Despite only beginning work in early July, new Carlton Superintendent John Engstrom’s desk is already full of issues facing the tiny district.
Engstrom took over the district July 1 after previous Superintendent Gwen Carman left to lead the Lewiston-Altura School District June 25.
In addition to guiding the district through a consolidation process with Wrenshall, Engstrom is leading the effort to create a plan for instruction in the fall with the COVID-19 pandemic still causing uncertainty. He's also developing contingencies if needed legislation or a referendum fails.
Engstrom agreed to a one-year contract in the hope the districts can come to a consolidation agreement that includes facility improvements in Wrenshall and at South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton.
Engstrom was most recently superintendent of Friess Lake School District in Washington County, Wisconsin. He retired following a consolidation between Friess Lake and neighboring Richfield School District. Both districts had students in grades K-8. Prior to administration, Engstrom taught high school social studies in Texas and Milwaukee.
Engstrom and his wife retired and moved to the Twin Cities area to be near their children and grandchildren, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to remain retired. When the Carlton job popped up, it checked a lot of boxes for his needs and the district’s.
“They want to go through a consolidation, I’ve done that,” Engstrom said. "They’re looking for an interim, one year — cool. Might I want to work again? I might, but I don’t want to obligate either myself or the district to a long term deal and then walk away and leave. That's not good. So both sides entered this with their eyes open.”
Engstrom said his top priority in Carlton is moving forward with consolidation. He wants to pay Ehlers Inc., the districts’ financial advisor, to complete a tax liability study — something he was surprised hasn’t already been completed.
A tax liability study would provide the districts and property taxpayers with a clearer picture of what taxes would look like in a consolidated district. So far, the districts have only provided the tax impacts of a proposed $40 million renovation and expansion at Wrenshall and South Terrace.
At Friess Lake, where Engstrom was previously superintendent, taxes were going up. In the other district, however, taxes were going down.
“That was some heavy lifting for some folks,” Engstrom said. “But we were able to continue to work through that because we were talking about enhanced opportunities that kids would have.”
Wrenshall School Board member Janaki Fisher-Merritt was hesitant to commit his district to splitting the $3,000 cost of the study during a July 13 meeting.
“I’m certainly not interested in doing that,” Fisher-Merritt said. “Maybe if we got some state funding ... but I think before that happens, there’s no way I’m interested in spending more money on it.”
Despite a lack of support from Wrenshall, Engstrom asked the board to move forward with the study during its meeting Monday, July 20, with the hope state funding is approved and Carlton will be reimbursed for half the cost.
“I want to be on the side of the district that is saying, ‘We want to give as much information to our taxpayers that's as good and accurate as it can be,'” Engstrom told the board. “We want it to be out there as soon as possible. So I'm going to recommend that you vote to do the study, even if it means we pay the whole thing initially.”
Carlton board members Ann Gustafson and Jennifer Chmielewski argued to wait to see if the Legislature approves funding in its August special session before moving forward. In the end, the board chose to move forward without initial support from Wrenshall with only Chmielewski voting against the motion.