While Wrenshall School Board members remain united on a plan moving toward a two-site consolidation option with Carlton, their counterparts on the Carlton board were unable to reach consensus.

More than 50 people filled the commons area Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Wrenshall School to hear board members discuss what they learned and how the two small districts plan to move forward with consolidation talks.

Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto said they want to continue talks and design a survey to gage the communities’ support for consolidation with an elementary school in Carlton and a middle and high school in Wrenshall. However, they were unable to reach an agreement about moving forward with a two-site option during a Committee of the Whole meeting Thursday, Nov. 7.

“One of the things that’s clear is that we’re not united as a board fully on the future visioning plan for the district,” Lehto said. “Where we came to general consensus was support for a community survey. We can see that there is general support for consolidation with Wrenshall. The Carlton community — it’s hard to tease out support for a particular option for consolidation.”

During October, each board held a pair of community meetings to gather feedback about support for the two-site plan that would pour approximately $40 million into the building in Wrenshall and South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton.

The Wrenshall community expressed broad support for the two-site option, but the meetings in Carlton revealed a community deeply divided about how — or even if — to move forward with consolidation. Some residents in the Carlton meetings expressed support for a one-site consolidation option in Carlton. Others suggested the school continue to operate independently and pursue a plan to build at pre-K-12 building at South Terrace.

Lehto said the Carlton board agreed to focus on working with Wrenshall, but they are not united in moving forward with the two-site option. During talks with Wrenshall, Carlton explored options for a tuition agreement to send students in grades 9-12 to Cloquet High School and also received cost estimates for a Carlton-only option that would build a pre-K-12 facility.

Lehto said Carlton wants to continue to pursue enhanced debt equalization aid legislation from the state of Minnesota. Enhanced debt equalization would require the consolidated district to take out the full bond amount, but the state 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, but the boards plan to lobby the Minnesota Legislature to change the law to include school consolidations.

Katie Hildenbrand of Architectural Resources Inc. in Duluth said School Perceptions, an independent research firm based in Slinger, Wis., would design a survey to gage the willingness of the community to support a referendum to pay for the renovations a consolidated district would need.

School Perceptions conducted the survey prior to the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia referendum that passed in May to consolidate those districts. Typically, voterse pass 98% of referendums based on data collected, according to Hildenbrand.

The survey would cost approximately $10,000 and the expenses would be split evenly between the two districts. The results should be available for the boards to review by early February, according to Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman.

Wrenshall board members expressed frustration Friday that the Carlton board is still unwilling to commit to the two-site option that has been discussed since the summer. The original timelines established when meetings first began called for the two boards to pass a resolution in November declaring their intent to move forward with consolidation.

“I think the survey is a good idea, but I think it’s really important from the Wrenshall perspective that we get a 'yes' or a 'no' from you guys, because otherwise it feels like we’re just drawing this out again until March or late February,” Wrenshall Vice Chair Janaki Fisher-Merritt said. “It’s important to me that both boards pass a resolution that basically says we are moving forward with this two-site thing.”

The Carlton board reflects the divisions in the community, Lehto said. Carlton members Ann Gustafson and Jennifer Chmielewski support the two-site option. The other four members of the board — Lehto, Tim Hagenah, Sue Karp and Sam Ojibway — expressed support for consolidation, but want to obtain more feedback from residents.

“We are very representative of the Carlton community and that’s what makes it very difficult for us to make concrete decisions moving forward,” Lehto said. “We don’t have a united voice coming from the community and telling us one specific thing.”

Wrenshall Board Chair Matthew Laveau said while he wants to move forward, he is willing to wait for the Carlton board to come to an agreement.

“As frustrating as it is for the Wrenshall board that we’re not going to get an answer or have to wait until February to get an answer, at the same time, it’s worth the wait if we can do it and come out successful for the students,” Laveau said. “At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here. It’s a viable option for both districts and I think students will benefit greatly by the consolidation. As much as I’d love to have a firm answer, I’m willing to wait.”

Upcoming meetings

  • Wrenshall School Board regular meeting, 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18

  • Carlton School Board regular meeting, 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18