Consolidation is a topic on the tip of many tongues in Wrenshall as Election Day nears.

For more than a year, the Wrenshall and Carlton school boards have negotiated a facilities plan and consolidation agreement, but the Legislature failed to make change a state law to help fund renovations and expansions for school buildings.

In January, half of the school board members in Wrenshall will leave the board. Janaki Fisher-Merritt, Matthew Leveau and Warren Weiderman declined to run for reelection and four people — Misty Bergman, Karola Dalen, Alice Kloepfer and Nicole Krisak — are running for the board's three open seats.

Dalen and Krisak both advocated for continuing to work toward combining districts and lobbying the Legislature to make the change to state law. Bergman and Kloepfer did not respond to multiple requests to participate by the Pine Journal. Officials from both districts have worked with lawmakers to make school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt service equalization aid.

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.

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Dalen, a resources and recycling coordinator for Carlton County, pointed to broad support for consolidation demonstrated in a survey of both communities completed in January. The survey showed majorities in Carlton and Wrenshall supported up to $40 million in renovations and new construction.

Wrenshall School Board candidate Karola Dalen
Wrenshall School Board candidate Karola Dalen

“Combining our resources and improving facilities between the two districts would provide a lot of good resources and education space for the students and the staff,” Dalen said. “So that's what I am in favor of, even though it's stalled. I think we can still communicate and work on some other details as long as we're cautious about not taking up too much time of the superintendents, principals and school board members because they still have schools to run.”

Krisak, an interior designer and Wrenshall graduate, has heard talk of consolidation since she was in school more than 20 years ago, but believes it will benefit both districts.

“If they consolidate, it’s a great opportunity for both communities,” Krisak said. “It offers so much more for our students: elective classes, more science classes or art. It just gives us so many more options, but for some reason, it seems like we can't work that out.”

The Minnesota Legislature passed a bonding bill earlier this month, but did not include the change to make school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt service equalization aid. The news was a blow to consolidation efforts in both communities, but Dalen said she wants to continue looking at the possibilities for consolidation.

Dalen would like to see an updated timetable for when consolidation could take place and potentially a new survey, she said. The survey, conducted just prior to the large scale shutdowns due to the COVID-19 outbreak, did not reflect the economic havoc wrought by the pandemic, and some people’s feelings may have changed.

Dalen also would like to look into the possibility of consolidating with a scaled back facilities plan that might be more palatable to voters if the districts cannot get state aid.

Krisak, who has had one child graduate from Wrenshall and another from Carlton, said the best outcome is one larger more sustainable district.

“What I’d like to see in the future is the districts combined with two happy communities working together,” Krisak said. “That would be the ultimate goal, of course — having more (students) stay in the area, go to school here, that would be what everyone wants.”

Early voting underway

Wrenshall is a mail ballot precinct and any resident registered to vote before Oct. 13 was mailed a ballot automatically. Mail and absentee ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 will be counted up to seven days after Election Day.

Early voting is already underway from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Carlton County Courthouse. In addition, early voting at the courthouse will be available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2.

On election day, mail ballot voters can vote from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Carlton County Courthouse, 301 Walnut Ave., Carlton.