The Carlton School Board’s long range planning committee began developing a multi-pronged approach to address the district’s facility needs during its initial meeting Monday, Jan. 25.

The committee was established during the board’s committee of the whole meeting in January to set up timelines and guide decisions on a facility improvement plan the board hopes will win the support of voters sometime in 2021.

The committee, which consists of superintendent John Engstrom and board members Ann Gustafson, Sam Ojibway and Eryn Szymczak, talked about a couple of different paths the district could take, including consolidating with Wrenshall School District or continuing as an independent district.

“This is like being in the coach’s office trying to develop your game plan,” Engstrom said. “Your game plan could involve looking at a whole host of different options, but then once you come up with your plan, this is your plan.”

RELATED: Carlton-Wrenshall school consolidation remains uncertain

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The committee members agreed, however, that improving the district’s facilities is imperative, and Engstrom said he believed the district needed to put a question to voters some time in 2021.

“I’m not advocating for anything other than I think it needs to be something,” Engstrom said.

Through much of 2019 and 2020, the district worked to put together a consolidation agreement that would merge the district with Wrenshall. The boards hoped to ask voters to approve nearly $40 million in improvements to Wrenshall School, which would become the new district’s middle and high school, and South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton in 2020. However, the district’s plans were based on the Minnesota Legislature changing an existing law to make school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt equalization aid.

In 2020, the legislation was introduced in the Minnesota Senate by Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park and in the House by Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, but it stalled amid the chaos surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite not passing in 2020, Engstrom said Reid LeBeau, a lobbyist hired by the districts’ to guide the legislation, said he is optimistic about the legislation’s chances in 2021.

If the districts move forward with a consolidation referendum, the most likely date would be August, because a November referendum would not allow the districts enough time to complete all the tasks necessary for a consolidation.

In December, the Carlton board also discussed potentially remaining independent and expanding South Terrace to a Pre-K through grade 8 or Pre-K through grade 12 school. Engstrom said a November referendum on that issue would be more plausible.

“If we did go down the K-8 route, you could push that out to November because your to-do list following the referendum isn’t as great or compressed as it would be under a consolidation,” Engstrom said.

Carlton residents could see second survey

Gustafson also inquired about the cost of a second survey for Carlton residents.

In early 2020, the districts sent a survey to residents of Wrenshall and Carlton. Majorities of respondents in both districts supported the plans as presented.

However, the survey did not include the tax impact of sharing the districts’ debt, which would cost Carlton taxpayers more than their counterparts in Wrenshall.

During an October meeting, Wrenshall superintendent Kim Belcastro told a joint facilities planning committee meeting she did not believe the Wrenshall School Board would support a consolidation agreement that did not include debt sharing.

Gustafson said it could be helpful to get the information they discussed regarding other options for the district into residents’ hands to gauge their feelings on the options for Carlton’s future.

“We have the preliminary costs, at least the building costs, of what that would look like on a $150,000 home,” Gustafson said. “We would be able to line up those three options and also put out information about if the district was forced to dissolve ... It’s a way to educate but also then to get information back.”

It's important for voters to understand if the district dissolves, taxpayers are still responsible for the existing debt of the old district, Gustafson said, as well as any property taxes levied by the new district they would be assigned to.

Szymczak and Ojibway both said they did not want to discuss dissolving the district as a viable path forward for Carlton.

“I’m all for being transparent and giving as much information as we can, but I’m very weary about using the word dissolve,” Ojibway said. “Once people see it, they just automatically turn negative.”

While it has a negative connotation, Engstrom said the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (GFW) School District in central Minnesota used the specter of dissolution in its campaign to ask voters to approve an additional operating levy in August 2020.

“As I recall, their basic message to the community was, ‘We know we’re in a pandemic, we know times are tough, but still here’s a referendum and it needs to happen. If it doesn’t happen — not by choice, but by fact — what’s going to happen is the district’s going to dissolve because we don’t have any money.”

GFW entered statutory operating debt in the summer of 2020, making its situation very different from Carlton’s current position, but superintendent Jeff Horton told KEYC in Mankato drastic cuts and even dissolution were on the table if voters did not agree to the additional funding.

Nearly 63% of voters in the district approved the additional operating levy in a vote held Aug. 14.

Engstrom also told the committee he would reach out to School Perceptions to get an estimate on what another survey would cost the district.