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Wrenshall, Carlton school consolidation debate in state hands, for now

More light is being shed on the exact process by which the Carlton and Wrenshall school districts might conceivably combine in the future.

In response to a petition requesting consolidation submitted by citizens in November, Carlton County Auditor Paul Gassert has performed his statutory responsibility by submitting a plat map of the proposed new school district to the Minnesota Department of Education Jan. 4.  But from there, the process is just beginning.

“It’s just one of the steps in the process of what will happen,” Gassert said this week.

The plat map of the proposed consolidated district, along with a mandatory statement of purpose, was mostly the work of school finance consultant Mike Hoheisel of Robert W. Baird and Company, who consulted with both the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards early in the process.

“That was a good thing,” Gassert said.  “It didn’t need to be necessarily done by my office, but I had to submit it to comply with the petition.”

Early in 2015, both the Wrenshall and Carlton school boards voted on the consolidation issue. The Wrenshall board OK’d the idea, provided that facilities and improvements were located in Wrenshall. The Carlton board voted 3-3 on the plan, but half the board wanted to see South Terrace Elementary converted into a combined K-12 facility.

So, both boards were willing to consider the idea as long as the facilities were located in its community. What was perhaps the natural reaction to the consolidation issue actually stopped discussion on the topic for a time.

However, the local group “Better Together” raised enough signatures on a petition to require Carlton County to make the submission to the state — and that plat plan, if approved by the Department of Education, must go back to the two school boards for consideration.

Gassert said the clock is ticking for the state to answer — and once that happens, everything else gets decided.

The Department of Education has 60 days from the date of submission to respond with a “yes” or “no.”

“My understanding is that I will get a response from the Commissioner of Education as to whether they endorse the plat or not,” Gassert said.

The first day possible to receive a response by statute is Jan. 24, but Gassert said the state has until the first week of March to respond.

Whenever the response arrives, if it’s affirmative, Gassert has more work to do — and a second set of deadlines then comes into play.

“If the answer is ‘yes,’ I give the notice to the appropriate school boards and they have the opportunity to accept or reject the recommendation,” he said. “Either school district can adopt or reject the plat.”

From there, it’s relatively simple. From the date Gassert submits the approved plat, both boards would have 45 days to take action.

If both school boards accept the plat, consolidation is on.

Failure to take a vote within that 45-day time frame would be the same as rejecting the plan in total.

And, if either board fails to adopt the plan, the consolidation would be terminated — unless petitioners could meet a higher standard to place consolidation on the ballot in both communities.

Twenty-five percent of eligible voters in each district — out of 864 in Wrenshall in the last election in the fall of 2014 and 1,758 in Carlton — would have to sign a petition which would override the school board (or boards) and place the initiative on a public ballot.

Gassert’s plan is to put such an initiative, if it’s needed, on the Aug. 9 primary election ballot, but acknowledges that such a thing may not be possible.

“So if a second ballot initiative is needed, the petition has to be submitted within 60 days of the Commissioner’s approval of the plat,” Gassert said.  “If the state waits until March before replying, that would mean early May to get everything done.”

Gassert’s office would then have to certify signatures and — given the need to print ballots and set up the election — a formal referendum might have to wait until the general election on Nov. 8.

So for the time being, it all rests in the hands of the Department of Education — and once Commissioner Brenda Casselius responds, everything else will be put into motion.