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Carlton voters say 'no' to school building referendum

More than a dozen observers, many of them Carlton School Board members or staff, watch intently as county employees count the building referendum votes by hand Tuesday night. Tyler Northey/Pine Journal

Residents of the Carlton School District sent a strong message Tuesday when 71 percent voted against a $23.6 million proposal to create a combined preK-12 school for Carlton students at the district's South Terrace site. An even larger number (73.4 percent) voted no to a second question that would have approved an additional $3.3 million for an auditorium and improved athletic facilities.

The results of the Carlton vote were very similar to a school building referendum vote held in Wrenshall in April.

Superintendent Gwen Carman was disappointed with the vote but was looking on the bright side by Wednesday morning.

"The board made the decision to ask the voters if they wanted to invest in remodeling the elementary school and building a new high school and the voters said no," Carman told the Pine Journal. "But we're very proud that we elicited a lot of conversation about education and we feel we were very transparent throughout the process."

Supporters of the referendum said it was necessary to replace outdated or failing facilities, some of which are more than 100 years old, and said improved buildings might keep more students from transferring to other districts. Opponents raised concerns about the tax burden, questioned the size of the proposed addition and thought the district should worry more about low standardized test scores for students.

Some critics hope the vote will encourage talk of different solutions to the facilities issue in Carlton.

"Now is the time to come together for the communities of Carlton and Wrenshall school districts," said Ken Witte, an involved community member who didn't support the building referendum. "The communities have spoken. How the school boards want to proceed will be interesting. Do they listen to the communities or not? We all want strong education. We all have a great place to live.

"Consolidation is still at the forefront, I believe, for the majority of voters," Witte added, referring to the idea of consolidating the school district with Wrenshall or even Cloquet school districts. "We voted for our school boards, but they can't do it on their own and need to listen for direction from their communities openly."

In recent years, the Carlton School District went through two rounds of talks and research regarding consolidation with nearby Wrenshall School District, which sits some three miles away. Discussion basically ended in a stalemate both times, with both school boards agreeing that a single preK-12 facility made more sense, but each wanting that facility in their own community.

In April of this year, Wrenshall School District residents voted against (with 250 "yes" votes and 657 "no" votes) to a $12.5 million bond referendum for school renovations and an expansion to the existing preK-12 facility.

Here's how Tuesday's numbers break down for the two different election questions regarding Carlton school facilities:

Question 1 asked voters to approve $23.6 million in bonds to construct a grades 6-12 addition and make improvements to the existing elementary school at the South Terrace site. A total of 475 voted "yes," while 1,202 voted "no."

Question 2 (which was contingent on the first question passing) asked voters to approve an additional $3.3 million in bonds to construct an auditorium, improve athletic spaces and make other site improvements. A total of 427 voted "yes," while 1,236 voted "no."

Election data indicates 1,203 voters were at the polls Tuesday, while 480 absentee ballots were cast at the Carlton County Courthouse in the weeks leading up to the election. According to Carlton County Assessor Paul Gassert, there are 2,651 registered voters in the Carlton School District, so he calculated turnout Tuesday at about 65 percent.

Carlton School District employee Scott Bodin came back to the County Transportation Building just after 8 p.m., because he didn't want to have to wait to find out the results.

"I'm too nervous to sit at home and wait," said Bodin, the head custodian at Carlton High School.

Bodin joined a number of fellow school district employees and school board members who were also waiting for results. More than a dozen people sat in two rows of chairs, watching as the votes were tallied by hand after the polls closed and the absentee ballots arrived from the courthouse.

With a half an hour left until the polls closed, cars and pickup trucks turned into the transportation building parking lot at the rate of about one every 30 or 40 seconds.

"I like to be active and vote, so I made sure I read the pamphlets I got about both sides and tried to make the best decision I could," said Emily Baker, who is new to the area. "It's a good way to practice my rights."

Adam Schubert said he basically voted "to keep my taxes lower," referring to the fact that the school district's portion of residential property taxes were predicted to more than double in most cases if the building referendum passed.

"I don't think they need to spend $27 million in Carlton," he said, referring to the total of the two questions, "especially with a graduating class of like 30 students."

Kim Johnson said he would have voted "yes," but as a seasonal resident who owns property in Carlton County, he wasn't allowed to vote.

"I like education. Education is everything," said Johnson. "I think education is the answer to the problems that we have today."

Carman said the board will meet soon to talk about future plans now that the referendum vote failed. Although facilities are still an issue, particularly at the high school, the district is healthy financially and voters approved an operating levy in November 2016 to support educational costs of the district.

"The school board will be assessing our options for continuing to move forward and keeping Carlton Schools strong," the superintendent said.