Carlton School Board weighs options

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BREAKOUT: IF YOU GO

• The Carlton School Board will meet Monday at 6 p.m. for a finance committee meeting in the district office board room and at 7 p.m. for the board's regular meeting in the Carlton High School Library. Both meetings are open to the public and there is always a public comment period near the beginning of the regular meeting.

• The school district will hold a public meeting specifically to explain and get feedback on the various future options for the Carlton School District at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14 in the small gym at Carlton High School.

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Since voters in the Carlton school district rejected a facilities bond referendum in early August, district officials have focused their energies on two possible future paths: consolidation with Cloquet, or spending more than $13 million to fix the district's aging schools.

Meetings between board members and the superintendent from both Cloquet and Carlton are ongoing, as are discussions by the Carlton School Board and advisors regarding ways the district can get the money to fix its facilities without gaining voter approval.

It's the second path that worries Timothy Soden-Groves. The Carlton resident fears the board might vote to seek state approval to bond for $13.645 million in health and safety improvements without fully exploring all the other available options, therefore shooting down all other future paths.

"It's my impression that once the bonding referendum was defeated, the majority of board members concluded that the voters of ISD 93 would support no bond, that the voters of ISD 93 were not interested in maintaining the facilities," said Soden-Groves, who is a member of a citizen group trying to research and share information on the various options available to the district. "Yet there's been virtually no polling or interaction with the public since then. That's a concern."

It seems the district is responding to that concern.

On Tuesday, Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman said board members may continue to discuss facility repairs and/or consolidation at their 7 p.m. board meeting Monday, but no decision will be made before a public meeting now set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, in the Carlton High School small gym. The purpose of the meeting is to explain and get feedback on the various future options for the Carlton school district.

Carman said the next meeting (after the public meeting) where board members could potentially take action would be the Nov. 20 Carlton School Board meeting.

Soren-Groves said the citizen group wants to work with the board and get as many citizens involved and educated about the district's options as possible.

At least seven future options were previously outlined by Carman as follows:

• Do nothing to significantly address facility needs.

• Make significant repairs at the high school and/or South Terrace Elementary School via non-voter-approved financing.

• Try to pass a smaller referendum for repairs at just the high school.

• Pursue consolidation negotiations with Wrenshall.

• Pursue consolidation negotiations with Cloquet.

• Determine the tax impact of consolidation versus a South Terrace project, what would have less tax impact?

• Dissolve the district.

When presented with the options in August, the board voted to pursue options 2 and 5.

Carman said the board has been discussing the costs of repairing each school — the high school is much older and needs considerably more work — but that doesn't necessarily mean the board would vote to make repairs to both schools. Project costs for the schools broke down to $4.952 million at South Terrace, and $8.692 million at Carlton High School.

Although the Cloquet and Carlton committees have only met one time to discuss possible consolidation, a consolidated school district would likely keep the Carlton elementary-aged children at South Terrace, and bring them into Cloquet for middle and high school.

Carlton's financial consultant, Ehlers and Associates, looked into the property tax impact of consolidating with Cloquet; the results of that study were presented to board members earlier this month. In part, the study determined that if the existing debt were shared between the residents of the two districts, Cloquet school district property owners would see a decrease in school district taxes, and Carlton school district property owners would see an increase. On a $100,000 home, with combined debt, the bill would decrease from $518 to $464 in Cloquet, while it would increase from $280 to $464 in Carlton.

"[With the study], that gives us actual data," Carman said.

Data is also the goal of the citizen group, said Soden-Groves. They want to research all the possible future options — from consolidation with Cloquet or Wrenshall to remaining an independent school district — and educate, inform and engage residents in this vitally important issue.

"We would like to see a marketplace of ideas, where the best ideas for how to approach some of the educational and facilities issues that we have in ISD 93 can be addressed," he said. "I think the group as a whole are interested in determining what the best options are and being able to compare those."

For his part, Soden-Groves presented a two-site option for consolidation to the Wrenshall School Board last month, an idea that he sees as simply a starting point for discussions between the two boards. The Carlton School Board is currently not interested in reopening consolidation discussions with Wrenshall, Carman said previously, although that is not entirely off the table.

State Senator Tony Lourey told the Pine Journal recently that he intends to try to get the Legislature to pass a bill that would offer additional financing to consolidating school districts. A similar measure failed at the last minute in the last session.