Carlton community voices opposition to tuition agreement

Alumni, staff members and students shared their disapproval of the proposed Pre-K-8 tuition agreement during Monday's public hearing.

File: Carlton High School
Carlton High School Katie Rohman / 2019 file / Pine Journal

A standing-room only crowd gathered at the Carlton High School cafeteria on Monday, Dec. 13, for the Pre-K-8 tuition agreement public hearing, which provided community members an opportunity to voice their opinions on the proposal to the school board.

Carlton Superintendent John Engstrom gave board members and public attendees a break down of the proposed tuition agreement draft between the Carlton and Cloquet districts.

Students, staff members and Carlton High School alumni all took to the podium to give their remarks. The 34 total speakers were unanimous in their opposition to the tuition agreement, which would shut down Carlton High School and send its current and future students to Cloquet High School.

Speaking time was limited to three minutes, but impassioned speaker Laura Nilsen, who currently serves as the Carlton High School athletic director in addition to her role as youth counselor at numerous other area districts, went well beyond the allotted time as she shared her thoughts on the impact the move would have on students.

“The current plan to send students to Cloquet will not make them stronger. It will not create more positive outcomes, and it will definitely not create resiliency. Instead, it’s going to break many of them down,” Nilsen said.

A Carlton High School alumna, Nilsen closed her remarks by expressing her frustration at how the district has gotten to this point after failing to pass numerous building referendums, including the most recent effort in 2017.


“I feel shame for our community. I feel shame for those community members who did not step up when this started,” Nilsen said. “I feel shame for those people who did not have a voice and chose not to speak their voice and hid behind the doors. We are here because of that situation.”

The failed $23.5 million building referendum in 2017 would have built a high school addition at South Terrace Elementary School to form a Pre-K-12 school and renovated the elementary school. The referendum was shot down by voters, with 71% of Carlton School District residents voting against the proposal.

Carlton School District's fiscal year 2021 audit showed a decrease in both resident and non-resident students served.

If approved by voters, the referendum would have increased taxes $432 per year for the owner of a home worth $150,000. Carlton alumni Barb and Al Soukkala addressed that in their comments, apologizing on behalf of the community for not putting education first by failing to pass the referendum.

“Our priorities are different today, and it’s sad that the school’s not the number one priority,” Al Soukkala said.

“I, too, apologize to the kids from our generation and not only our generation, all the generations, because they would not pass a referendum to build a school,” Barb Soukkala, who is a Carlton teacher and volleyball coach, said. “We take more priorities in our cell phones,and our DirectTV and everything else, but we don’t want to pay $200-300 more for taxes.”

Current Carlton High School students formed the overwhelming majority of speakers at the hearing. Board Chair Julianne Emerson instructed students to only give their first name and grade when they spoke.

Under the agreement, Carlton High School students would attend Cloquet High School next year, a reality that many would not welcome if the measure passes at the Monday, Dec. 20, school board meeting.

“I am not in support of going to Cloquet at all,” Kayla, a Carlton High School freshman, said. “I would not want to go. I thrive in a small school because I know everyone.”


Kennedy, a Carlton High School junior, expressed her apprehension about going to Cloquet, and said she would have a difficult time making the varsity sports teams.

“I may not be able to play sports next year. I don’t have a chance at Cloquet,” she said.

The question of whether or not elementary and middle school students would stay with the Carlton School District should the tuition agreement pass was a common concern among many of the speakers.

Amanda Radtke, an academic, social and emotional learning advisor at Carlton High School and parent of a district student, asked members of the board to reach out to parents of South Terrace Elementary School students to gauge their interest in continuing to receive an education within the district if the agreement is passed.

Radtke went on to share her doubts about being able to keep those students.

“My best guess, and I hope I’m wrong, is that those kids will leave,” Radtke said. “I am personally aware of at least one family who’s pulling their kids next year, because if it goes to K-8, they are not willing to stay here.”

An abbreviated public hearing will take place at the board meeting on Monday, Dec. 20. Tentatively, the board plans to add the tuition agreement vote as a resolution at the meeting. Pending the outcome of the vote, the Cloquet School Board would hold its own vote in January.

Jake Przytarski is a reporter for the Cloquet Pine Journal covering a mix of news and sports.
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