The Carlton and Wrenshall school boards voted to move forward with consolidation during separate special meetings Monday, May 11.
The Wrenshall School Board unanimously voted to submit review and comment documents to the Minnesota Department of Education for an Aug. 11 referendum. An hour later and a few miles away, Carlton board members LaRae Lehto, Ann Gustafson, Jennifer Chmielewski and Sue Karp voted in favor of the action, while Tim Hagenah and Sam Ojibway voted against the plan.
The review and comment document submitted by the boards to the state would separate the referendum into two questions. The first question would ask voters to approve $37.9 million in repairs and renovations to Wrenshall School and South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton.
The second referendum question would request an additional $1.7 million to repair and renovate the pool at Wrenshall.
If approved by voters in both districts, the Wrenshall campus would see approximately $27 million in repairs. Wrenshall would become the middle and high school in a consolidated district. Repairs to the school include converting the existing gym to classroom space and building a new, two-court gym; building a 350-seat auditorium; and renovating and expanding the bus garage. The construction also includes $3.3 million for a new artificial turf athletic field and track.
The $27 million figure does not include the money earmarked for pool repairs.
Ojibway said he doesn't support moving the athletic facility from Carlton to Wrenshall or adding another referendum question to upgrade the pool. The boards made those changes at a meeting April 28, despite concerns from Ojibway and other board members that the actions deviate from the plan laid out in a community survey.
“I agree with the budget, I agree with what we are asking for,” Ojibway said. “I just don’t agree with the changes of the athletic field being in Wrenshall and the question for the pool. Those are things we already agreed on, and it’s just disappointing.”
Carlton Vice Chair Ann Gustafson said the facilities committee decided as a group it best to locate the field in Wrenshall during a meeting May 6. She also said if Carlton residents are upset, the location of the field is not “set in stone.”
“We were able to talk through some of the questions, specifically, the (Carlton) board members had last week as far as what improvements were made at South Terrace,” Gustafson said. “We went with the same configuration as far as the athletic field still being in Wrenshall ... We also ended that meeting knowing that if there was a lot of community backlash within Carlton, that plan could be modified.”
The approximately $10 million in construction at South Terrace in Carlton would include adding additional classrooms and early-childhood programming space; updating classrooms to facilitate student collaboration and small group instruction; convert the existing gym to additional classroom space and build a new gym and locker rooms for physical education; and update the cafeteria to create a commons space for school and community use.
Hagenah took issue with including a question about the pool in the referendum. He pointed to lukewarm community support for the idea in a community survey conducted by the districts over the winter. Approximately 37% of Carlton residents surveyed said they would support funding for the pool, while 53% supported up to $38 million in projects except the pool. The survey found 43% of Wrenshall residents supported repairing the pool.
“This whole thing, I agree with Sam 100%,” Hagenah said. “Wrenshall stated over and over throughout the years on certain things — not just athletic fields, but other things — and I look at this now and it’s just a very sad picture over here. Right now, I’ll tell you, there are a lot of people outside my bubble that are upset.”
Lehto and Karp expressed some concern about the pool being included in the referendum. They supported the plan since voters can approve most of the construction while still rejecting the $1.7 million second question.
Needed legislation still in limbo
The next step in the process is for the Minnesota Legislature to change a 2014 law making school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt service equalization. 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.
The districts hope the legislation — introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park, and Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, in the House — will be approved before the session ends Monday, May 18.
Reid LeBeau, a lobbyist hired by the districts to guide the legislation, hopes to move the bill from the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee to the Tax Committee, where it has received the support of Tax Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, according to Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman.
Representatives of the districts previously indicated they do not want to move forward on consolidation without enhanced debt equalization.
Carman and Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro are scheduled to meet with LeBeau regarding the legislation Wednesday, May 13.
The districts will hold a joint meeting to discuss the status of the bill and referendum at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 20. The Wrenshall board will vote to call for the referendum at its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, May 18, and Carlton will hold a special meeting for the same purpose at 7 p.m. May 26.