Nearly 90 people filled the gym at South Terrace Elementary School on Thursday, Oct. 24, for the second of four public meetings regarding consolidation of the Carlton and Wrenshall school districts.

The response in Carlton revealed a community deeply divided on the future of the school district, with many looking for options other than those presented to the Wrenshall community during an Oct. 21 meeting.

Instead of just two different configurations for remodeling Wrenshall School and South Terrace Elementary School at a cost of approximately $40 million — with a restored swimming pool in Wrenshall and one without — the crowd also heard cost estimates for:

  • A pre-K-12 facility in Wrenshall for $42.5 million;

  • A pre-K-12 facility at South Terrace for $46.8 million;

  • A Carlton-only pre-K-12 school at South Terrace for $35.6 million;

  • A Carlton-only pre-K-8 school at South Terrace, with a tuition agreement for students in grades 9-12 to attend Cloquet or other districts, for $15.2 million;

  • Dissolving the district.

RELATED STORY: Low turnout for first Wrenshall School consolidation public meeting

All options for consolidating the Carlton and Wrenshall districts have tax impacts that factor in enhanced debt equalization aid from the state of Minnesota. Enhanced 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 following flood damage in 2012.

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 lawmakers to make the change.

The tax impacts on a residential homestead in Carlton valued at $150,000 range from $180 to $218 per year for all options except the Carlton-only pre-K-12 facility.

If the Carlton district remains independent, it isn’t eligible for state aid — regardless of legislative changes — so the tax impact of that pre-K-12 option skyrockets to $610 per year on a similarly valued home.

Dissolving the district would require the Minnesota Department of Education, Carlton County Board of Commissioners and adjoining school districts to work together to redraw the district boundaries. Carlton residents would still be taxed to pay the existing debt of the district that amounts to approximately $690,000 a year — or about $176 per year on a house valued at $150,000.

Greg Crowe of Ehlers Inc., the district’s financial adviser, said payments would continue at that amount until 2024. After 2024, some of the debt would be repaid and the district’s annual debt service would drop by approximately half.

Some residents at the Carlton meeting voiced concerns all the options presented weren’t also presented to residents at the Wrenshall meeting. Many wanted more information on a one-site option in Carlton and the Carlton-only pre-K-12 option at South Terrace.

A one-site option wasn’t seriously discussed during facility committee meetings in September because the boards couldn't agree on a site, according to Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto. She said the options for both one-site consolidation proposals and the Carlton-only options were for “cost comparisons only.”

Further compressing Carlton’s timeline is the county’s interest in purchasing the Carlton High School property for its jail expansion project. The county board has asked the school district to make a decision by Dec. 19. Early appraisal efforts estimate the district would receive a maximum of $1 million from the sale and the money would be put toward programming — not toward facility renovations, according to Lehto.

After the presentation in Carlton, residents were asked to write their feedback on Post-it notes and place them on a poster hung on one side of the gym. Based on the notes, the Carlton-only option garnered more support from residents at the meeting than either two-site option or the tuition agreement proposal.

While neither one-site option was a choice for those at the meeting, several more hung notes to the side of the posters asking for more information on consolidation with a single site at South Terrace.

Andy Tuttle, a Carlton resident with children attending school in Esko, said he “didn’t care” where the school was located, but said the cost savings of operating one building instead of two was worth the added initial cost.

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman said she calculated some preliminary estimates and a consolidated district could save a minimum of $180,000 a year by avoiding duplicate expenses caused by operating two facilities.

Other residents questioned the Wrenshall School Board’s plan to issue a $9.3 million bond to make health and safety improvements to its building, which is pushing the districts toward a two-site solution.

“If we were to pursue a single-site option at either here in Carlton and Wrenshall had already proceeded with their $9.3 million non-voter approved levy, we would as a school district still need to pay for that for a building we are not using,” Carlton resident Timothy Soden-Groves said. “If we were to pursue a single-site option in Wrenshall, then the $5 million that we put into this building last year would still need to be paid for. These are hidden costs that I don’t think these charts show.”

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)

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

Soden-Groves said he would vote for the two-site plan proposed at the meeting, but would like to see the boards “trim” the spending.

Carlton teacher Ryan Schmidt said he was fervently in favor of the 2017 referendum that would have built a pre-K-12 school on the South Terrace site. The community spoke on that option, he said, when 72% of voters said no to the proposal.

Schmidt said he now favors the two-site options proposed and believes the students at both schools support consolidation and want to see some clarity on the schools’ future.

“I have really come to like the two-site plan,” Schmidt said. “I think we’ll be able to offer our kids more than we can now and I think that it’s something that may have a chance to pass … The kids have figured it out — as adults we have to make some decisions. We have students leaving every year because of the indecision and not knowing what’s going to happen.”

Tactics questioned

About 30 minutes into the meeting, a group of 15-20 athletes from the Carlton-Wrenshall cooperative football and cross-country teams walked into the meeting wearing Raptors clothing.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, Stephanie Gibson said she was “furious” because a “stranger” was at football and cross-country practice handing out fliers encouraging players to come to the meeting.

“The only reason I am here tonight is because I am concerned about the safety of my children and I am losing trust in this board,” Gibson said. “A pro-consolidation man came to my kids’ athletic practice in Wrenshall, told them how great it would be to consolidate, passed them out information and told them to bring it home. There is no identifying information on it and my kids don’t know who this man is.”

Carlton resident Kent Hammitt said he distributed the fliers at practices that encouraged students to attend the meeting and show their support for consolidation. Hammitt said he volunteers at both schools and knows most of the students on both teams.

Hammitt said the fliers were intended to demonstrate student support for consolidation and spur the Carlton board to action.

“The purpose of the flier is to get the board to finally go and talk to the kids and get them involved in this decision and listen to what they want,” Hammitt said. “But none of them bother to do it … I’m sick of the boards sitting there dilly-dallying and delay things; just do what needs to be done. It’s so simple — talk to the kids.”

Hammitt advocates fervently for consolidation and said both boards should vote to combine immediately and sort out facility plans in the aftermath.

The athletes at the meeting were a mix of students from both schools, with three — Wrenshall students Leah Bethke, Brooke Kent and Ben Nyberg — speaking in favor of consolidation.

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 plan that’s going to pass’

Carlton resident Stacie Sway said most people in Carlton support consolidation, but they need a facilities plan that voters will support — not an easy task.

More than half the resident students open-enroll out of the district; more than 200 attend school in Cloquet.

Instead of looking closely at alternate versions of a two-site option, Sway wants the boards to more seriously consider all options and put together a plan that will garner support of Carlton voters. Sway said the Wrenshall board’s unwillingness to consider a single-site at South Terrace limits choices and could lead to the failure of a referendum in Carlton.

“You have to put a plan forward that’s actually going to pass — not what you want,” Sway said. “If you really want consolidation, you have to do the plan that’s going to pass, no matter what it is. Maybe it is the two-site option, but without even looking at the one-site option, how do you know?”

Upcoming meetings

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.