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Carlton School Board discusses future with major cuts looming

Co-curricular activities, transportation and electives were all on the table as options for cuts during discussion at the Committee of the Whole Meeting.

Carlton High School
Carlton High School
Katie Rohman / 2019 file / Pine Journal
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CARLTON — With the long pursued Pre-K-8 tuition agreement no longer on the table, the Carlton School Board weighed its remaining options for the future of the district during a long-range planning discussion at its Monday, Jan. 10, committee of the whole meeting.

The meeting yielded few concrete plans to explore, as a one-site Pre-K-12 option is viewed unfavorably by the Minnesota Department of Education due to declining enrollment, cost and square footage available, according to Superintendent John Engstrom.

A $23.5 million K-12 building referendum was put to a vote in 2017 and defeated with 71% of residents voting against the measure. Enrollment numbers have continued to decline in the four years since, adding additional obstacles.

Consolidation with Wrenshall had been an option explored numerous times by the board and was broached once more by board member Ann Gustafson as a possible plan to pursue.

However, the Minnesota Legislature failed to pass an amendment to a law that would have allowed consolidating school districts to access enhanced debt equalization. That hurdle halted previous discussions between the school districts. Neither board has chosen to revive consolidation efforts in the time since.

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Board Treasurer Tim Hagenah expressed his doubts about a consolidation plan due to the inability of officials to formulate an agreement that’s beneficial to both sides.

“I don’t think anybody on this board that I’ve sat with over 20 years was really ever against consolidation. It was all about having a plan that was put together that was going to be suitable for both districts and communities,” Hagenah said. “And it just hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it will happen.”

The board members, while unable to agree upon a plan for the district to pursue, were unanimous in their agreement that cuts need to be made to combat the district's burgeoning deficit. Engstrom projects the shortfall to be in the range of $650,000-$700,000 this year.

Co-curriculars, transportation and electives were all designated as possible areas to cut. The only expenses completely off the table for cuts were core curriculum subjects.

Athletics and student organizations all fall under the umbrella of co-curricular activities. The cost-benefits of eliminating all co-curriculars would provide roughly $150,000 in savings for the district, according to Engstrom, in discussions with Carlton District Business Manager Norman Nelis.

“We spent about somewhere in the range of $200,000. We get back through student fees and gate receipts and other things somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000. So, it’s a net expense of somewhere around $150,000, give or take for co-curriculars,” Engstrom said.

Cutting back on bus routes as a way to lessen transportation costs was another option discussed. Engstrom cautioned the board that such a move could backfire, however.

“(It can be) kind of a rabbit hole, because then you tell somebody that instead of being on the bus for 40 minutes, now they’re going to be on the bus for an hour. And then as a result of that, they say,'Well the heck with you, I’m not going to be here then.' So the savings that you realized by cutting routes, you end up with a net gain of very little,” Engstrom explained.

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Board Vice Chair Sam Ojibway brought up the possibility of switching to a four-day school week, a model that has been used by the Lake Superior School District for Two Harbors and Silver Bay Schools since 2010 in efforts to trim transportation and energy costs. It took three attempts by officials there to receive state approval for the altered schedule.

Due to the differences geographically between the two districts, Engstrom expressed doubt about the possibility of the state giving the green light for such a change. The action, much like the transportation cuts idea, has the potential to backfire.

“Especially at the elementary level, I don’t know that that would necessarily gain us any kids because we might have parents say, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do on the fifth day?’” Engstrom said.

In response, Ojibway suggested that the new schedule could apply only to middle and high school students, with elementary school students maintaining their normal five-day school week — an option that Engstrom agreed to investigate further.

The board will reconvene for a regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18. Ahead of the next committee of the whole meeting, scheduled for Feb. 14, Engstrom said he plans to meet with Nelis to come up with areas where cuts could take place and calculate the savings associated with such cuts.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONCARLTON SCHOOLS
Jake Przytarski is a reporter for the Cloquet Pine Journal covering a mix of news and sports.
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