line in the sand earlier this summer, giving the district a deadline for submitting not one, but four SOD plans. MDE must approve Plans A, B and B-1 by Aug. 31 (the district must submit the plans three weeks in advance of that date). Plan C - which is supposed to tell the state at what point the district will begin the process of dissolving itself or consolidating with another school district, and specifics about where the students would go if all other efforts fail - isn't due until December.

While all of the plans include some spending reductions, Plans B and B-1 make relatively dramatic cuts in the 2011-12 school year, because both those plans assume zero excess levy. (The current excess levy expires in 2011.)

Plan B, for example, would eliminate all extra-curricular activities, including 24 different sports teams for boys and girls, 19 clubs and organizations and eight different arts activities, including speech, pep band and the school play. High school band would be cut in half and fifth-grade band would be eliminated. Under Plan B, one administrative position also would be eliminated and vocational education would go to half time, along with several other measures.

"We have to get the referendum message out," Haapala said, "and let voters know what their choices are."

In April, a two-part referendum ballot - with the first question asking voters to support a seven-year extension of the current operating referendum and a second question requesting support for an additional operating referendum that would increase the amount of money available per student unit from $500 to $850 - failed by a narrow margin.

Now the district is planning to ask voters to approve an excess levy in the amount of $1,100 per student. According to district calculations, that amounts to an increase in property taxes on a $100,000 home of approximately $163 per year. On a home assessed at $250,000 the annual increase would be closer to $406 dollars.

One selling point for the referendum is the fact that, should the worst happen and the district's school children be sent to a neighboring school district, voters would have to pay that district's school taxes and excess levy amounts. Additionally, taxpayers in the Carlton School District would be responsible for payment of any remaining indebtedness over a five-year period.

Currently, on a $100,000 home, taxpayers in Barnum pay $504, Esko $417, Cloquet $403, Wrenshall $354, while Carlton taxpayers pay $252. If the referendum passes in November, the Carlton resident would then pay approximately $415 in total school taxes on a $100,000 home.

At its July 19 board meeting when the board first revealed the $1,100 figure, board chair Randy Schmitz told audience members the excess levy number was high enough, although the district would still have to make some cuts the next year to build up a healthy fund balance and stay out of SOD in the future.

"Actually, taxpayers have been getting by probably for many years not paying the appropriate amount," said Schmitz.

Haapala said the district mailed a hard copy of the SOD plans and supporting documents to Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren Friday, Aug. 6.

In other recent actions, the Carlton School Board:

+ Hired Renee Eiffler as district business manager, to start Aug. 17. Eiffler was most recently the business manager for the East Central School District in Sandstone. Since the district's previous business manager J. Roy resigned effective June 4, the board has been contracting with Cindy Olson of the Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium, which advises school districts on finance and technology.

+ Approved Tracy Bockbrader to act as interim activities director. Bockbrader teaches physical science, chemistry and physics at Carlton and was the NHS advisor and Student Council advisor last year. Haapala said the district is interviewing permanent candidates for the position this coming week.

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