The Carlton School Board continued to haggle over the issue of debt sharing with Wrenshall during its committee of the whole meeting Monday, Dec. 14.

Several board members said they wanted to vote on whether the districts would share the existing debt equally or if they would keep their existing debt separate if the districts consolidate.

For much of 2019 and early 2020, Carlton and Wrenshall worked to hammer out a consolidation agreement that would include a middle and high school in Wrenshall and the elementary school in Carlton. They developed a nearly $40 million facilities plan to expand and upgrade Wrenshall School and South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton.

A tax impact study completed by Ehlers in August showed Carlton taxpayers with a $150,000 residential homestead would pay an extra $265 in property taxes under the consolidation plan that shares debt equally, based on Wrenshall’s 2020 levy. That amount could change after the Wrenshall 2021 levy decreased by 16.4%.

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If the districts do not share debt equally, Carlton taxpayers would pay an additional $234. The Wrenshall board has been adamant that the districts’ share debt equally, but Carlton board members have resisted the idea.

During the meeting, Carlton board member Tim Hagenah suggested throwing out the facilities plan negotiated with Wrenshall entirely and potentially starting fresh in 2021 when the Carlton board will have two new members and Wrenshall will have three. Hagenah was unopposed in his bid for reelection, but board chair LaRae Lehto and member Jennifer Chmielewski did not run.

“We have to make a decision, I feel, to end it here now or I guess push it on to the next board to deal with,” Hagenah said. “I really don’t think that’s fair because this is an issue that came up with this board and I think this plan is done, it’s over. If we need to discuss consolidation again with Wrenshall, then it needs to be brought up in a whole different concept ... because we need to move forward to let our people know exactly what we are doing.”

Superintendent John Engstrom said voting to take the current consolidation deal off the table could potentially “hamstring” the new board when it takes office in January.

“If something’s been rejected, its path forward to get back on the agenda is a little more complex,” Engstrom said. “I don’t know what we gain long term by doing any kind of vote on the consolidation plan itself.”

Several board members supported voting on debt sharing, but did not wish to vote on the consolidation plan overall. The board will vote on debt sharing during its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 21.

Alternative plans more costly

If the board chooses to move forward independently, its contingency plans would convert South Terrace Elementary School to a pre-K-8 school or build a pre-K-12 school on the site. Both options would cost taxpayers more than consolidation.

The Minneapolis design firm InGensa drew up some preliminary plans and cost estimates for the district, including a $23 million plan to build a 54,000-square-foot addition to South Terrace. InGensa estimated 300 students in the pre-K-8 building and an average of 2.5 sections per grade level. The plan also included a new gym, industrial technology and art classrooms, as well as a weight room. The K-8 option would require a tuition agreement with a neighboring district for students to attend high school. Cloquet has been mentioned as a possible option.

The pre-K-12 facility was estimated to cost $34.5 million and would include an 82,000-square-foot addition for 450 students and estimated two sections per grade. The plan included a larger gym, separate wings for middle and high school students and upgrades to athletic facilities on the property.

Ehlers, the financial adviser, said the pre-K-8 plan would cost the owner of a residential homestead property in Carlton valued at $150,000 an estimated $306 per year. The $34.5 million plan would cost the owner of the same property $506, which would more than double their 2020 taxes of $505.

Two contingency plans presented to the Carlton School Board Monday, Dec. 14, show the estimated tax impacts would be greater than in a two-site consolidation with Wrenshall. (News Tribune Graphics)
Two contingency plans presented to the Carlton School Board Monday, Dec. 14, show the estimated tax impacts would be greater than in a two-site consolidation with Wrenshall. (News Tribune Graphics)

Dissolution discussed

Chmielewski suggested the board delve into dissolving the Carlton district instead of consolidating or updating its facilities.

If the district dissolves, residents would be assigned to a new school district based on boundaries drawn by the Carlton County Board of Commissioners, Lehto said. In addition, those living within the old boundaries of the district would still be responsible for the district’s existing debt, which runs through 2036.

Lehto said officials didn’t have enough information to provide tax impacts, but used the current tax levels to provide a rough estimate. Currently, the district uses a little over 37% of tax payments on the district’s existing debt. The 2020 levy cost the owner of a $150,000 home $505, meaning they would owe an estimated $187 on Carlton’s debt until 2036.

In addition, they would also owe their portion of the new district’s levy.

Engstrom told the board that even discussing dissolution could damage the district.

“I wouldn’t want to be within 100 miles of a district that was openly talking about dissolving,” Engstrom said. “Who’s going to work there? Who’s going to send their kids their that last year? Not me, not my kids. I just think you’ve got to consider what that last year would be like. I think it would be an absolute tire fire disaster.”

No other board members at the meeting supported Chmielewski in considering dissolution as an option for the district’s future.

At its Monday, Dec. 21, meeting, the board will have a “fuller conversation” around the district’s contingency plans, according to Engstrom. The board will also set its levy and hear the 2020 audit presentation at that time. The truth in taxation hearing will be held before the regular meeting at 6:30 p.m.