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Wrenshall clarifies board stance on consolidation (revised)

In yet another twist to the tale of consolidation talks between the Wrenshall and Carlton school districts, the Wrenshall School Board unanimously passed a resolution Jan. 23 on consolidation and cooperation with Carlton, nine months after the last round of talks ended in a stalemate.

In April 2016, both school boards voted in favor of locating a preK-12 school in their own community. On Monday, however, the Wrenshall board indicated it would support one preK-12 facility in Wrenshall or — a less favorable but still acceptable solution — a two-site solution with the high school located in Wrenshall and the elementary school at Carlton’s South Terrace site.

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman said she and the Carlton School Board members were surprised by the Wrenshall resolution.

“Their newest resolution, however, does not change anything for Carlton,” Carman said in a statement to the Pine Journal newspaper, noting that the Carlton School District is in the middle of a facilities study of its elementary and high school.

The Wrenshall School Board also voted Jan. 23 to go out for a facility referendum vote on April 18 in the amount of $12.5 million to expand the school district’s educational space and remodel some of the existing educational spaces. (See “Wrenshall Referendum” with this story for more details on that.) Wrenshall Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro said the bond referendum could be modified, however, if Carlton decided soon that it was on board with either consolidation option approved by the Wrenshall board.

One day later, and Carlton didn’t seem interested.

“The Carlton and Wrenshall districts have discussed consolidation in-depth many times, and each time the Boards are not able to reach an agreement,” Carman wrote in a statement Jan. 24. “While we can all agree on some of the advantages of consolidation, our school boards simply cannot come to an agreement on the location of a school or schools, the configuration of a consolidated district's board members and other factors that would need to be agreed upon to consolidate. To take more time and spend more resources to revisit consolidation yet again would be unfair and frustrating for our students, staff, and families.”

Enter the third party in this debate: the residents of both school districts.

At least one father with children in the Carlton School District would disagree with that statement, and he says he is not alone.

“Frankly, there is a silent majority that’s becoming less silent,” said Blackhoof resident and local businessman David Chmielewski.

Chmielewski and his wife, Jennifer (a new Carlton School Board member), have two children attending South Terrace elementary school. He shared his own consolidation fact finding with the Carlton School Board Monday and the Wrenshall School Board about six weeks ago, he told the Pine Journal.

In his presentation, Chmielewski pointed out that the districts could basically double their student enrollment (Wrenshall has 330 students while Carlton reports 477) and eliminate one building and all its associated costs by consolidating and going to two sites. If the two schools consolidated, they would be able to offer more academic courses and extracurricular programs for a larger student body.

He also submitted a study done in New York State showing that when school districts with fewer than 1,700 pupils consolidate, property values and rents are boosted by about 25 percent.

As well, Chmielewski noted, both school districts need to make facility improvements anyway, and will need to gain voter approval to do that. With consolidation, the districts have a chance to get legislative aid as well, he said, which could lessen the burden on the taxpayers.

“Why would we pay more to get less?” he said. “That’s exactly what both districts going it alone gets us. We pay more for less. Nobody does that.”

Chmielewski pointed out that the Carlton School Board vote in April on the two-site proposal with South Terrace for elementary and Wrenshall for high school was 3-3 in April, which meant the vote failed.

“The way I see it, we’re one vote away from consolidating,” he said.

The debate over consolidation between the neighboring school districts — which are just over four miles apart — isn't new. Wrenshall resident and retired judge Dale Wolf said he remembered Wrenshall suggesting consolidation 60 years ago and Carlton saying no, with a back-and-forth discussion ever since.

Most recently, the two school boards hired a consultant in 2014 to help them explore consolidation. It was a discussion that basically ended with both boards unwilling to give up a hometown school but also mostly unwilling to consider a two-site option because it would not be as efficient as one site.

Then, in late 2015, a pro-consolidation grassroots community group named Better Together effectively forced the two boards back to the table by submitting a petition and subsequent plat to the Minnesota Department of Education. The plat outlined a two-site consolidated district that would be known as the Jay Cooke District.

The two boards vowed to approach round two of the consolidation debate with open minds, and chose different consultants to work with this time. An ad hoc committee of two board members and the superintendent of each school district met five times with the hopes that a smaller committee would be able to come to a consensus and take that recommendation to their respective boards. They couldn't. Again, both sides favored a one-site solution in their own communities.

“Carlton said it was moving ahead on its own because Wrenshall didn’t want to work with us,” Chmielewski said. “But now Wrenshall has said it’s willing to work together. They changed their minds.”

But Belcastro said the Wrenshall board has always thought a two-site solution, with the upper grades in Wrenshall and the elementary grades in Carlton, was also acceptable and could still save the two school districts money. She explained that the resolution passed on Jan. 23 was a way to formalize their support for the two different consolidation options, as well as the Wrenshall board’s support for combining some or all of the athletic and extracurricular programs at the two schools.

The Wrenshall resolution has yet to be formally discussed at a Carlton School Board meeting, as both board meetings were held on the same night. Chmielewski said the Carlton School Board did not comment after his presentation Jan. 23.

He’s hoping simple economics will win the day.

“Bottom line, public school funding is based on headcount,” he said. “They can double the headcount, and go from three to two buildings. The schools are three miles apart and there are four other school districts within seven miles, including Cloquet and Esko, two of the top-rated schools in the Arrowhead. Let’s be smart about this.”

Both districts have public meetings on different topics than consolidation scheduled over the next two weeks.

Carman invited residents to attend the ongoing community meetings to discuss the study regarding possible Carlton school district facilities options: the next meeting starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, in the Carlton High School gym. A free meal will be served to attendees.

Wrenshall is planning a community meeting regarding the April facility referendum at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6, in the Wrenshall School Commons. Another meeting is set for March 28.

Wrenshall Referendum

On April 18, 2017, voters in the Wrenshall School District will go to the polls to decide on a $12.5 million bond referendum that would allow the school district to both expand and remodel educational space. On a home valued at $150,000, that would mean an increase of $270 per year in the school district portion of their property taxes, according to Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro. In a school newsletter update, Belcastro also noted the Wrenshall School District is in talks with Community Memorial Hospital and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College for a joint community fitness center and a sports complex on the Wrenshall School District property, which would be financed through a lease-purchase arrangement (non-voter approved) with the partners. That would cost a homeowner with a $150,000 home an additional $30 a year in property taxes.

Editor’s note: Find specific details on the proposed building renovations and additions on the Wrenshall school district website (http://www.wrenshall.k12.mn.us).

 
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