While the Carlton and Wrenshall school districts continue to focus on serving students remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, a needed law change for the districts’ proposed consolidation is slowly making its way through the Minnesota Senate.

Since last summer, the two tiny districts have worked to hammer out a plan merge, with an elementary school at Carlton's South Terrace Elementary School and a middle and high school in Wrenshall.

The school buildings need nearly $40 million in expansions and renovations and district officials have lobbied state legislators to make a change to a 2014 law so that consolidating school districts would be eligible for enhanced debt service equalization aid from the state.

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Enhanced debt service 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. 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.

Representatives of Carlton and Wrenshall have indicated they do not want to move forward on consolidation without enhanced debt equalization.

Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro, Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman, Reid LeBeau — a lobbyist hired by the districts to guide the legislation — and Senate Tax Committee Chairman Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, all spoke Monday, April 20. The legislation is being considered by the Senate Education Committee, but at a school board meeting on Monday night, Carman said moving the bill to the Tax Committee was the best way to get it “to the finish line."

“Sen. Chamberlain expressed his support for the bill,” Carman said. “He understood its importance, but he also said he needed to be cautious because of the complexity of what is happening, not knowing how much funding is going to go to the COVID(-19) response and recovery needs of the state.”

Belcastro agreed with Carman about the bill’s inclusion in the tax legislation, telling the Wrenshall School Board at its meeting Monday that she was optimistic it could be passed in the next few weeks.

“We do have a lot of nice support — thank goodness — but we aren’t quite there yet,” Belcastro said. “Hopefully we’ll know for sure between May 12-17 on whether our bill goes through, and we are able to get that debt equalized funding.”

The districts need the change approved by May 29 if they are to move forward with an August referendum. May 29 is the deadline to call for an Aug. 11 referendum, and without the change, the districts won’t be able to provide voters with accurate information on the referendum's tax impact.