For several months, representatives from the Carlton and Cloquet school districts have engaged in informal talks about the possibility of a tuition agreement to send Carlton High School students to Cloquet.

Carlton Superintendent John Engstrom told the school board during its meeting Monday, July 19, that discussions have reached a point where both sides are looking to their respective school boards for direction on continuing the discussions.

“We’ve gotten as far as 'this might work,'” Engstrom said. “What (Board Chair) Julianne (Emerson), (business manager) Norman (Nelis), myself and the corresponding Cloquet representatives have agreed to present for discussion is a general operating framework to bring back to our respective boards to see if there is enough collective support to say, ‘OK, keep moving forward.’”

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The initial details of the tuition agreement, which officials referred to as an outline, would be in place for 10 years and would take effect in the 2022-2023 school year. Carlton would have the option to opt out of the agreement after four years, though Engstrom said Carlton would need to provide an explanation to end the agreement.

The outline also calls for state and federal money Carlton receives for each pupil to follow high school students to Cloquet. In addition, Carlton would send the per student money generated by its operating levy to Cloquet.

Carlton’s operating levy generates about $325,000 per year based on a projected districtwide enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year of approximately 400 students, just over 100 of whom will be in high school. If a tuition agreement were in place in the coming school year, Carlton would send approximately $813 to Cloquet for each high school student that attends school there, which amounts to about $90,000.

“The operating levy runs for four more years, through the 2026 school year,” Engstrom said. “So by 2025, the Carlton School District would need to either renew the operating levy, find other means to provide that amount for each high school student or come up with a different plan for educating Carlton High School students.”

All the board members at the meeting, including Emerson, Eryn Symczak, Sue Karp and Sam Ojibway, agreed the framework was worth pursuing, though they were saddened about losing Carlton High School.

“Our hearts are all in a K-12,” Karp said.

Members Tim Hagenah and Ann Gustafson were absent from the meeting. However, during a June school board meeting, Hagenah voted to pursue a tuition agreement as a long-term option, while Gustafson opposed continuing to talk with Cloquet.

Engstrom agreed with Karp’s sentiment, but also noted some of the challenges Carlton faces in the areas of enrollment and curriculum.

“Right now, we can offer some (science, technology, engineering and math) opportunities to our K-8 students that are as good as any in the area,” he said. “To be able to sustain the depth and diversity of those options throughout the high school level requires massive capital investment and extensive staffing. Cloquet already has the equipment and the staffing. Carlton does not and would struggle to finance such an investment and secure staffing.”

Engstrom also told the board it needs to develop a plan that keeps more resident students in Carlton. Currently, Carlton loses more than 50% of its resident students to open enrollment, with the majority of those enrolled in Cloquet.

In grades K-8, Carlton currently has 480 resident students, but only educates 270 or about 56%.

“If we were able to have a model that increased our local retention from 56% to 75%, that would move our local resident student number up to the range of 360 students and if we were able to retain even 25% of our (open enrollment) in students, we would have a K-8 district that is almost exactly the same size as our current K-12. In my estimation, those enrollment target goals are very realistic and doable — even modest.”

If Carlton and Cloquet entered into a tuition agreement for high school students, the Carlton board would begin preparing a bond referendum to expand South Terrace Elementary School, which would become a Pre-K to grade 8 facility. In December 2020, the board looked at preliminary plans to expand South Terrace to include middle school students. The proposed 54,000-square-foot addition would cost an estimated $23 million.

However, even if voters rejected an expansion at South Terrace, the district could still move forward with the tuition agreement.

“If the referendum fails, that would not kill the K-8 tuition agreement,” Engstrom said. “It would just mean that we move forward with two sites and use this existing site for grades five or six through eight. That’s not optimal, but it’s not out of the question either.”

Engstrom went on to tell the board that he believes the tuition agreement with Cloquet offers the best pathway toward sustainability for the school district and the Carlton community. He said there is much left to decide about the agreement, but things could fall into place relatively soon.

“There is still work to be done and that work might take a while,” he said. “A deal could fall apart at any point, but it’s also true that the remaining details could potentially come together rather quickly.”

It is unlikely a deal could be in place for a November referendum, but it is possible for Spring 2022, Engstrom said.

Cloquet School Board Chair Ted Lammi told the Pine Journal his board has not yet discussed the tuition agreement as a group, but it will be a topic at the board's next meeting Monday, Aug. 9.