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Carlton School Board split on tuition agreement vote, fails to pass motion

A deadlocked 3-3 vote by the Carlton School Board marks the end of the proposed Pre-K-8 tuition agreement with Cloquet Public Schools.

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

Following a lengthy exploration process between the Carlton and Cloquet school districts, the hopes for a tuition agreement came to a halt at the Monday, Dec. 20, Carlton School Board meeting after the motion failed to reach a majority vote for passage.

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


Board Chair Julianne Emerson, treasurer Tim Hagenah and Sue Karp voted in favor of the motion, while Vice-Chair Sam Ojibway and board members Eryn Szymczak and Ann Gustafson issued the dissenting votes in a 3-3 tie.

The failed motion marks the end of the road for tuition agreement discussions with Cloquet, which began in late February. The Pre-K-8 tuition agreement became the optimal long-range planning option explored by the board after consolidation efforts with Wrenshall fell through.

The biggest hurdle to the consolidation plan stemmed from the Minnesota Legislature failing to pass an amendment to a law that would have allowed consolidating school districts to access enhanced debt equalization.

The change in state law would have paid for nearly half of the estimated $40 million in upgrades and renovations at Wrenshall and South Terrace Elementary School. Debt sharing disagreements between the two districts ensued in the wake of the legislative decision, and the option was shelved by the Carlton School Board in June.

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Emerson, in addressing another unsuccessful attempt by the board to alleviate the mounting financial issues the district faces, did not mince words when sharing her frustrations with the failed vote.

“On a personal note, I would also like to state that I’m deeply disappointed in this outcome. This was an opportunity missed,” Emerson said. “For those of you who waited for months to speak against this potential long-range plan, I strongly recommend you consider running for the school board when the seats come up, and I believe there will be several open.”

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.

The decision by board members to vote against the agreement was also called into question.

“I struggle with understanding how you could believe the decision you made is in the best long-term interest of the district as a whole, and I’m anxious to hear your rationale,” Emerson said.

Szymczak and Ojibway were silent throughout the meeting, and offered no remarks before or after the votes were cast. Gustafson cited her fear of families leaving en masse, and the resulting impact it would have on the Pre-K-8 grade levels.

“I am apprehensive about the lack of fiscal budget that’s left for our students that are here, especially with the overwhelming number of families that say they’re going to leave … it has the potential to collapse in on itself,” Gustafson said.

What happens next

In the wake of the failed vote, the Carlton School District finds itself back at square one with pressing financial challenges that need to be addressed. The district is, and has for quite some time, been operating on a deficit budget. This year’s adopted budget anticipates a $930,000 deficit, according to school board documents.

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An operating levy, if passed at the earliest available time in November 2022, is capped at $400,000, leaving over $500,000 that would need to be cut, the documents show. The overwhelming shortfall, by and large, stems from troubling enrollment trends within the district.

The Carlton School District has seen a rapid decline in enrollment among its resident students over the past 15 years, according to school board documents. Resident students attending the district peaked over the 15-year span in 2007-2008, when 516 of the 797 total resident students (66%) were enrolled in the district.

The number has since dropped to 246 of 627 (39%) in 2020-2021, which means that there are more resident students open enrolled in other districts than attend the Carlton School District, the documents show. The trend has been ongoing since the 2016-2017 school year.

Data compiled for the 2019-2020 school year consisting of 31 regional districts showed that Carlton had the highest percentage (60%) of resident students leaving the district, with Nett Lake being the only other to eclipse the 50% mark (52.1%). The average was 24.3%.

Reversing the trend presents a daunting challenge with the sweeping cuts that are due to be made. Superintendent John Engstrom, while not suggesting or recommending them, gave examples of what trimming $500,000 off the budget would look like leading up to the vote. Eliminating all in-person elective courses for the middle and high schools, for example, would save roughly $100,000-125,000.

The examples may not be the direction the board chooses to go, but tough decisions will have to be made, according to Emerson.

“I will expect that there will not be a shred of complaint when it comes time for this board to make the reductions in staff and programs, and those reductions are just around the corner,” Emerson said.

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Board OKs fiscal year 2022 tax levy

Following the truth in taxation meeting presentation held on Dec. 13, the Carlton School Board took action on the proposed levy by passing it with a unanimous vote at its Monday meeting.

The $1.615 million levy marks a 2.84% (roughly $45,000) increase from the previous fiscal year, which was set at $1.571 million. The tax levy accounts for 25% of the district’s revenue budget. The remaining 75% of the budget comes from a combination of federal, state, local and other local sources of revenue.

The roughly 3% increase to the 2022 tax levy is due in part to a $33,000 increase in non-voter approved debt service, which accounts for nearly 46% of the levy.

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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