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UPDATED: Carlton, Wrenshall schools consolidation process faces short timeline

Two events which will prove very important to the proposed Carlton/Wrenshall school district consolidation will be held on consecutive nights next week.

The Carlton School Board will meet at 7 p.m. Monday, April 4, as a Committee of the Whole and the Wrenshall board will meet the following evening, April 5 (Editor's note: This special consolidation meeting has been changed to 7:30 p.m. April 12) to discuss tax implications of different proposed building and remodeling plans for consolidation of the two districts. Both meetings are open to the public.

Even though the petition put forward by members of the local group “Better Together” calls explicitly for a two-site solution to merger issues, superintendents of both districts noted last week that the ad hoc study committee formed by the two districts has focused more on a PK-12 option in one of the two towns — and the school boards may consider asking voters to build an entirely new school in one of the two communities.

“The boards have to vote on the two-site solution, but they are still stuck on a one-site option,” said Better Together’s Ann Gustafson, a Carlton city councilor and co-author of the petition. “The petition was meant to get the issue back on the table as it (consolidation) was dismissed last spring without success.”

Petition co-author Mandi Rosebrock explained that the group picked the two-site solution because it’s cheaper and doesn’t exclude either town, while still allowing consolidation to occur next year. The plat does not stipulate which school should be used for elementary or secondary grades, allowing the boards some flexibility.

“We have requested that the superintendents include costs of the two-site renovation of Wrenshall School and Carlton's South Terrace Elementary as an option in their facility committee discussions which we hope will be presented again next week,” Rosebrock said. “The initial numbers from LHB [consulting firm] last year indicated that minor modifications to each of these existing facilities in a two-site plan would cost substantially less than modifying or building new at either site to house all students at one location.”

Gustafson said she is looking at the current discussions about one-site solutions as a “glass half-full” situation.

“I’m glad to see the boards at the table and talking,” she said. “I’m happy to hear the news. Wherever they decide to put buildings, it will really benefit both communities.”

That said, the talk of a single-site solution is leading to rumors in the communities, Gustafson said, and the idea of one community having the entire school setup is a cause for mild concern.

“We are concerned about that,” she said. “It’s the gamble the boards take and it would really be too bad if they couldn’t agree. We are really at a turning point and it would be huge for both districts and communities. Whether a single site is in Wrenshall or Carlton — or consolidated but separate elementary and secondary schools on two sites — it would make both communities stronger.”

Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro said last week that the idea of choosing one community for a single site, which would offer greater economies and other advantages, was “the elephant in the room.”

“It’s always a worry,” Gustafson said. “I hope they (the school boards) can have enough long-term vision to see past the initial difficulty of choosing a site. We hope that common sense will prevail.”

Gustafson noted that school closures are always an emotional topic.  

“People know that this isn’t a fun thing right now and deciding who is going to get what is never a fun process. It is very difficult and polarizing to communities.”

But that said, the idea of a single-site solution means voters in Carlton might have to help approve another levy if the decision is made to seek funds to build a new facility.

“I can’t see them approving another operating [referendum] and a building levy,” Gustafson said. “But if the districts don’t consolidate it might mean very difficult times.”

Rosebrock pointed out that enrollment at both districts is affected by open enrollment.

“With the number of resident students open-enrolling out of Carlton exceeding 50 percent, Carlton needs a solid backup plan if they do not move forward with consolidation,” Rosebrock said. “Also, if for some reason the number of non-resident students open-enrolling into Wrenshall — currently around 30 percent from West Duluth — should ever decrease, they would also need a good backup plan. Consolidation just seems to make sense on many levels.”

Another underlying issue for the communities is how to comply with state law, which dictates that school boards must act within 45 days of a combined district plat being approved. That occurred on March 7, so the districts have until April 21 to vote on the two-site solution approved in the plat.

To further complicate things, the plat deadline falls at the same time as a deadline to request state funding from the state legislature for a newly consolidated district.

“Basically the boards need to tell the state if they are serious about consolidation in whatever form — one site, two sites or some variant — and at the same time, they have to respond (or fail to respond) to the Minnesota Department of Education as to whether or not they approve the plat,” Rosebrock said.

That means after two public meetings, the boards will have less than three weeks to agree on a plan which both boards can pass in order for the consolidation to take place.  That doesn’t give them much time — and it gives taxpayers even less time to understand their options, since the ad hoc committee’s meetings have been held quietly.

“I wish there was more time to get information out to people,” Gustafson said. “But we have to play the hand that we are dealt.  Already there are rumors going around in Carlton about property taxes and they aren’t true because nothing has been decided. We need to take a step back, keep a level head and look at the information.”

Still, Gustafson said the shortened time frame could have been avoided had the districts consolidated last year.

“This was in [the school boards’] laps last year,” she said. “Really, people had a chance to mull it over then, and hopefully the boards can make better decisions [now].

“I don’t envy them,” Gustafson added. “They hold a lot in their hands and it’s a huge responsibility that they didn’t think they were signing up for when they ran for office. But you never know what you’ll be asked to decide.”

Gustafson also noted that she has informed the Carlton board of another option in the process, which she said they haven’t always seemed willing to entertain.

“They do have an option to put the whole idea to a public vote,” she said. “If they aren’t comfortable with making a decision, they can put it on the ballot and let the people decide.”

And if the effort should fail a second time, Gustafson said the issue might still not be decided.

“[Consolidation] can always be re-petitioned with different site options,” she said. “School boards have positions turning over this November, and boards can bring up the issue themselves. There are other ways to keep the idea going.”

Pine Journal Editor Jana Peterson contributed to this story.