The Carlton and Wrenshall school boards have hit another point of contention in the ongoing talks regarding consolidation of the two districts.
The boards are working with Sue Peterson of the School Perceptions research firm to draft a survey to gauge community support for the two-site consolidation plans the two sides have been negotiating since the summer. School Perceptions boasts a 98% success rate for school referendums based on data it gathers.
During its meeting Monday. Dec. 16, the Carlton board discussed the survey and some minor wording changes, but objected to a question intended to gauge community support for renovations should consolidation talks fail and the districts remain independent.
Current consolidation plans would bring up to $40 million in renovations and expansions to 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.
The survey contains a number of questions for residents asking if they support the plans at each school and the closure of Carlton High School.
The survey also gives voters three options for renovations, ranging from $32 million to $40 million, with estimated tax impacts for individual taxpayer properties.
For example, a property owner with a home valued at $150,000 would owe an extra $152 on their current property taxes if the $32 million option is used. The same property owner would be taxed $188 extra if all $40 million in proposed projects are completed, according to the survey.
The the $40 million plan includes the restoration of a pool and the construction of an auditorium in Wrenshall and new outdoor athletic fields near South Terrace.
All three options are dependent on a legislative change that would make school consolidations eligible 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.
If the schools remain independent, they still need major repairs and renovations but they would not qualify for state aid. Wrenshall asked for a question to be included asking residents how large a tax increase they would be willing to accept if consolidation talks fail, but did not include any specific projects.
In an email to Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro and Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman, Peterson said asking “tax tolerance” questions needs to correlate with projects, so the impacts have no context for those taking the survey.
“In our experience, this would provide extreme confusion and I believe would be misleading,” Peterson wrote. “Our professional recommendation is to eliminate this.”
Carlton Board Chair LaRae Lehto said she was interested in learning more about the question, but it could impair Peterson’s ability to make a recommendation.
“That’s really concerning to me because that’s a lot of time and effort and money and I want the recommendation she makes to us to be one that she feels strongly about,” Lehto said. “She’s done this very successfully in other districts and we are putting our faith in that. She’s saying, ‘If you make me do this, I’m not sure I can provide this for you.’”
The Carlton board members at the meeting all opposed including the question, but two members, Jennifer Chmielewski and Ann Gustafson, were absent.
Wrenshall Vice Chair Janaki Fisher-Merritt said the reasoning behind including the question was to add another data point in support of consolidation and was surprised about the opposition from Carlton. He said there is concern among the Wrenshall board the consolidation plans might not be extremely popular. The question about tax tolerance, however, could indicate a community even less willing to fund each district separately.
“This thing might not be overwhelmingly popular, but if we stay independent, we’re not going to get the money we need to stay independent,” Fisher-Merritt said. “People are going to say, ‘We’re not going to give you much money if you don’t consolidate,’ even if this isn’t overwhelmingly popular. That’s my guess is how this is going to turn out.”
Carman and Belcastro were scheduled to meet Tuesday, Dec. 17, to further discuss the survey.