A proposal to create a combined preK-12 school for Carlton students has been the subject of much debate since the district announced its decision to ask for a vote on a new school earlier this year. Signs for and against the idea have sprouted in yards around the district, and letters to the editor have been frequent and heartfelt on both sides.
The day of reckoning comes Tuesday, Aug. 8, when residents of Carlton School District are invited to vote "yes" or "no" on two different school questions: one asking for $23.6 million in bonds to construct a grades 6-12 addition and make improvements to the existing elementary school at the South Terrace site; the second (contingent on the first question passing) to approve an additional $3.3 million in bonds to construct an auditorium, improve athletic spaces and make other site improvements.
"We know there's a strong contingent of supportive folks who feel this is an important next step for Carlton schools," said Superintendent Gwen Carman. "We also know that there are people concerned about the tax implications."
Carman said Question 1 really replaces what the district already has — with 4,700 less square feet actually — and Question 2 would pay for additional improvements, including an auditorium, an eight-lane cinder track and additional amenities, replacing the worn-out tennis courts and upgrades to the small ballfield already on the South Terrace site.
"This is no cathedral," said longtime board member Tim Hagenah. "It's all about academics."
The property tax impact would be substantial, more than doubling the school district portion of residents' property taxes.
Looking at an actual property tax statement for a home valued at $238,800, the current school district taxes on the property are $724.33 a year. Using the tax impact calculator provided on the school district website, the increase is calculated at an additional $763 if just Question 1 passes, plus $120 if Question 2 passes. In other words, if both questions pass, school district taxes would be an additional $883 a year, or $73.55 a month.
Percentage-wise, that means homeowners would see an increase of 105 percent for Question 1, and 122 percent if both questions pass. That increase could be mitigated for some, the referendum section of the school district website explains, through agricultural credits and federal and state programs for property tax refunds, deductions and deferrals.
According to district figures, should Question 1 pass, owners of a home valued at $150,000 would see an estimated tax increase of $432 per year and an additional $68 per year should Question 2 pass, for a total of $500.
Former Carlton School Board member Brenda Tischer has been a vocal critic of the proposal, mostly because she doesn't think such a large tax increase is affordable for many who own property in the school district.
She also doesn't think it's the best option for the local students.
"There's more we can gain by looking at other solutions," Tischer said, referring to consolidation with one or even several other Carlton County schools. "A building is not the best solution. It's too narrow of a focus — there's more we can do with someone else."
Carman explained that the Aug. 8 bond referendum vote is the culmination of years of hard work by both the district and the community, noting that the community has rallied to pass an operating levy twice — the first time to help pull the district out of statutory operating debt — by voting in favor of additional tax dollars that go toward the educational costs of running the schools. That money isn't intended for buildings, however.
The plan for a new combined building grew out of a community visioning process in 2014, the superintendent said, followed by a facilities study that revealed needs and costs of the current elementary school (constructed in 1961) and high school (with parts built in 1915, 1953 and 1969).
Further planning was put on hiatus for a couple years as the district went through two rounds of talks and research regarding consolidation with nearby Wrenshall School District, which ended in a stalemate both times, with both districts agreeing that a preK-12 school made more sense, but each wanting that facility in their own community.
A year after consolidation talks failed for the second time, Wrenshall school district residents decisively voted "no" to a $12.5 million bond referendum for school renovations and an expansion to the existing preK-12 facility in April 2017.
In the meantime, Carlton School District officials and consultants held a series of community meetings over the past eight months, and ultimately community members were presented with three options this spring:
• Do nothing, and continue to spend $70,000 a year maintaining the old buildings, money that cuts into educational opportunities.
• Repair the current buildings and fix the facilities' deficiencies and equipment that does not currently meet code at both schools at a cost of more than $13 million at the high school and and more than $6 million at South Terrace, adding up to just over $20.5 million.
• Build a new high school addition at the 70-acre South Terrace site, and renovate the elementary school. The result would be a two-section school with a shared cafeteria, media center, and office spaces, meaning greater efficiencies for the district for staffing and even transportation costs. The new/remodeled buildings would also meet ADA requirements, offer secure entrances and updated infrastructure, science labs and sprinklers in case of fire. Obviously, maintenance costs would decline substantially for an extended period of time.
A new preK-12 school for Carlton would bring many improvements to the district, ranging from better security, better facilities for learning and sports, a new heating and ventilation systems and more.
While people might not think a modern boiler matters that much, high school social studies teacher Ryan Schmidt said it would help enormously.
"Right now we have kids who walk the hallways with blankets all winter, because some rooms are freezing and others are hotter than Hades," he said, adding that the temperature in a room can be a big distraction to students, just like the "ping, ping, ping" of radiators.
Schmidt said the high school sometimes has garbage cans in the hallways to catch leaks from melting snow and rain, and students get razzed about the "dungeon" of a small gym, which was built in 1915. The school does have a larger gym where it holds varsity and junior varsity games.
"And the locker rooms don't meet today's ADA, ventilation, heating or privacy standards," he added.
A new building could also help with student retention, Carman pointed out, as close to 50 percent of the students in the school district (316) open-enroll to other school districts, while a smaller number (184) of students from other districts enroll into Carlton.
"A lot leave because of the facilities," said Schmidt. "Curb appeal is definitely a selling point, especially when people are new to the area."
The new facility is not being constructed with consolidation in mind, although Carman said there will be room for up to 100-150 additional students, if they were spread across all grade levels.
"If this were a Carlton-Wrenshall plan, it would be bigger," she said, noting that a state demographer predicted slow but steady growth for the school district. "It's not."
The debate about facilities overlooks one of the main reasons supporters want to see Carlton continue as a school district, Carman said, pointing out suggestions by others that Carlton consolidate with Cloquet.
"You're really advocating for the elimination of a really strong, small school," she said.
"There are lots of opportunites for kids here," Schmidt said. "If we were to dissolve, some kids might be able to play sports in Cloquet, others would not. There's still only six starting spots on a volleyball team. Or the kids that try out for the play, how many roles are there?"
How residents will weigh in remains to be seen. There is still an active group that would like to see Carlton and Wrenshall consolidate and others who have suggested consolidating with Cloquet.
If the referendum fails, the district has authority to levy up to $12 million without voter approval to devote to solving health and safety issues within the schools, Carman said in previous Pine Journal interview. However, she noted, they "really don't want to do that."
Hagenah is bullish on the future of the small school district.
"We're a small school, yet we offer a lot of stuff academically and for extra curriculars," Hagenah said. "There's still a lot of opportunities. And with a little growth in student population, it will only get better."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The special election will be held from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 8, at the Carlton County Transportation Public Building, 1630 County Road 61, Carlton. See the district website for more information on the referendum and other school district questions.
Editor's note: This is a corrected version of the same story that appeared in the July 27, 2017 issue of the Pine Journal.