The Carlton and Wrenshall school boards each approved a resolution reaffirming their commitment to consolidating the two small districts during separate meetings Monday, Nov. 18.

While negotiations over wording continued until less than 30 minutes before Wrenshall’s regular meeting was set to begin, both boards voted unanimously to approve the resolution. It confirms the districts’ plan to move forward with a community survey, lobby the Minnesota Legislature for aid and conduct a facility referendum Aug. 11 to fund expansions and renovations at Wrenshall School and South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton.

Crucially, however, the resolution doesn't prohibit either district from “information gathering” for alternative long-range facility plans.

Since July, the districts have worked together to hammer out a plan that would consolidate the districts with an elementary school at South Terrace and a middle and high school in Wrenshall. The current two-site plan calls for approximately $40 million in expansions and improvements to the schools.

During public meetings in October, the Wrenshall community expressed broad support for the two-site plan. Meetings in Carlton revealed a community deeply divided — much like the school board — over how to move forward. Some in Carlton supported the two-site plan, but others wanted more information about a one-site consolidation and others suggested Carlton continue to operate independently and pursue a plan to build a pre-K-12 facility at South Terrace.

Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto characterized the information gathering as a “Plan B” in case consolidation talks fall apart or the August referendum fails. She and Wrenshall Board Chair Matthew Laveau met Wednesday, Nov. 13, to work on a draft resolution and negotiated through the weekend to determine the final language with input from members of both boards.

The Wrenshall school building would need up to $24 million in repairs in renovations to accommodate additional students if the district consolidates with Carlton. The districts' school boards passed resolutions Monday, Nov. 18, to move forward with consolidation. (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. The districts' school boards passed resolutions Monday, Nov. 18, to move forward with consolidation. (Pine Journal file)

The boards agreed at a Nov. 12 meeting and confirmed in the resolution to hire the School Perceptions independent research firm to conduct a survey of the communities to design a referendum plan acceptable to voters in each district. While the survey will cost $10,000 — a cost to be split evenly between the districts — referendums based on data collected by the firm have a 98% success rate. The survey should be ready to go out to the public in late December or early January. Results are expected by Feb. 10.

“It was my intent with Chair Laveau is to make a commitment to move forward with surveying the community and pursuing legislative aid and to keep that survey and our active pursuits to the two-site consolidation options and to fully vet that in the coming months,” Lehto said. “It’s not to restrict us from gathering information that we need — and I don’t know what that is; we haven’t defined what that is — it’s not to restrict us from even having those conversations.”

Carlton board member Jennifer Chmielewski questioned why the resolution allows the districts to continue investigating other options when all talks with Wrenshall have centered around the two-site plan. Carlton Treasurer Tim Hagenah said he wants to be able to provide solid information to community members when they ask about alternatives.

“I agree that we pursue the two-site plan with the survey, with the survey — whatever the survey says,” Hagenah said. “I do think that there are plans out there that we have discussed in the past that we need to gather more information on. When a community member asks me about a certain item, I want to be able to honestly discuss that with them without thinking that I am causing an issue.”

Wrenshall questions Carlton commitment

While Wrenshall voted unanimously in support of the resolution, Vice Chair Janaki Fisher-Merritt said he wished it had gone further in support of the two-site plan discussed since talks started again in July and restricting the districts from exploring other options.

The resolution passed by both boards doesn’t really do anything, he said. Instead, it “kicks the can down the road” until the results of the survey are returned in February.

“What they are actually doing is investigating any other option they want to, they’re just not actually going to do it,” Fisher-Merritt said. “It’s like we’re going to wait to decide if we’re going to marry you until February and in the meantime we won’t marry anybody else. If someone told you that you would not think that was any kind of commitment at all.”

While Fisher-Merritt supports the two-site plan, the lack of commitment to the two-site plan is concerning and wondered how long Wrenshall can wait for Carlton to fully commit to consolidation.

“My fear is this leads us to a worse result for students,” he said.