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Decision time for schools plan is approaching fast

The Cloquet School District is nearly ready for the next stage in its facilities process — but if you’re a Cloquet resident and want to provide input, time is rapidly running out.

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The district has held a series of public meetings and conducted surveys — both scientific and non-scientific — to gain public input on what the district should do to resolve issues surrounding both the Cloquet Middle School and elementary school enrollment.

“The board is going to choose the option,” Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said this week. “We’ve heard from people in the community as far as the options go but our scientific survey should be completed this week and then we’ll move forward.”

The problem is a tricky one for the district — it has actively solicited public input and held meetings in a manner similar to other districts which have had referendum votes in recent years — but eventually, the decision-makers will have to move forward without the public.

The district does not plan a citizen committee to help hone down the proposal, as existed in Hermantown, for example. In fact, once a plan is submitted to the state, the district is actively prohibited from doing such a thing.

“At that point, our role becomes informational only,” Scarbrough said. “We can pass out information and tell citizens what the impact of the plan would be academically and financially.”

Board members will have a lot of information to synthesize in order to get a proposal ready for the Minnesota Department of Education to evaluate.

“They have to look at all the ideas and results of the studies done by our consultants compared to what the public needs and wants,” Scarbrough said. Sooner or later, the district must get on with that process.

That will mean that citizens may now come forward claiming they haven’t been informed about the process. To an extent, that’s natural in large public projects, but Scarbrough says that while some citizens may make the claim, the district has made a good faith effort.

“I think we have advertised the public meetings rather extensively and those who could make those meetings had the chance (to comment),” he said. “I’ve met with different community groups to talk about the project and I feel like the paper has done a good job letting the public know what is going on. At this point the board has to take the information it has.”

This means that for a citizen who wants to start getting involved in the process, the learning curve may be very steep indeed.

“I can still take comments, and have, at public meetings and in private,” Scarbrough said. “I take comments that I think are pertinent to what we are doing and will present them to the board and architects. But I don’t see any more major public meetings.”

The board will determine the plan to be presented to the state at a working session later this month. While the public is welcome to attend since it’s a public meeting, comments will be limited.

“If they’re interested in watching, that’s fine but the board has a lot of work to do,” Scarbrough said. “Opening that up (to comments) would take too much time. We can’t have two hours of comments before they start to work. It’s not the same as before when we had large groups together in public.”

The board will then submit a proposal to the Department of Education, which usually makes only minor changes to most projects. Scarbrough himself was part of such a process when he ran the Staples-Motley School District, with a facilities and infrastructure project similar to the one Cloquet did in 2008-09.

“We didn’t get a lot of feedback from the state then,” Scarbrough said. “But they certainly can, and do, comment, if they feel they need to.”

So while the public input phase of the project is essentially over, Scarbrough notes that the process of public engagement is only beginning.

“When we get the plan back from the state, we begin in earnest,” he said.  “We’ll be letting our voters know what is in that plan. It is hugely important to get to as many places we can to visit with our public. At that point, we go to the ballot.”

Scarbrough noted that there might not be sufficient time to get a referendum on the November ballot, meaning a December or January special election is a possibility.

“Now it’s our job to assimilate the information and if someone wanted to come to a board meeting and talk to a member they can of course do that, but the input is essentially over,” he said.