On a day when the Carlton-Wrenshall Raptors held their first practice as a cooperative football team, the two small districts’ school boards met to discuss the possibility of merging.
The meeting Monday, Aug. 12, in Wrenshall, was more sparsely attended than the July 9 meeting in Carlton. Some Carlton School Board members said they need facility plans they can sell to Carlton residents, while Wrenshall’s board sought clarity about Carlton’s intentions.
Prior to the meeting, both board members toured the Wrenshall school building with Wrenshall Vice Chair Janaki Fisher-Merritt showing some of the needed repairs as well as the potential in a combined district.
Fisher-Merritt also said the Wrenshall board is exploring options for a non-voter-approved bond to make needed health and safety repairs such as a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and roof repairs.
The Carlton board passed a similar $5.5 million bond in 2017 to make similar improvements and repairs to South Terrace Elementary School.
The Wrenshall board hasn't decided how much the bond will cost, according to Fisher-Merritt. He also said that the non-voter-approved bond is not the board’s first choice.
“Option 1 is pass a referendum or do something with you guys,” Fisher-Merritt said. “If we do something with you guys, perhaps we can get the state to kick in for some of the things we can’t levy for now.”
Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro also told the room she had spoken with Minnesota Rural Education Association President Fred Nolan. Belcastro said Nolan was prepared to throw the support of MREA behind a consolidated district to secure state funding for school improvements.
Carlton Vice Chair Ann Gustafson told the room her board had discussed a number of different options at the board retreat in July that included building a K-8 school at South Terrace and working out tuition agreements other districts — like Cloquet — for the high school.
Carlton Chair LaRae Lehto said the discussion between the board members was more about a facilities plan for the Carlton it can sell to residents. She said Carlton’s residents have little appetite for paying to remodel a school in Wrenshall as well as expand South Terrace to accept addition students from Wrenshall.
Lehto indicated that South Terrace would need at least four new classrooms — possibly more — in a consolidated district with two sites. Both boards used the estimate of approximately $250,000 to build a single 900-square-foot classroom.
“You’re going to have a significant amount of Carlton taxpayers who say, 'Why am I paying for a school in Wrenshall?’ because they are not looking at it as consolidated,” Lehto said.
While Carlton has a much larger population than Wrenshall, approximately half leave the district through open enrollment. In 2018-19, Carlton had approximately 675 eligible resident students. However, the Minnesota Department of Education reported 328 students left the district through open enrollment — and 171 went to Cloquet.
Wrenshall’s Debra Washenesky said she has used her job working for the 2020 U.S. Census to informally poll local residents about the issue of consolidation and has found broad support.
“I’ve been talking to Wrenshall and Carlton residents,” Washenesky said. “When I am done with the census talk, I put on my School Board hat and ask them for their opinions. Out of every 10 people I talk to — it doesn’t matter if it’s Carlton or Wrenshall — they are for consolidation and seven out of 10 want the two-site option.”
At the end of the meeting, the board members agreed to continue talks and Lehto said both boards needed to plan separate public meetings to hear from residents of both districts.
There is also some support among the boards for expanding the collaboration and cooperation between the schools. The districts currently have cooperative football and cross-country teams. In addition, Carlton students are eligible to take a two- hour construction class at Wrenshall.
The board members also contemplated combining both schools' spring sports in 2020.