With less than two weeks to go before a review and comment document is due to the Minnesota Department of Education, Carlton School Board members continued to bicker over a consolidation plan with Wrenshall during a special meeting Tuesday, April 28.
After months of negotiations between the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards, some Carlton members are concerned the $37.9 million plan pours too much money into the Wrenshall site.
The concerns started as the facilities committee met to finalize a plan to send to the state for review. In the final version, unanimously passed by the boards’ joint facilities committee, the planned artificial turf multi-use athletic field and track were moved from South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton to Wrenshall School.
RELATED: Wrenshall agrees to hire lobbyist
The $3.3 million piece of the project had been planned to be built at South Terrace, but Carlton board member Tim Hagenah said he suggested it be moved to Wrenshall in the interest of student safety and to reduce costs. In lieu of having a second practice turf field in Wrenshall — with the district taking on additional costs and safety risks of transporting students to and from South Terrace — Hagenah suggested there be just one field in Wrenshall.
“I guess I thought maybe I would get a little more kick back from the Wrenshall people saying, ‘Well no, we talked about it for years of you guys having this,’” Hagenah said. “They pretty much just agreed with me 100% — and OK, it’s in Wrenshall, which made me a little disappointed in the Wrenshall folks because of everything they’ve said over the last five years about having this over in Carlton.”
Board Vice Chair Ann Gustafson, also a member of the facilities committee, disagreed with Hagenah’s characterization and said there was pushback from the Wrenshall contingent of the committee.
Last year, when the districts formed a cooperative football team, the teams practiced at Wrenshall and played games at South Terrace. However, with a turf field instead of grass, there is no need for a second place for the football team to practice.
Janaki Fisher-Merritt, a Wrenshall board member also on the facilities committee, said the committee agreed it “makes sense” to have a single turf field. However, the Wrenshall board was “uncomfortable” because in the past they’ve said they support holding games at South Terrace.
The other Carlton member of the committee — Sam Ojibway — wasn’t happy with moving the field to Wrenshall. Ojibway was unable to attend the last facilities meeting because of work commitments, but said he would not have voted for the plan approved by the remainder of the committee. He also pointed out the Chub Lake baseball and softball fields — where the combined district’s teams would practice and play — is several more miles away from the Wrenshall site than South Terrace.
Ojibway was concerned about the amount of money going into the Wrenshall site and questioned whether Carlton taxpayers would approve a plan with $8 million going into improvements at South Terrace and nearly $30 million flowing toward Wrenshall.
“I think that a lot of people are going to notice what seems to be a lopsided expenditure between Carlton and Wrenshall,” Ojibway said. “I think that will affect votes, and I always thought it was important to keep the football field at South Terrace where it was, where it currently is. I’m afraid that what I feared would happen is happening — that somehow Wrenshall is getting, not everything, but a majority. It seems lopsided, and I don’t agree with it.”
Carlton member Sue Karp agreed funding and improvements in the approved plan favored Wrenshall over South Terrace.
“I just feel that South Terrace is getting short-changed and it will affect how people vote,” Karp said.
Fisher-Merritt pushed back against the idea of a facilities plan that favors the Wrenshall campus when students in both districts will benefit from the improved facilities at both sites.
“It’s all of our district,” Fisher-Merritt said. “My kids are going to be going to school there. I don’t really care that it’s in Carlton instead of Wrenshall. I want to make sure it’s a nice elementary school. I want them to have exactly what they need — I don’t want them going to a school where the equipment isn’t good enough or the community doesn’t feel welcome. That stuff is super important.”
Fisher-Merritt also noted there is more than $900,000 included in the plan for site improvements, including $150,000 in work on the existing field and track, at South Terrace.
Concern over survey results
LaRae Lehto joined Ojibway in the concern that the changes deviate from a plan voters in both communities said they would support in a survey conducted over the winter.
The survey conducted by School Perceptions showed broad community support for consolidation and up to $40 million in expansions and renovations for the two buildings. 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. School Perceptions boasts a 98% success rate for school referendums that follow its recommendations.
While the total approved by the committee was less than the $38 million voters said they would support, it also added money to restore the pool at Wrenshall, a project not included in the $38 million plan garnering the most support from residents.
“I am concerned about putting forward a very different plan than what we talked about with the community when we surveyed them,” Lehto said.
The Wrenshall pool has not been used for several years and money for restoration was included in two of three failed referendums since 2017.
Gustafson spoke in favor of the pool spending, saying the facility would benefit the community overall in addition to students.
“Here we are willing to spend $3.3 million for an athletic complex — which are important for kids’ high school athletics — but not to put a $1.2 million pool that will be utilized by the community and educational purposes,” Gustafson said. “It’s a life-and-death skill, and we are the land of 10,000 lakes. So I pushed hard, I think that’s a real mistake not to have that in a school.”
The review and comment document that will be sent to the state for the August referendum does have some “wiggle room,” said Katie Hildenbrand of Architectural Resources, Inc. The schools must stay under the $38 million amount submitted to the state when the question goes before voters, but the location where the football team plays can be changed, and funding for the pool can be removed or shifted to another project.
The facilities committee will meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 6, and the boards will vote on the final review and comment document at separate special meetings Monday, May 11.