The Carlton School Board plans to tell the county it needs more time before committing to a sale of its middle and high school property, according to a draft letter.

The board discussed the letter addressed to Carlton County Commissioner Dick Brenner during its Committee of the Whole meeting Thursday, Dec. 5.

Carlton County has inquired about the availability of the property for its planned jail expansion, but the school board needs more time to solidify its future plans for the district. The Carlton School Board has been engaged in negotiations with the Wrenshall School Board about consolidating the two districts, but there are too many unknowns about the plan to commit to a sale. The county asked for a response from the school board by Thursday, Dec. 19.

The Carlton School Board agreed the middle and high school building doesn't factor into its long-term facility plans. Board member Ann Gustafson asked that the language in the draft be made stronger to reflect the district’s intention to move on from the property next to the Carlton County Courthouse.

“Any of the long-range planning that we have discussed as a board has not included this building,” Gustafson said. “We may not know until February or May or even August, but within the next year, we will know.”

Gustafson ultimately asked for a change to say the board would finalize a plan that includes a commitment to the sale of the property within a year.

The two boards have held public meetings and are pursuing a survey to gage public support for plans that would pour nearly $40 million in renovations and expansions into Wrenshall School and South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton.

Wrenshall would become the new middle and high school for students in the combined district and South Terrace would remain the pre-K-5 school.

Why Carlton can't commit

Carlton can’t commit to a sale now because the districts are currently lobbying the Minnesota Legislature for a change so school consolidations would qualify for enhanced debt equalization aid.

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 Moose Lake Community School's facility was funded following flood damage in 2012.

Both boards have said they don't want to move forward with consolidation without the legislative change.

In addition, if the change is made, a majority of voters in both districts would have to support a referendum in August to fund construction at both schools.

In the draft letter, Carlton said it could begin “formal discussions” regarding the property if the survey results — scheduled to be sent to residents in January — are "favorable" and the Legislature makes consolidations eligible for state aid during its session that ends in May.

Carlton School Board member Jennifer Chmielewski said she wants a stronger commitment from the board to the sale of the property, regardless of whether the districts consolidate.

“The plan was always that we would not have this as an option,” Chmielewski said. “What are we going to do then? Are we going to miss our chance? This is a big deal to miss our chance with the county to sell this. We know what it’s appraised at. The chance of someone else paying us its appraised value is probably pretty slim.”

In a previous meeting, Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto said the district would likely receive less than $1 million for the sale of the building.

Even if the districts consolidate, the county may not be able to take over the property until summer 2022. If the referendum passes in August, the districts would officially consolidate in July 2021. Middle and high school students in the combined district would spend the 2021-22 school year in Carlton while construction is completed in Wrenshall, according to plans previously discussed by the districts.

Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto said she understands the county’s need for a response regarding the property, but the district’s priority is hammering out a long-term facilities plan and not the sale of the school building.

“The definite is that we have students who need a school,” Lehto said. “We can’t commit to a sale or a timeline if we don’t know.”

Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau said in an email he couldn’t speak for the board, but the county would like an answer regarding the building as soon as possible so it can make more concrete plans regarding the jail expansion.

“The sooner that question is answered, the clearer the county’s path becomes as far as sites are concerned,” Genereau said. “The county has already identified other sites that could work and are already available, so if the Carlton school does not make a change, the project could still go forward. However, I know the board would like to be able to consider the use of the Carlton site as well.”

The Carlton School Board is scheduled to vote to approve the final draft of its response during its meeting Monday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m.