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CARLTON: With community input received, school board works to chart path to future

There is no single answer to the future of the Carlton School District, that much is plain from reading the report that a group of 15 community advisers presented to the Carlton School Board last week.

It took the advisers — with guidance and support from at least three different consultants/researchers — six months to research and draft the report. Drawing from individual interviews with a diverse group of 36 residents, a community meeting with 70-plus attendees, a staff visioning session and an online survey, the community advisers worked after each stage to analyze and organize the input from residents.

With ideas running the gamut from building a new K-12 building for Carlton students to increased vocational programs to consolidation or even dissolution of the school district, it wasn't easy. But the goal wasn't to tell the school board what to do, step-by-step, rather it was to help the board understand what residents and staff really think, and to develop a general vision and strategy for the district which focused both on student results as well as the physical learning environment.

The process

Comments from the initial individual interviews were organized into categories and subcategories, with the largest number of comments (43) reflecting concerns about the school district, including concerns about a lack of trust between the school board and the community and the small student population in the district.

Some comments were included after each subcategory in the report.

"I hope that the school board doesn't just spin this to suit their own agenda," commented one interviewee. "I hope they are not just going through the motions to just appease some people."

Financial concerns were significant, with 38 comments about funding and the limited tax base within the district, etc.

However, seven comments regarded the small student population as a good thing and 17 were supportive of the school district. The most positive comments (23) centered around district staff.

The next largest number of comments came under recommended actions, with 35 recommending some form of collaboration from sharing funding and teaching to consolidation. Thirty comments recommending consolidation with a specific school mentioned Wrenshall.

"I could see them [Carlton and Wrenshall] thriving, a middle-size district offering programming, pay teachers well, people are drawn to this area because of the beauty," one comment read.

"Set aside rivalry with Wrenshall," said another. "Merging would be financially the best solution for us all. Parents in that district have the same concerns and money issues."

During the community meeting, advisors facilitated and recorded small-group discussions centered around three specific questions: the first focused on a vision for Carlton students "in a perfect world," the second about obstacles preventing that vision and the third about how to build ongoing community support for and involvement in the education of Carlton students.

Participants made the most comments (46) regarding curriculum. They'd like to see wider variety of classes — including vocational, STEM, foreign languages, arts and college prep — and a wide variety of sports. Other suggestions included making better use of the school forest at South Terrace, adding a makerspace and/or robotics, and bringing driver's ed back to the school. Some talked about partnering more with local residents and businesses to provide added opportunities for students.

Twenty comments addressed providing opportunities in "modern facilities," with many of those suggesting a single remodeled or new K-12 facility.

Other comment categories included the following:

-Student achievement (20)

-Teacher pay (16)

-Partnering with neighboring school districts (12)

-Increased enrollment (5)

Low enrollment numbers were the No. 1 concern (20) followed by the lack of a resolution on consolidation (14), greater financial support (14), teacher retention (13), and a lack of awareness of the good things happening in the Carlton schools (13), among other things.

While the report mostly summarized individual interviews and community meeting comments into different categories, the online responses to five different questions were included as written. The most responses to any one question online was 74.

Many of the comments were brutally frank.

In response to question 2 regarding educational options that "reflect student, community and business needs and desires," answer No. 53 noted that the district should have identified those needs by now, after "countless community input questions that people are sick to death of."

"You can't squeeze blood from a turnip, so you can't keep going back to the same stagnant pool of taxpayers with your handout," the writer continued. "What are the other options? Make your tax base larger by consolidating with Wrenshall, share resources, financial and human."

Others were supportive of ongoing efforts.

"Schools are in general doing a great job with limited resources."

Support for collaboration and/or consolidation was strong in the online survey although some people were opposed to Wrenshall, with at least one person stating that the two communities have dramatically different values.. A number of people asked that the board not pass any more non-voter approved levies, as they did last year with nearly $5 million in health and safety improvements at South Terrace currently underway and another $8 million at the high school a possibility, although the board has not approved much spending at the high school outside of repairs to sidewalks and parking lots.

Many thought the online survey should have been posted for at least three weeks, instead of only one.

Strategic report

In their report, the community advisors offered four broad goals, or "vision elements," including the following:

-Our students benefit from schools and communities that have mutually strong, supportive and collaborative relationships.

-Our students have access to good instruction, tools and curriculum in an inviting atmosphere that prepares all students for their future.

-Our students benefit from schools that are educationally strong, financially healthy and have a growing enrollment.

-Our students have a physical learning environment that is safe, flexible, functional, appealing and well-maintained, that supports 21st Century Learning and that is open to the public.

Next they listed obstacles to attaining that vision, including a lack of trust between the school board and the community, a small tax base, enrollment issues, and more.

Finally, the report offered different strategies and potential action steps to take to overcome the various obstacles and realize the vision, including the following:

-Actively build productive, collaborative working relationships and trust among the community, school board, staff and students.

-Identify and utilize creative educational opportunities that reflect student, community and workforce needs.

-Identify ways to optimize a sustainable budget.

-Explore restructuring options to best meet student and facility needs.

-Pursue creative building options.

-Dissolution

-Contraction to a K-6 or K-8 district.

The only action step listed under the final two possible strategies was to "inform the public on costs, benefits and impacts."

The Carlton School Board held a three-hour retreat Tuesday, Aug. 22, to further discuss and digest the community advisers strategic report. A number of the community advisers and community members also attended. The board didn't vote on any actions at the meeting, which was strictly a working/planning session.

This story is an online exclusive story and did not appear in the Pine Journal's print edition. Look for an update in the Sept. 6 issue of the Pine Journal.