After debating the issue over the last two months, the Carlton School Board removed consolidation with Wrenshall from its long-term planning options during its meeting Monday, June 21.

Board member Ann Gustafson made a motion to continue considering a two-site consolidation with Wrenshall, but the motion failed to gain support from other board members.

Instead, the board reaffirmed its commitment to pursuing a tuition agreement with either Cloquet or Barnum for high school students and expanding South Terrace Elementary School to become a pre-K-8 school. The board also reaffirmed its commitment to looking into continuing as an independent school district and building a pre-K-12 school at South Terrace.

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Gustafson voted against both options and warned that each is dependent on voters approving millions in additional spending.

“Those are dependent on the public approving funding,” Gustafson said. “If they don’t and we expend this whole amount of time going forward with a referendum plan, and then it fails — now we’re back to our state of limbo. Plus we’ve wasted however much it costs to have that referendum.”

The districts were close to an agreement in early 2020, but a change to a 2014 law allowing consolidating school districts to access enhanced debt equalization was not approved by Minnesota Legislature. If approved, the measure would have paid for nearly half of the estimated $40 million in upgrades and renovations at Wrenshall and South Terrace.

The schools paused consolidation talks earlier this year after disagreements emerged over the issue of debt sharing.

Over the past several months, Carlton Superintendent John Engstrom has worked to develop a tuition agreement with Cloquet or Barnum. In that scenario, the state aid for each Carlton student who attends Cloquet or Barnum would be paid a “premium,” according to Engstrom.

Carlton would pay an additional amount to Cloquet or Barnum to avoid a situation where people would live in Carlton without the burden of paying higher taxes in the other district.

“We’d try not to create a tax haven situation so people can leave (Cloquet or Barnum) with the burden of building and maintaining a high school and just move (to Carlton) and you pay lower taxes and get equal access to the high school," Engstrom said at the board’s committee of the whole meeting June 14.

Gustafson has also inquired about the possibility of tuition agreements with multiple schools. Engstrom said that was possible, but typically the school district that accepts students from a smaller district has multiple agreements, not the other way around.

No pathway forward

By eliminating the consolidation option, the school board will now try to gauge the community’s support for the other two options in a survey to be conducted later this year.

In early 2020, a majority of residents said they would support up to $40 million in renovations in a consolidation with Wrenshall, but the survey also assumed the state would make consolidations eligible for enhanced debt equalization aid.

Despite voting to keep the Pre-K-12 option open for now, board chair Julianne Emerson said during the committee of the whole meeting she was unsure it would garner the needed support from the community, especially after a similar referendum was rejected by more than 70% of Carlton voters in 2017.

“I don’t see a pathway forward for this option, so I’m comfortable if it is removed from consideration,” Emerson said at the meeting. “I think that really helped me think about it, because the taxpayers so resoundingly turned us down. It wasn’t by a little, it was by a lot.”