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Guest Commentary: In for a penny, in for a pound

To Carlton School District Voters:

Bottom line to this whole school district issue is: We, the voters of Carlton School District, voted yes to continue operating our school district last November. We will pay to keep the doors open one way or another, because we voted to do so.

Don't remember voting for that? Me neither. However, I voted in support of the operating referendum last November, which goes toward operating expenses. The deciding factor in my vote was the fact that it was billed as not going to raise our property taxes. I would have looked much harder at that referendum if there had been any apparent tax implications for my family. But, hey, no increase in taxes to keep our schools going — sure I support that. Easy. Some 90 percent of the Carlton District voters agreed with me.

My name is Rachel Peterson. My husband and our three children moved to the district two years ago. When we moved here, we considered ourselves very lucky to find a good house in Carlton and immediately enrolled our kids in the local district. Our kids have enjoyed going to school in Carlton. We like the student-to-teacher ratios and other benefits of a smaller school.

I went to a meeting for the school district late last year, honestly because it was being held at the Four Seasons Sports Complex immediately after my little guy's hockey practice and they were serving dinner. Sit through a meeting, but not have to cook dinner: Fair trade.

During the meeting I learned that because the Carlton School District voters approved the operating referendum in November, the school district now has to address deficiencies in the school's infrastructure and buildings to protect the safety and health of the kids in the district. What? I thought there wasn't going to be any increase in taxes if I voted yes! So I volunteered to be a member of the facilities planning committee.

The facilities planning committee has met often and they aren't fun meetings. Everything from taxes to consolidation to line item costs is discussed in minute detail. As a voter whose property tax bill went up 23 percent this January, I am pretty adamantly opposed to increased taxes. To that point, I have been as vocal as I can be without being kicked off the committee.

I am also heartily sick of people coming to one meeting, not listening and then pushing for things I've spent hours of time discussing with a representative committee of voters. Consolidation with Wrenshall has been discussed, and for numerous reasons determined to be a non-starter. I asked why we couldn't keep South Terrace as an elementary option and consolidate 6-12 grades into Cloquet. We already share the majority of sporting activities with Cloquet and a larger number of homeowners lowers tax implications for everyone. And let's face facts, eight school districts in a county as small as Carlton is asinine.

I also asked if this building referendum is put to a vote and fails, will Carlton School District be able to keep the buildings open?

Here is one thing I learned: If the proposed referendum fails, the district will continue to operate until the operating referendum expires. During that time period the unsafe conditions will be corrected as needed and any old, outdated or malfunctioning equipment or systems in the current buildings will be fixed. All at taxpayer cost. The school district can levy quite a bit of funding for those types of maintenance issues without having to ask the voting public for input.

The way I see it, our choices are:

1. Vote no on a building referendum, which tells the school board to levy funds to fix and repair the old, outdated and unsafe systems and still have old, outdated and inadequate facilities.

Or

2. Vote yes on a building referendum and pay for a renovated elementary and high school.

The costs to taxpayers are nearly the same either way over the next 20 years.

Or another option:

Vote no on a building referendum and wait until the operating referendum expires. Vote no to a new operating referendum at that time. In the meantime pay for any facilities issues or other emergency issues that occur through levies which increase taxes. And then not have a school district at all. All levied tax increases stay on our tax bills until paid off.

The only way we, as taxpayers, could have said we want other options explored would have been to vote no last November. As much as I'd like to go back and change my vote, that isn't one of the options available. So, whether you feel we were sold a bad bill of goods last November or you bleed blue — our only decision is whether we want to pay millions of dollars to keep old stuff limping along or start with newer, up-to-date and safe facilities for our kids. Taxes are going up either way.

Anyone who would like to learn facts about the facilities meetings and proposed plans should go to the Carlton School District website or talk to one of the Facility Committee members for accurate information. There are people who are giving out bad information who have no skin in the game in Carlton School District. It's important to get your facts straight.

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Writer Rachel Peterson is a homeowner in Carlton and mother of three. She is an active volunteer and served as a member on the Carlton School District Facilities Planning Committee. She is the executive director of a non-profit training organization and involved in her children’s activities.

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