After months of negotiations and planning, the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards finally have some hard data that show the community strongly supports consolidation plans developed by the districts.
During a special meeting of the boards Tuesday, Feb. 11 at South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton, the boards heard the results of a survey of both communities that showed nearly 80% of residents support consolidation of the two tiny districts.
What’s more, majorities of residents support at least $38 million in renovations and expansions to Wrenshall School and South Terrace. Under the plans discussed, Wrenshall would become the new middle and high school and South Terrace would be the combined district’s preK-5 school. Plans prepared by the districts called for more than $40 million in upgrades, but the survey provided three options:
$40.1 million to complete all proposed projects which include additional classrooms and updates at both schools as well as the restoration of the pool at Wrenshall;
$38.4 million to complete all projects except the pool; or
$32.2 million to complete all projects except construction of an auditorium at Wrenshall, outdoor athletic fields and the restoration of the pool.
Sue Peterson of School Perceptions Inc. presented the results of the survey to the boards and a crowd of more than 50 people in the school gym. School Perceptions boasts a 98% success rate on referendums that follow its recommendations.
Peterson said the response was “atypical” of her experience in that the survey had a strong response and showed a clear preference for completing most of the proposed projects. Approximately 33% — or more than 1,100 — of people who received the survey responded, but School Perceptions typically expects around 20% to participate.
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About 53% of Carlton residents who responded said they would support a bond referendum at the $38 million or $40 million level and approximately 60% supported one of those options in Wrenshall. The survey assumed if residents supported the $40 million option, they would also support $38 million, according to Peterson.
A referendum would need to garner 50% or more of the vote in each district for the consolidation plan to move forward.
“The data isn’t always this clear,” Peterson said. “There were a couple of things that we saw. One we saw strong, strong support for exploring consolidation and a consolidated facilities plan early on in the data.
"Then we just presented one facility option. It was the facility plan that we put forward and we said, ‘All-in, this facility plan is $40.1 million,’ and really when we look at both communities we had support — strong support — that both were OK with this particular facility plan and both were saying that the tax impact was acceptable to them landing at that $38.4 million mark," she said.
Even more importantly, only about 17% said they didn’t support consolidation or they would not support any referendum. Peterson said that number is sometimes higher than 30%.
Legislative change is key
Some people were concerned that the tax impacts listed in the survey assumed a change to a 2014 law by the Minnesota Legislature to make school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt equalization.
Enhanced debt equalization would require the consolidated district to take out the full bond amount, but the state would pay up to 46% of the annual bond payment for the district. Currently, schools can only use the mechanism if there is a natural disaster. Officials in Moose Lake took advantage of the legislation after the old building was damaged in the 2012 flood.
If the change is made, a resident of either district with a residential home valued at $150,000 would see an increase of $180 per year in school property taxes for the $38 million referendum option.
Both boards have said throughout the process they do not want to move forward with consolidation or a referendum without the legislative action.
On Jan. 24, the boards met with Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, and Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, Jan. 24 to advocate for the change. Both lawmakers said they would try to help with the legislative change as long as the communities support it — something the results of the survey demonstrate, said Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro.
“What (Sundin and Rarick) want to know is, 'What do these communities want?'” Belcastro said. “So we’re planning to give them the results of this survey, because the more they know that these two communities want this, they are going to be fighting for it. We’ve been down this road with them before, and they don’t want to put the effort in unless they know these communities want this.”
The boards will discuss the results of the surveys separately at their next meetings. The Wrenshall board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17, and Carlton will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18.