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Wrenshall, Carlton ponder path to the future

WHAT THEY SAID

Following are excerpts from comments made by various citizens to the Carlton School Board during its Aug. 22 regular meeting:

"For the people who voted 'no' but open-enroll their children elsewhere, try paying those taxes, paying for those schools. Why hold our kids' education system hostage for low taxes? They should feel shame for not supporting the community in which they choose to live, but yet take advantage of the communities that invest in themselves."

~ Stacy Sway

"I think you're doing a disservice if you think it (the failed bond referendum) is because of taxes. Voters want a comprehensive solution that addresses enrollment, academics and facilities. It's important to move forward with a solution that a majority of voters can support."

~ Josh Rostollan

"We need this school to be safe and secure. We've gotta keep something here for the kids. This is a great community, but this is a sad state of affairs. This is as divisive as anything I've ever seen. There are people I haven't talked to in three years."

~ Chris Lebrasseur

"School Board, now is the time to listen. Realize that without your community, you don't have the answers. Listen to the diversity of opinions around you and realize that you were elected to find and lead us to common ground. So I say to you: Lead by listening."

~ Timothy Soden-Groves

"I'm in favor of remodeling and upgrading South Terrace, but I strongly support consolidation. ... People want consolidation because we have to run the school as a business and I think we have a lot more opportunity to excel and do a better job with the finances we have."

~ Mike Salzer

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Now that school bonding referendums failed decisively in both Carlton and Wrenshall, could it be time to talk consolidation again?

The answer to that question depends on whom you ask. Some say consolidation with a neighboring school is the only route that makes sense, while others support retaining the unique character of each small school district.

Citizens from both districts are showing up and talking at school board meetings at their home district and away, after voting down a $12.5 million bond referendum in Wrenshall in April and Carlton's $23 million bond referendum Aug. 8.

Sixteen people spoke at the Carlton School Board's Aug. 22 meeting, which close to 40 citizens attended. Several area residents suggested board members make consolidation with nearby Wrenshall a priority, while others thought the board needed to explore other options, including making its meetings more open to an exchange of ideas between board members and citizens. But even more expressed support for whatever the Carlton School Board decides to do moving forward, and disappointment in the citizens who voted against the building referendum.

Five miles down County Highway 1, and a day later, Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro told the Pine Journal that it's time for the Carlton and Wrenshall school districts to listen to all of the community members.

"The voters have spoken," Belcastro said. "With both referendums failing by over 70 percent, the communities are standing up and making a point. They're saying, 'We don't want to pay for referendums in both districts.' That's a big statement. And since then, there's been a new push for consolidation (from the citizens)."

But the question now seems to be, consolidation with whom?

Although Belcastro was referring to consolidation between Wrenshall and Carlton, Carlton board members decided Monday to explore consolidation with the Cloquet School District.

"The board wanted to see if Cloquet is willing to discuss possible consolidation," said Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman, regarding the Committee of the Whole discussions Monday night. Carman said she left a message with Cloquet Superintendent Ken Scarbrough Tuesday morning. "The board didn't make any commitment, but wanted to know what (consolidation) would look like, tax impact, etc. There would definitely be a significant tax impact for Carlton."

According to Carman, the other option the Carlton School Board members want to know more about was how to pay for facility repairs and modifications without voter approval.

RECENT HISTORY

According to long-time community members, informal consolidation debates between Carlton and Wrenshall have been going on for decades.

In recent years, the neighboring school districts engaged in two very intense rounds of talks and research regarding consolidation.

The school districts initiated the first round. The second round of talks was triggered by a Better Together citizen-group request to the state, after the school-initiated talks ended without agreement.

When the second round of discussions ended in April 2016, the Wrenshall Board passed a motion to locate a combined preK-12 school in Wrenshall with a sports/community complex at Carlton's South Terrace site.

The Carlton Board voted on a total of five options, ultimately supporting three: a preK-12th grade facility at South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton, a two-site solution with the elementary grades in Wrenshall and secondary grades at South Terrace and putting the question of where to place a single preK-12 facility (Wrenshall or Carlton) to the voters, on the condition that Wrenshall also put the question to its voters and that the state Legislature approve equalization aid for school districts that are consolidating. Wrenshall officials had previously expressed concern that their votes would be drowned out by Carlton in a straight vote (according to Carlton County Auditor Paul Gassert, Carlton has 2,650 registered voters, while Wrenshall has 1,190) and therefore never acted on a similar measure.

Nine months later, in January 2017, the Wrenshall School Board acted again and unanimously passed a resolution on consolidation and cooperation with Carlton, indicating it would also — in addition to one site in Wrenshall — support a two-site solution with the secondary grades in Wrenshall and an elementary school at Carlton's South Terrace site.

At the time, Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman and the Carlton School Board were not interested in reopening talks. She clarified this week that there have been no formal discussions of consolidation or official overtures between the two districts since April 2016.

Carman said four of the board members expressed "great doubts" Monday that voters would pass a bond referendum for a consolidated Carlton/Wrenshall school district, regardless of where the building or buildings were located.

Consolidation with Cloquet has some appeal, she said, in part because more than 100 Carlton students already open-enroll into Cloquet. She said input last summer suggested Carlton needed to offer more for its students, along with concerns about academics.

"Cloquet is potentially a better fit for those concerns," she said. "Also, Cloquet's diversity more closely parallels Carlton's."

Although there have been no discussions yet, one possibility for a combined Cloquet/Carlton School District could potentially leave South Terrace Elementary School open at its current site, while sending secondary school students to Cloquet for middle and high school. But Cloquet's school taxes are higher than Carlton's, and a combined district would spread the costs out to the entire district. And there's the question of whether Cloquet has enough space to absorb Carlton's grades 5-12 students at its existing schools.

TIME DOESN'T STAND STILL

Both Carlton and Wrenshall school districts are moving ahead following the failure of their building bond referendums.

Both are getting ready for the start of a new school year after Labor Day, welcoming new and old staff back to the school buildings, and fall sports practices are in full swing. In Wrenshall, enrollment is the highest it's been in years at 392, said Belcastro. Carlton has 449 students enrolled for this year. But facilities remain a problem for each.

In its Aug. 22 Wrenshall meeting, the Wrenshall School Board voted to temporarily close the school's Recreation Building because of ongoing health and safety concerns, roof leaks, fire marshall deficiencies and liability issues.

During an interview last week, Belcastro said Wrenshall's deferred maintenance needs — with no additions or remodeling — add up to about $3.4 million. The superintendent said the board also looked at four other facilities options, each starting with the $3.49 million in deferred maintenance and building on that. Costs for those options ranged from $8.38 million to $15.9 million. In considering what and how to fix things, they are keeping in mind the possibility of future consolidation, she said.

"I think what makes sense is a two-site solution where both communities can gain, where both communities still have a school," Belcastro said. "That is still a fiscally responsible solution."

Belcastro added the Wrenshall district is also forming a new subcommittee to look at facilities. At its Aug. 22 meeting, Ehlers & Associates financial advisor Greg Crowe explained to Carlton board members and staff the 10 different ways that Minnesota school districts can finance capital projects, including several ways that don't require voter approval.

In some cases the money would be paid for through school property tax increases. There are also partial funds available from the state for certain uses. Other options could be paid out of operating capital or other general fund revenue. Money from an operating levy could also be used to pay down debt for building repairs, he told the board.

Crowe explained that Carlton could sell Long Term Facilities Maintenance Health and Safety bonds without voter approval to improve indoor air quality, fire suppression and asbestos removal. He showed the estimated tax impact on a LTFM Health and Safety bond for $13,450,000, which would more than triple the current tax rate for 20 years, although Carman said that didn't mean a person's school taxes would triple. A large percentage of the repair issues in the school district are at the high school.

At their Committee of the Whole meeting Monday, Carlton Board members discussed seven options:

• Do nothing to significantly address facility needs.

• Make significant repairs at the high school and/or South Terrace via non-voter-approved financing.

• Try to pass a smaller referendum for repairs at just the high school.

• Pursue consolidation negotiations with Wrenshall.

• Pursue consolidation negotiations with Cloquet.

• Determine the tax impact of consolidation versus a South Terrace project, what would have less tax impact?

• Dissolve the district.

As previously noted, the board decided to pursue options 2 and 5 for now.

"The board is being systematic, thoughtful and intentional in making the best decision for the students and district moving forward," Carman said.

Carlton will hold its next Committee of the Whole meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11, and its next regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18.

The next Committee of the Whole meeting for Wrenshall is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13, in the library. The next regular meeting is Sept. 18.

All school board meetings are open to the public.

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