Officials from Carlton and Wrenshall continue to discuss plans for consolidation of the two tiny districts, but questions remain.

Katie Hildenbrand of Architectural Resources Inc. in Duluth presented a proposal Monday, Oct. 7, to the two school boards for nearly $40 million in renovations and expansions to Wrenshall School and South Terrace Elementary School.

Wrenshall would see the bulk of the renovations and expansion to become a school for grades 6-12 totaling up to $24.8 million:

  • $8.4 million for a 28,000-square-foot addition for a gym, locker rooms cafeteria and commons area;

  • $5.2 million for accessibility, restroom, wayfinding and interior upgrades; and

  • $9 million for classrooms, project and science labs, music and art upgrades, expanded parking and driveways, and window replacement.

The plans also include $4 million for a new football field on either the Wrenshall or South Terrace campus and $1 million for a new bus garage.

ARI presented options to restore the pool and locker rooms at Wrenshall for $1.5 million and repurpose the existing gym for the school’s career and technical education (CTE) program for $1.9 million. That plan includes $2 million to build a 350-seat auditorium in Wrenshall.

The second option presented would save $1.7 million and would convert the pool and locker rooms to the school’s CTE program and renovate the current gym to a 350- to 400-seat auditorium.

Renovations at South Terrace, which would house the pre-K program as well as kindergarten to fifth grade, total approximately $10 million:

  • $3.7 million to build a 12,500-square-foot gym and locker rooms;

  • $1.9 million for interior upgrades;

  • $1.5 million to build for additional classrooms;

  • $1.2 million to renovate the office and create secure entrances separating the gym and educational areas of the school; and

  • More than $1.5 million to remodel the early childhood education area, bathrooms and expand the parking and playground areas.

Members of the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards heard plans for nearly $10 million in renovations and new construction at South Terrace Elementary School if the districts consolidate. (Pine Journal file)
Members of the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards heard plans for nearly $10 million in renovations and new construction at South Terrace Elementary School if the districts consolidate. (Pine Journal file)

Both districts’ financial adviser, Ehlers, Inc., of Roseville, Minn., estimated the total cost for the bond to be approximately $41.6 million after the planning and financial costs are added. Jodie Zesbaugh of Ehlers said she didn’t provide a cost impact for the full bond amount because both boards indicated they don’t want to move forward with consolidation without enhanced debt equalization — also called “super-debt equalization” by some board members — legislation from the state.

Super-debt equalization would require the consolidated district to take out the full bond amount, but the state of Minnesota would pay 46% of the annual bond payment for the district. The funding is currently only allowed to be used by schools affected by natural disasters, which is how the majority of the new facility in Moose Lake was funded.

The Minnesota Legislature would have to vote to include school consolidations in the program. Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman and Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro testified in St. Paul in favor of making the change when consolidation talks last heated up in 2016. Zesbaugh said the Legislature was “receptive” to the idea, but talks between the districts stalled before legislation was introduced.

Ehlers estimated the tax impact on a residential homestead with super-debt equalization valued at $150,000 would be $196 annually.

Wrenshall plans health and safety bond

The districts will not know if the Legislature approves the super-debt equalization until at least May, meaning the boards are now delaying a referendum vote until at least Aug. 11, 2020.

With the delay, consolidation wouldn’t take place until July 1, 2021, and construction in Wrenshall wouldn’t be finished until 2022.

If consolidation takes place under the current plan, students in grades 6-12 from both schools would spend a year in Carlton High School before moving to the updated facility in Wrenshall for the 2022-23 school year.

However, because there are desperately needed improvements, the Wrenshall board is moving forward with a $9.3 million health and safety bond to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and make fire suppression system upgrades.

The upgrades were included in ARI’s initial plans for the school renovations, but with the delay and the need for the improvements, the Wrenshall board is moving forward with the project immediately. The work for these repairs is scheduled to begin in summer 2020, Wrenshall Vice Chair Janaki Fisher-Merritt said.

The Carlton board passed a similar $5.5 million bond in 2017 to make similar improvements and repairs to South Terrace Elementary School.

If the two districts consolidate the debt from both bonds would be spread across all taxpayers in the district. Currently, Carlton taxpayers pay $689,723 each year in debt service and Wrenshall taxpayers would be taxed an estimated $713,606 annually.

If the debt were combined, Carlton taxpayers would see a slight increase and those in Wrenshall would see a slight decrease in 2022. Carlton taxpayers with a home valued at $150,000 would be taxed $176 in 2022 and Wrenshall taxpayers with a similarly valued home would be taxed $256. In a combined district, a similarly valued home would be taxed $210.

County eyes CHS property for jail expansion

Adding to the consolidation debate is Carlton County’s planned jail expansion.

The county’s preferred site for the expanded jail is where Carlton High School is located.

Carlton County hopes to purchase Carlton High School from the school district to use in the county's planned jail expansion. The county has requested an answer from the Carlton School Board by Dec. 19. (Pine Journal file photo)
Carlton County hopes to purchase Carlton High School from the school district to use in the county's planned jail expansion. The county has requested an answer from the Carlton School Board by Dec. 19. (Pine Journal file photo)

The county has approached the Carlton School Board about the possibility of purchasing the property from the district. The county requested an answer from the district by Dec. 19.

The county would rather go ahead with the jail’s construction by July 1, 2021, but it is willing to wait an extra year for the schools to finish renovations, according to Carman.

Carlton continues to explore other options

Carlton Board Treasurer Tim Hagenah said he would like to hear more details on a pre-K-12 site in Wrenshall.

ARI included a rough estimate for a facility of that type in its presentation. A 176,000-square-foot building would cost approximately $51.4 million based on construction costs of $292 per square foot.

Hagenah said he would like to explore it further after hearing from residents following some reports that renovations to Wrenshall and South Terrace could exceed $47 million. In fact, the only reason the total came down to the current figure is the decision by Wrenshall to move forward with the health and safety bond.

Wrenshall board members further questioned the sincerity of their counterparts when Carlton Board Member Jennifer Chmielewski asked about Carman’s discussions regarding a tuition agreement with Cloquet.

Carman said she had some preliminary discussions with Cloquet Superintendent Michael Cary about the potential to close Carlton High School and send Carlton students in grades 9-12 to Cloquet for high school.

More than 170 students living in Carlton already attend school in Cloquet. Carman said she was doing so at the Carlton board’s direction.

Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto said many residents had contacted her with “sticker shock” over the estimated costs of the facility improvements and asked what other options were available.

Lehto said while the top priority of her board remains consolidating with Wrenshall, the board needs to present multiple options for the taxpayers at public meetings scheduled later in October.

Hagenah termed the discussions with Cloquet as “purely informational.” He said residents that contacted him were also interested in hearing other options besides the two-site model being discussed between the boards.

Upcoming meetings

(All meetings 6 p.m.)

Monday, Oct. 21 — Public meeting regarding consolidation and facility plans at Wrenshall School.

Thursday, Oct. 24 — Public meeting regarding consolidation and facility plans at South Terrace.

Monday. Oct. 28 — Public meeting regarding consolidation and facility plans at Sawyer Community Center.

Tuesday, Oct. 29 — Public meeting regarding consolidation and facility plans at Wrenshall School.