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REVISED: Carlton is divided on school consolidation question

Close to 30 residents attended the Carlton School Board’s committee of the whole meeting Monday to discuss the different consolidation options for the Carlton and Wrenshall school districts and the financial impact of each, as well as the impact of voting “no” to consolidating. The meeting lasted nearly three hours and involved diverse opinions on all sides of the issue.

One thing was certain at the meeting’s conclusion — there is still not consensus on the issue.

This is the second round of consolidation research and debate between and by the two school boards, after last year’s discussion ended basically in a stalemate. The consolidation issue was revived late last year by a public petition put forth by a grassroots group, Better Together, calling for a two-site consolidated school district known as the Jay Cooke District.

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman and consultant Jodie Zesbaugh, a municipal advisor with Ehlers Public Finance, presented information on finances and different building options Monday before opening up the meeting for audience member comments.

FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS

Financial news was mixed.

On the potentially bright side, Carman and Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro have been working with State Senator Tony Lourey on a proposal that could give consolidating school districts a greater amount of debt equalization aid from the state, similar to the measure that passed to help Moose Lake (as a school impacted by natural disaster) last year. As a result of the legislative action, the state aid was much higher (60 percent) in Moose Lake than it is for usual school district debt, which is closer to 3 percent, according to Tom Melcher, Minnesota Department of Education director of school finance.

“The enhanced program substantially increases the state’s share,” Melcher said.

Carman said that debt in a new Carlton-Wrenshall district — if the new proposal by Lourey to also offer aid to consolidating districts passes — could qualify for close to 52 percent aid from the state.

Lourey and the two superintendents, along with the head of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, among others, were testifying at a hearing on the proposal as the Pine Journal went to press Wednesday.

“This is not unique to Carlton and Wrenshall,” Lourey said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The state would be well served to let communities know we would be there as a partner for them if they want to join forces to better serve their communities. It’s not a complete solution, but it would help.”

The $10 million and $20 million in grant money that a previous consultant said was available for consolidation construction projects is basically a thing of the past, Melcher said, adding that the last time grant money like that was allocated was in the 1990s.

“They changed the law a few years ago and it became much richer in terms of the grant, but nothing has been approved since then,” Melcher said, adding that he believes the legislature is more likely to approve the debt equalization bill than the grant money for Carlton and Wrenshall.

Consolidating school districts also receive consolidation transition aid from the state for two years after consolidation, Melcher said, a total of $200 per pupil unit the first year and $100 the second year.

Then there are the impacts of existing finances to consider.

Currently, Carlton has a voter-approved operating levy of $1,080.79 per pupil unit, a seven-year levy that was approved in November 2010 when the district was in statutory operating debt (and which is due to expire in a couple years). Wrenshall has a voter-approved operating levy of $115.79 per pupil unit, which doesn’t expire until 2023. If the two districts combine, both operating levies will automatically be extended until 2023, which could result in a combined maximum payment of $763.44 per pupil unit in both districts.

While that stable combined revenue would be good for the schools, it could present a challenge to property owners in Wrenshall who would see an increase in taxes because of the higher combined operating levy.

According to worksheets handed out at the meeting, on a home with a referendum market value of $150,000 currently paying $316 in school district operating levy and debt taxes in Carlton, those taxes would decrease by $36. A Wrenshall resident with the same $150,000 home would see his or her taxes in those two categories increase by $103, however, from $178 to $281.

On the other hand, Wrenshall has more existing debt than Carlton. According to a graph handed out at the meeting, owners of a $150,000 home in Carlton School District currently pays $316 a year toward the operating referendum and $67 toward existing debt. The owner of $150,000 home in Wrenshall currently pays $178 each year toward the operating referendum with $142 going toward existing debt.

If the two districts consolidated, they could choose to consolidate the existing debt or keep it separate.

BUILDING OPTIONS

The two school superintendents said the ad hoc joint consolidation committee has mostly been focused on a one-site pre-K through 12th-grade site because it’s more efficient and will reduce annual costs.

They got rough building estimates from Krech Ojard architects for three different building proposals, which follow:

  • $46 million for building new at South Terrace, but architects think the current elementary school is a solid building and would just need remodeling, so this option hasn’t been explored much, Carman said.

  • $37 million for remodeling at South Terrace and building an addition, to create a PreK-12 grade facility for a combined school district;

  • $29 million for renovating and building an addition in Wrenshall, to create a PreK-12 grade facility for a combined school district.

Carman said the architects said “to plan for around $46 million if the districts consolidate and choose the two-site option,” a figure that both board members and audience members immediately debated, pointing to a previous estimate of $16 million in costs by LHB architects just over a year ago.

Better Together’s Mandi Rosebrock said that’s why the petition went with the two-site solution, because it required less investment ($16 million) and because they didn’t think the two districts could agree on one site.

“The focus should not be on facilities, it should be on improving education for students, which does not require a new building,” Rosebrock said.

Later in the meeting, board member Michael Gay also said he didn’t think the two boards will be able to agree on one site. At the same time, Gay also pointed to the need for consolidation as a way of making both districts more financially secure.

“The reason we’re voting on consolidation is we have two school districts that are struggling,” he said. “If we feel we (Carlton) aren’t struggling, then we shouldn’t vote for consolidation. But we are struggling — we have the highest operating [levy] per student in the [area]. … We need to decide if we are healthier financially as a consolidated district than we are independently.”

Board member Stephanie Gibson responded that she was certain students would leave if the consolidated district is two sites.

PUBLIC COMMENTS

Audience opinions ran the gamut, with the bulk of the residents expressing a favorable view of the education their children are getting in Carlton and a conditional willingness to consolidate, but only if it’s the best thing for the kids and only if it’s done right.

Twin Lakes township resident Jason Marsh got the biggest round of applause for the night, as well as some pushback, as he openly admitted that his kids do not go to school in Carlton.

“I want them to, but I want to get rolling so we have some consistency in numbers in the district,” Marsh said. “… I think if we build a new K-12 facility, we will attract a lot of those kids [who open-enroll out of the district] back. Esko is full. A lot of people don’t want to go to Cloquet.

“Let’s be that destination school, let’s be that district that a lot of people want to be a part of. Let’s be dynamic, and forward thinking and plan for the next 30 or 40 years and not talk about what was or what might be. There’s always going to be hurdles to overcome but let’s look at the big picture. Let’s make this the school in the area.”

Bob Matarelli stood up next.

“What he said,” Matarelli said, pointing to Marsh.

Not everyone agreed.

Amy (Matt) DeCaigny, a Sawyer resident with four kids in the district, is not in favor of consolidation if it means she must travel an additional 7-10 minutes on top of the 17-minute trip (one way) she already makes when she’s ferrying her kids to and from school and extracurricular activities.

“I’m frustrated with what this group (Better Together) is saying about our school district dying. Our kids have so much going on this week, I can’t keep up. Softball, volleyball, play … there’s lots of opportunity here. Every kid in third through 12th grade has smart pads so their class materials are up to date. We’ve regained a lot of things — the play, wood shop, a football team. … When kids go to school here, they can do it all. They’re well rounded and their resumes are long.”

Chris Rousseau lives in Cloquet but open-enrolls his kids into Carlton, which is where he went to school and where they lived when his children were younger and starting school. He wouldn’t have it any other way, and wasn’t sure that consolidation is the best prospect, however.

“People don’t understand what the kids are getting here,” Rousseau said. “There are a lot of good students here, a lot of learning.”

A number of parents agreed, and talked about how many college credits their kids had when they graduated, and how successful they’ve been in college.

Rousseau cautioned the board not to rush into a decision.

“If you head down this path (to consolidation), you need to vote down the plat,” Rousseau added. “You need to have all the outcomes in place and know what the end game looks like before you move ahead. You can’t rush in because you so much want something to happen. I’m for building a school but I honestly think we should build our own school at South Terrace. … We don’t need the state’s handouts — we can build on our own.”

Carman agreed wholeheartedly that the Carlton school district has a lot going for it, but noted that if the schools don’t consolidate, Carlton will have to decide what to do with its facilities: repair an aging high school or build a new one next to South Terrace.

Buildings don’t educate kids, but our buildings do need significant repair,” Carman said, noting that some of the windows at the high school appear to be original to the 1915 building and the building also needs a modern security system.

Former school board member Brenda Tischer pointed out that it’s all well and good talking about where and what to build, but voters have to approve any building levy, whether the districts consolidate or Carlton chooses to go it alone.

As just one more option, audience member Dave Chmielewski — who is involved with the Edison Charter school building efforts in Duluth — suggested if all else fails, Carlton should consider becoming a charter school, and said he thought they could build a high school at South Terrace for $11 million … money that would come from the state rather than the taxpayers if a charter school is approved. Chmielewski is involved with the Edison Charter school building efforts in Duluth, he explained.

Carman also said that she and Bellcastro have met with Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College President Larry Anderson and the FDLTCC president is interested in exploring some joint facility ideas with the school districts, because the junior college has run out of space for athletic facilities.

DEADLINES

When asked if the two boards are facing a deadline to decide on consolidation, Carman said there is an April 21 deadline to vote on the plat approved by the state as a result of the Better Together petition and they also need to let the legislature know what they’re thinking in terms of consolidation.

“I think the feeling is the sooner, the better,” Carman said. “I think this has been emotionally draining for everybody. I think both boards agree that we need to make a decision in the next couple of weeks … and I know, as Carlton superintendent, that I feel some urgency to be able to convey to Carlton residents where we’re headed.”

No decisions were made Monday, aside from a board decision to vote on all the different consolidation options at the regular board meeting April 18, rather than holding a special meeting April 11.

The Wrenshall School Board is holding a public meeting on consolidation at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, which was postponed from the original date of April 5, and would likely vote on consolidation at its regular board meeting April 18.