The Carlton School Board is again seeking public opinion about plans for the future of the district.

During a meeting Monday, April 19, the board voted unanimously in favor of conducting a new survey to assess the community’s support for a variety of options. It is estimated to cost the district $9,000.

The board is going back to School Perceptions Inc. to ask residents’ opinions regarding several paths forward.

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In early 2020, School Perceptions surveyed Carlton and Wrenshall residents regarding a potential consolidation of the two neighboring districts, with majorities in both districts signaling support for up to $40 million in renovations and upgrades to South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton and Wrenshall School.

The 2020 survey, however, did not include information showing Carlton residents bearing a larger tax increase than Wrenshall residents during consolidation if debt between the two districts was shared equally.

The issue became a stumbling block in negotiations between the Wrenshall and Carlton school boards last fall. After needed legislation failed to garner approval from the Minnesota Legislature last year, the boards agreed to pause consolidation talks in February.

While Wrenshall moved forward with Phase II of its $9 million health and safety renovation project, Carlton began exploring other options, including building a pre-K-12 school at South Terrace or building a pre-K-8 school at South Terrace and negotiating a tuition agreement with neighboring districts for high school students.

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In December, the Minneapolis design firm InGensa drew up some preliminary plans for alternatives for the district. The plans included a $34.5 million, 82,000-square-foot expansion of South Terrace in the pre-K-12 scenario and a $23 million, 54,000-square-foot expansion in the pre-K-8 plan.

The estimates provided to the board in December showed the least expensive option is consolidation, even if debt is shared equally. Consolidation, however, is contingent on the Minnesota Legislature changing a 2014 law making school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt equalization aid that would pay for nearly half the construction costs at South Terrace and Wrenshall. Both boards have indicated they are not interested in moving forward without the state aid.

Board Chair Julianne Emerson acknowledged the board’s top option is still consolidation with Wrenshall despite the pause in talks, but said the board needs to understand where the Carlton community stands on the other two options.

“We talked about the fact that there’s a pause on No. 1,” Emerson said. “When we are talking about numbers and other things, we are not leaving (consolidation) out. But at this point in time, it seems our focus is more on those contingency options.”

Board member Tim Hagenah was concerned the estimates regarding consolidation were no longer valid because construction costs have gone up since late 2019 and Wrenshall moved forward with its health and safety bond.

“I think that consolidation plan is very skewed now, especially with renovations Wrenshall has done,” Hagenah said. “That whole plan, in my mind, needs to be really looked at again and revised, I guess, because of their improvements that they’ve done.”

The health and safety renovations at Wrenshall were included in early drafts of the consolidation plan, when initial estimates for construction reached nearly $50 million. Those costs were removed from plans when Wrenshall chose to move forward with the project independently, according to Wrenshall board member Jack Eudy, and would not change the work needed in a two-site consolidation between the districts.

John Engstrom said he would be reaching out to School Perceptions to begin developing a draft survey for the Carlton board to review over the next several weeks. He said he hoped to have the survey ready to go out to residents in the late summer or early fall, with results available several weeks later.