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Carlton plans for the future, explores consolidation

Leaders in the Carlton School District are making plans for the future, and nothing is off the table, including consolidation.

“We’re being proactive, now that we’re in a position of financial stability,” Carlton School District Superintendent Peter Haapala said. “We want to keep moving forward and plan for the future. They say ‘Nobody plans to fail, they just fail to plan.’ So we’re planning, and it’s exciting.”

The strategic planning process began months ago with surveys, followed by a community meeting May 1. After gathering input, now school district officials have drawn up a vision for the district and a list of priorities.

Consolidation is at the top of the list.

That doesn’t mean it’s the district’s ultimate goal, however, School Board Chair Julianne Emerson clarified. Rather, the board and administration felt the idea of consolidation should be thoroughly researched and explored, to allow a well-educated decision.

Haapala agreed.

“We need to examine the potential benefits [of consolidation] and see if it’s best for both districts,” he said. “If it’s not, we’ll need to have reasons and we will need to see if there are better options out there.”

Haapala said the community participation in the planning process has been fantastic, noting that close to 80 people attended the community meeting.

The process started with surveys (available online and in hard copy) of students, faculty and staff, community members and anyone else who wanted to take time to answer two very basic and open-ended questions: 1) What two or three things are working well in the district, and 2) What two or three things need to be worked on and improved in the school district?

One of the biggest discussion points in both the surveys and at the meeting was consolidation, particularly with Wrenshall, which is four miles away. In fact, the CAWS (Carlton/Wrenshall School Consolidation) Facebook Page started by community member Dean Wallin now has more than 250 members and a lively discussion of the pros and cons of consolidation.

Such talk isn’t new. Emerson, a 1986 graduate of Carlton High School, remembers hearing it when she was a student there and played softball on a combined Carlton-Wrenshall team.

“There’s always been this thing hanging over the district and we didn’t feel like we could get to a discussion of facilities — new or old — without addressing the big elephant in the room first,” Emerson said, referring to the idea of consolidating with a neighboring school district. “We’re evaluating, and educating [ourselves]. We owe it to the constituents and students in the district to do that.”

The Carlton School Board and administration sent a letter to the Wrenshall School Board earlier this month asking if the school district would be willing to participate in a consolidation study.

“If there’s going to be anything happening, it has to come from both communities,” Haapala said, adding that Carlton is in a better position to discuss consolidation now that the district is financially healthy. (In 2010, the school district ended the fiscal year $989,557 in the red; by the end of 2013 fiscal year, they were back up a fund balance of $433,725, or nearly 10 percent.) “It was pretty hard to talk about when we were $1 million in the hole.”

Other items on the Carlton School District’s new priorities list included the following:

2. Employee professional learning, development, support;

3. Improve climate, culture and accountability;

4. Make improvements to facilities while working toward larger facility goals [including a possible new K-12 building];

5. Communication, marketing and public relations;

6. Operating referendum renewal.

Haapala said the district would also like to evaluate consolidation or increased collaboration with other neighboring school districts, possibly including Esko and Cloquet (which currently do, or have partnered on, various sports teams, including boys and girls soccer, skiing, tennis and hockey).

“I think it’s a very good thing that community groups are speaking up, and I hope the the discussion continues in a positive direction, exploring what more we can do for students,” Emerson said.

“Whatever is the best answer, that’s what we need to look at. We’re very open-minded about what the future is.”

The next CAWS meeting is set for 6 p.m. July 9 at 214 Chestnut Ave., Carlton. The Carlton School Board meets next at 7 p.m. Monday, July 21, in the Board Room at Carlton High School.