After the failure of needed legislation and a disagreement on the issue of debt sharing, the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards have put consolidation talks on hold.
During a recent, informal meeting among the districts' superintendents and school board chairs and vice chairs, the sides agreed to take a break from negotiations.
In his report on the meeting to the full board Tuesday, Feb. 16, Carlton Superintendent John Engstrom said members of both boards were willing to discuss the issue of debt sharing, but his sense was that neither side changed their views from last fall.
Carlton’s leaders were interested in revisiting a one-site consolidation option and would like to look into building a “broader coalition of area schools,” but Wrenshall officials were not currently interested in pursuing either option.
Engstrom also asked the board to begin setting priorities for the future of the district to discuss at a future meeting, including whether the district should make keeping a high school in Carlton a priority.
“From my perspective, it was clear that neither district was in a place where they were prepared to say ... I think consolidation is the only way forward for us,” Engstrom said during the board’s committee of the whole meeting Monday, Feb. 8. “I know I didn’t get that sense from anybody on the Carlton side, and I honestly didn’t get that sense from anyone on the Wrenshall side, either.
"I think that’s where the conclusion amongst that group was that, well, maybe there might just need to be a pause for a while while each side explores some of their other options.”
Carlton board member Ann Gustafson said she would like to move forward quickly with a second survey of Carlton residents to gauge the community’s feelings toward alternatives presented to the board in December.
The board looked at two contingency plans that would build a Pre-K through grade 8 school at South Terrace or a Pre-K through grade 12 school on the site. The Pre-K-8 plan, which would also require a tuition agreement with Cloquet or another school district, included a 54,000-square-foot addition to the school estimated to cost $23 million. The Pre-K-12 option would involve expanding South Terrace by 82,000 square feet and was estimated to cost $34.5 million.
Both options would be more costly to Carlton taxpayers than the facilities plan in a consolidation with Wrenshall.
Engstrom said a second survey would cost the district more than $10,000.
A second survey could give the board a better sense of where the community overall stands and what they are willing to support, Gustafson said. It would also be cheaper than pursuing a referendum that fails, she added.
Board member Tim Hagenah, however, argued that the board should focus on how the staff and students of Carlton feel, instead of the district’s facilities needs.
He suggested the district survey staff, asking how the board could better support them and students.
“I think if we get behind them, they’ll get behind the students, and the parents will get back on board, and our community will get back on board,” he said. “So if it does come time for a referendum, no matter what it is, hopefully we have the support because we have put a plan in place.”
Wrenshall is going to continue with its $9.3 million health and safety renovation project that began in 2020, but Jack Eudy, Wrenshall School Board vice chair, believed his board would welcome Carlton officials to the negotiating table with “open arms,” he said. He also stressed the repairs Wrenshall is currently doing have always been done with an eye toward consolidation.
Boards disagree about lobbyist
In February 2020, the boards hired a lobbyist to help guide legislation to make school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt equalization aid through the statehouse. The bill was not included in the bonding package passed in October.
In an earlier meeting with Engstrom and Belcastro, Lebeau told the superintendents he was hopeful about getting the change made in 2021, Engstrom said. Lebeau hoped to move the legislation to the Minnesota Education Policy and Finance Committee where it has the support of Minnesota Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes), the committee’s new chair.
A majority of Carlton School Board members supported continuing to work with the lobbyist, Reid Lebeau, including Gustafson, Julianne Emerson, Eryn Symczak and Sam Ojibway — though Ojibway was less enthusiastic than the other three. Board member Sue Karp said she would support working with a lobbyist in the next bonding year, scheduled for 2022.
“As smart as we think we are sometimes, that’s not our world,” Gustafson said. “I think that’s something we would have to agree to go for again, but it’s set up right now. That’s almost a $20 million injection of state funding into our two communities and that, in and of itself, would be huge. It’s huge for kids, it’s huge for families and it would be huge for this area.”
Eudy, from Wrenshall's school board, said officials would not be willing to work with Lebeau if the districts aren't actively discussing consolidation.
“If we’re not in it for consolidation, there really isn’t any point with hiring a lobbyist again to the tune of about $12,000 apiece,” he said. “We just figure that money is better spent somewhere else until they get serious.”