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Momentum builds for consolidation

Wrenshall Schools Superintendent Kim Bellcastro and Carlton Schools Superintendent Gwen Carman address the Carlton County Committee of the Whole earlier this month regarding the debate over consolidating the two rural school districts. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

The proposed Carlton/Wrenshall school district consolidation is back on the front burner after the Minnesota Department of Education approved a plat for a new consolidated district with two facilities on March 7.

And this time, the climate among elected officials may be a bit different than it was a year ago.

At that time, the Wrenshall School Board voted to accept consolidation (on the condition that the school be located in Wrenshall) but the Carlton board did not. This time, there appears to be substantial momentum in favor of consolidation, according to the superintendents of the two districts.

“I’m excited that we are still moving forward,” Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro said. “Both boards have been in discussion with a consistent message.”

“We’re having a good, hard conversation about the options and the potential for what could happen with a consolidated district,” said Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman.

The districts have formed an ad hoc committee consisting of Carman, Belcastro and two members from each school board. The group met for the fourth time on Tuesday night, in a three-hour session at which both district leaders said progress was made.

“We didn’t come to any closure but we are moving forward,” Carman said. “It’s now a question for the larger boards to decide.”

And the question they will decide is perhaps slightly larger than most people would have thought.

The major decision to be made — apart from consolidation — is whether a combined district would have two facilities, one in each community, or one PK-12 facility in one of the two towns. That has always been the sticking point.

“There are advantages to a PK-12 system like we have in Wrenshall,” Belcastro said. “It has some nice efficiencies and optimally that would be our hope. Our small group thinks strongly that it would be an optimal solution.”

What that means is that everything is on the table.

“We are all in agreement with the value of consolidation,” Carman said. “We are exploring all the options with all sincerity and with open minds. Every option is in front of us right now.”

When Carman and Belcastro say “every option,” believe them. The committee has discussed everything from renovating the Wrenshall facility to renovating Carlton’s South Terrace Elementary, to the possibility of building a completely new facility through referendum.

“The most recent information we have from consultants is that there is sufficient capacity at South Terrace to renovate that building,” Carman said. “It could be part of a larger facility, we could see a PK-12 at Wrenshall or the most expensive option would be a total rebuild at South Terrace. All three of those are still on the table.”

As well as the idea of two sites, but it does appear that the desire of the subcommittee is for a single, PK-12 site. Yet, the location of a single school site remains unclear.

“The secret is to come to terms with facility location,” Belcastro said. “We are talking about it, but it is the elephant in the room.”

Carman and Belcastro said they will speak individually with their board members next week but will also travel to St. Paul to testify regarding the possibility of state aid to help construct a new facility in the event that option is chosen and passed by both school boards.

In a January 2015 meeting, consultant Michael Hoheisel of Robert W. Baird & Co. told the boards there was a new state grant incentive in place that offered funding to qualified consolidating or cooperating school districts for the construction of a new facility or for the remodeling and improving of an existing facility. The grant for new construction may not exceed $20,000,000 or 75 percent of the approved cost of the consolidated facility, whichever is less, and a grant for remodeling and improving an existing facility cannot exceed $10,000,000 or 75 percent of the remodeling costs.

That might be especially important in Carlton, which had to pass a seven-year excess operating levy in 2010 to avoid a negative fund balance and might face the possibility of going back to taxpayers to approve a building referendum on top of it.

“We are very conscious of the excess operating levy,” Carman said. “We know we would need to renew an excess operating levy to maintain what we already have. We are hoping to reduce it because we know it is high, and we are very aware that there is a challenge of needing to go to the taxpayer to support a building bond referendum if that’s decided. We also believe there is support in Carlton to see the community schools grow and thrive. That would be our challenge.”

Carman said the Carlton district’s vastly improved financial position has played a role in the discussions.

“We have regained stability and we are to the point where we can take a breath, look around and say ‘OK, where are we going in the future?’” she said. “Kim and I know that if we don’t consolidate, we will have hard work with our boards to discuss the future.”

Both Carman and Belcastro sense support among the boards for consolidation.

“The hope is that the boards can come together,” Belcastro said. “Gwen and I are hopeful we can come to the boards with a common agreement. We know it is far from perfect but we are trying hard because we recognize the benefit for the students and the community.”

“I think the board members do favor [consolidation],” Carman added.

And if the decision is made to build new, the new consolidated district would own three unused buildings — South Terrace, Carlton High School and Wrenshall’s existing PK-12 facility.

“It’s a complex discussion,” Belcastro said. “If we consolidate, we need an agreed-upon plan with the three buildings.”

They say agreement might be easier to find this time around than it was last time.

“What’s interesting about this is that both boards were at a place where we thought this was done,” Belcastro said. “We went through the process and it wasn’t until the petition was brought out that it all came up again. We were kind of starting to feel like we weren’t going to go forward but it picked up speed quickly because of the Better Together group (the grassroots group which submitted the petition to the state for a two-site consolidated district).”

“I honestly see our boards trying to work hard collaboratively together,” Belcastro added. “It’s an incredibly difficult process. Naturally our board members are elected to represent their communities but we are hoping to place a bit of extra ‘oomph’ in this process to flip the discussion and get [consolidation] to happen.”

“I totally agree,” Carman said. “There are a lot of things that feel right. The board members have been truly professional and work hard to understand each others’ perspectives. They are being honest with each other about locations and communities and backgrounds.”

By statute, both boards must vote on the proposed consolidation by April 21, and the superintendents say their boards will both meet the deadline. Carlton’s board will meet as a Committee of the Whole at 7 p.m. April 4 to discuss tax implications of the proposed school options, with the full Wrenshall board holding a special meeting at 6 p.m. April 5 to discuss the same subject.

Carman said the full Carlton board will likely vote on consolidation at a meeting April 11, while the Wrenshall board is expected to vote at approximately the same time.

Pine Journal editor Jana Peterson contributed to this story.

Editor's note: This story ran in the Pine Journal on March 24, but wasn't posted to the website until April 6. We apologize for this oversight.

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