Only a handful of people braved the wind and rain Monday, Oct. 21, to learn more and weigh in on the consolidation plans for Carlton and Wrenshall school districts.

The meeting at Wrenshall School drew about 20 residents, but there were nearly as many school board members, consultants and support staff on hand to present options for consolidation between the two tiny districts.

Two construction plans, which vary slightly in cost and scope, would pour approximately $24 million into Wrenshall School and nearly $10 million into the South Terrace Elementary School building. The location of a new bus garage and multi-use, artificial turf football field and track have not yet been determined, but are estimated to cost $5 million total.

Most residents at the meeting were receptive to the proposals, though many were hesitant to say they would definitely vote for a referendum as presented.

Even Wrenshall resident Tony Sheda, who has vehemently opposed three previous failed school referendums, said he was “trying to keep an open mind” about the proposal and wanted to learn more about the “nuts and bolts” of the plan.

Sheda also questioned the School Board about its plan to issue a $9.3 million health and safety bond to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and make fire suppression system upgrades.

The costs of the bond would be spread out over taxpayers of each district beginning in 2022 under a proposal detailed during a Oct. 7 meeting in Carlton.

The Wrenshall school building would need up to $24 million in repairs in renovations to accommodate additional students if the district consolidates with Carlton. (Pine Journal file)
The Wrenshall school building would need up to $24 million in repairs in renovations to accommodate additional students if the district consolidates with Carlton. (Pine Journal file)

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

Other residents questioned the way enhanced debt equalization could help the consolidated district pay for nearly half of the renovations. Enhanced debt equalization — also called “super debt equalization” — would require the consolidated district to purchase the full bond amount, but the state of Minnesota would pay up to 46% of the annual construction bond payment for the district. The funding is 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 need to change the legislation to make school consolidations eligible to receive funding. A referendum vote has been delayed until after the end of the legislature’s session in May so board members and administrators can lobby legislators to make the change.

Carlton commitment questioned

Wrenshall resident Dan Conley questioned the commitment of the Carlton board as it continues to explore options with other neighboring districts, particularly Cloquet.

“Is the Carlton School Board on board with the two-site option and working with Wrenshall?” Conley asked. “It seems like everybody goes all in and all of a sudden they change their mind and we’re back where we started again ... I hear rumors that part of the Carlton School Board wants to go to Cloquet and this or that. What I want to know is the Carlton School Board committed to this transformation with Wrenshall?”

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman said the Carlton board is “looking very seriously” at the two-site option with Wrenshall, but is also considering “other options.”

Carlton has been exploring a number of other options, including a tuition agreement with Cloquet to close Carlton High School and send its 9-12 students to Cloquet.

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)

Carman said the Carlton board would use feedback it receives at its own community meetings Thursday, Oct. 24, and Monday, Oct. 28, as well as its Committee of the Whole meeting Nov. 7 to decide the best path forward. The boards will hold a joint meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 12.

“I think I can say the Carlton community shares the Wrenshall community’s desire to bring closure to this,” Carman said. “Everybody wants to know and we know that it does cause a lot of stress and anxiety for students, parents and community members.”

Conley said he supports the two-site proposal presented Monday, but it is “disrespectful” for the Carlton board to negotiate with Wrenshall while still making overtures to other districts.

Wrenshall Board Chair Matthew Laveau thanked the residents who attended Monday, but said more input from the community is essential as the two districts continue to work toward consolidation.

“This is very important. This is the first meeting that we’ve done and we need the community — both communities — to come out and voice their opinions and support for whatever direction they’d like to see the schools move forward in,” Laveau said. “I appreciate those that come out tonight, but we need a better turnout than this.”

Upcoming meetings

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

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

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

7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7 — Carlton School Board Committee of the Whole meeting at Carlton High School.

6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12 — Carlton-Wrenshall Full Joint Board meets at Wrenshall School.