Carlton School Board addresses tuition agreement speculation
As rumors swirl locally of a tuition agreement with Cloquet being a 'done deal,' the Carlton School Board members clarified that it's simply not the case.
Ahead of the second tuition agreement subcommittee meeting scheduled for Monday, Oct. 25 at Cloquet, the Carlton School Board addressed the harsh realities of where the district stands financially during its Monday, Oct. 18 meeting. Board members spent additional time debunking rumors that a tuition agreement with Cloquet is already a "done deal."
Carlton Board Treasurer Tim Hagenah spoke at length about the issues the district would face if officials pursued a Pre-K-12 school referendum and the reasons for exploring a tuition agreement with Cloquet.
Leaders from the school districts are in talks to form an agreement that would allow students in grades 9-12 to attend high school in Cloquet. Students in grades Pre-K-8 would remain in Carlton and attend South Terrace Elementary School.
Hagenah made it clear that while the board is exploring a tuition agreement, it’s still not a done deal.
“I’ve run into people saying ‘Oh I hear this is all a done deal. Pre-K-8, that’s what you’re doing is a Pre-K-8.’ It’s not a done deal,” Hagenah said. ”It’s just another option or a thought that we’re trying to go through and see if that’s going to be the best thing for the kids or the people of this district.”
Board Chair Julianne Emerson echoed Hagenah's sentiments regarding the rumors swirling locally.
“This board has not come out and made a decision, and when we do make that decision, it will be in an agenda item and public comment will be taken and we will hear you,” Emerson said. “So, rest assured, that has not been done yet.”
All of the board members were in agreement that a Pre-K-12 school, in a vacuum, is the best case scenario, but acknowledged that the financial realities the district is facing make that pursuit an uphill battle.
“I think everyone on this side of the table agrees that if we were talking about continuing forward as a K-12 with an operating structure that looks pretty much like the current structure, or past structure, we’d be all in,” Carlton Superintendent John Engstrom said. “When you start talking about a K-12 moving forward, that’s not what we’re talking about.”
Engstrom highlighted the difficult decisions that loom at the district’s current pace.
“In order to continue as a K-12, we need to make staffing cuts. And the amount of staffing reductions required would make the operating structure unrecognizable from its current form. And that point just cannot be overstated,” Engstrom said. “Carlton as we know it as a K-12 is not sustainable. I wish that wasn’t the case with all my heart, but the math is still the math.”
The Carlton School District is currently deficit spending in the neighborhood of $1 million. If district officials were to pursue another operating levy referendum to help offset costs in November 2022 — the earliest point in time possible — the money, if approved by voters, would be applied to the 2023-2024 school year.
Even with the additional revenue from an operating levy referendum, it would still require more than $500,000 be cut to operate at revenue neutral, officials said. The original operating levy would also need to be renewed by voters no later than November 2024.
“If that was the chosen path, if the referendum failed, the consequences could be catastrophic,” Engstrom said. “Simultaneously, the board would need to allocate money for needed improvements and maintenance to the building. Those moneys would come from long term facility maintenance funds, which has been mentioned before do not need voter approval. But they do add to the individual tax burden.”
Open enrollment statistics from the 2020-2021 school year also add to the financial burden with more resident Carlton high school students attending Cloquet High School (84) than Carlton High School (76). At the K-8 level, the Carlton School District educates 270 of its resident students (56%).
The Carlton School Board will hold a committee of the whole meeting on Nov. 8 and a finance committee meeting on Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m., prior to the regular school board meeting at 7 p.m.
A few members of the public made comments in support of the K-12 option at the meeting Monday, which prompted Hagenah and other board members to encourage residents to make their voices heard.
“If there’s really a hard, solid number of people out there that want the K-12, then I think it’s time that people get up and really voice their opinions on it, instead of just a small group of people,” Hagenah said. “We’re just getting a very small sample of individuals and their thoughts and concerns about things. But there’s 2,400 or 2,600 voters that would vote on this, and we need that support for a K-12 if it’s there.”