After originally declining to do so, the Wrenshall School Board agreed Monday, March 2 to hire a lobbyist to help guide a law change through the Minnesota Legislature.
Wrenshall will split the $25,000 cost of hiring lobbyist Reid LeBeau with the Carlton School District. LeBeau will help the schools work with legislators to get a 2014 law changed that would make school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt equalization.
The two schools have negotiated since July 2019 to hammer out a plan that would bring the two tiny districts together with a pre-K through 6th grade school at South Terrace Elementary in Carlton and convert Wrenshall School to a middle and high school. The plans call for more than $38 million in expansions and renovations to both buildings, but the school boards hope to take advantage of enhanced debt equalization to ease the burden on local property taxpayers.
Enhanced debt consolidation 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. 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.
The Wrenshall School Board initially declined to spend the money for a lobbyist during its Feb. 17 meeting. Board member Matt Leveau spoke with Carlton County Commissioner Mark Thell and came away thinking the legislative change would not be as difficult as originally believed.
During its meeting Feb. 18, members of the Carlton School Board asked members of the Wrenshall School Board to reconsider because of a condensed timeline for making the change.
The legislative session ends in May and the boards plan to move forward with an August referendum that must receive approval from more than 50% of voters in each district. The estimated tax impacts presented to residents in a community survey were based on the legislative change. Both districts have agreed not to move forward on consolidation without the state aid.
The districts met with state Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, and Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, Jan. 24 to advocate for the change. Rarick and Sundin both introduced draft bills to make the change to the Minnesota Senate and House Education Finance Committees in February.
The districts’ combined legislative planning committee also met later Monday to begin coordinating the districts’ efforts for the legislation.
Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman attended the Minnesota Association of School Administrators “Day at the Capitol” Tuesday, March 3 in St. Paul. Carman was unsure if she would be able to meet with Rarick or Sundin while in St. Paul, but said meetings had been scheduled with other legislators she hoped to lobby for the change.
Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro was unable to attend the event because Wrenshall Dean of Students Luke Wargin was absent and she needed to be in the school building.
The districts were also planning in the event a hearing on the legislation is scheduled with little advance notice. Carman and Belcastro said they could have as little as one day’s notice to be in St. Paul for a hearing.