About 40 people filed into Carlton's South Terrace Elementary School gym Tuesday, July 9, for a joint meeting between the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards regarding the future of the districts.

The boards have debated the issue of consolidation for decades, with little or no progress.

All board members touted the potential benefits for students of expanded collaboration between the districts and working toward a single, consolidated district.

The projected low enrollment numbers for 2019-20 — 435 students in Carlton and 368 in Wrenshall — limit the number of activities and electives available to students. A combined district would expand the opportunities available to students.

“This is a big step — us meeting together — not only for both of our boards, but for the community to see we are willing to work together,” Carlton board member Sam Ojibway said. “We’re more alike than we are different. ... I think our schools combining is the right choice.”

The districts have a cooperative cross-country team, and in the coming school year, they will also combine for football and several Carlton students will take a construction class at Wrenshall.

A combined district with approximately 800 students would make it one of the larger districts in the area, with just Cloquet and Esko having larger enrollment.

Carlton School Board Vice Chair Anne Gustafson said she sees benefits in the number of classes available for students and the depth available with teachers better able to prepare with more sections of a single subject.

“I guess from an educational standpoint, I agree that it’s good to have those opportunities to go to classes that are more individualized,” Gustafson said. “But I also think from a teacher perspective, it allows us to hone our instruction so you have a few less preps and you can spend a little more time investing into the subject matter.”

Boards divided on facilities

About 40 people filed into the gym at South Terrace Elementary School for a joint meeting between the Wrenshall and Carlton school boards. (Jamey Malcomb/Pine Journal)
About 40 people filed into the gym at South Terrace Elementary School for a joint meeting between the Wrenshall and Carlton school boards. (Jamey Malcomb/Pine Journal)

While the boards are generally supportive of the idea of consolidation, there is disagreement on the vision for the facilities in each district.

Carlton High School and the building in Wrenshall, which houses the entire district, each need approximately $15 million in renovations.

Both buildings are “structurally sound,” according to Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto and Wrenshall Vice Chair Janaki Fisher-Merritt, but both are in need of significant air quality improvements. Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman said a “minimal amount” of asbestos remains in the building.

The Carlton County Board of Commissioners recently approached the Carlton School Board about the possibility of acquiring the high school for the county’s new law enforcement complex. Lehto said that while the boards have talked, the county hasn't provided a timeline for possibly acquiring the facility.

South Terrace Elementary School recently had a number of health and safety improvements — replacing the heating, air conditioning and ventilation system, installing a fire suppression system and removing the remaining asbestos — as part of a $5.5 million bond approved by the Carlton School Board in November 2017.

Both districts have been denied additional money by voters in the past two years, most recently in Wrenshall, where a $14.4 million referendum failed in May.

The entire Wrenshall School Board, as well as Carlton School Board members Jennifer Chmielewski and Gustafson, support moving forward with two sites: an elementary school in Carlton and a middle and high school in Wrenshall.

Other members of the Carlton School Board, Tim Hagenah and Ojibway, support one site. Sue Karp said she wants more information about the costs of each option before making a decision.

Lehto is supportive of consolidating K-8, but wants to collaborate with other districts at the high school level.

Fisher-Merritt warned that regardless of which plan is chosen, it will cost taxpayers more money.

“I think it’s important to understand that for the most part, consolidation does not save people money,” Fisher-Merritt said. “It doesn’t end up with people having lower taxes — it just doesn’t. It means we can offer kids different and better opportunities for resources we have, but it’s not like it’s going to save money.”

Several board members support continued talks by the boards, tours of the districts’ facilities and potentially developing a survey of both districts' residents to get a better sense of what the communities support.

Wrenshall Board Chair Matthew Laveau said despite the disagreement over facilities, the time is right to move forward with consolidation.

“I’d like to see us get some community input and then really sit down and work at this,” Laveau said. “I’ve done this five times now and we really need to move forward and accomplish consolidation.”