In the wake of tuition agreement talks between Cloquet and Carlton moving forward, the Wrenshall School Board discussed the implications for their athletics program during a special meeting Wednesday, July 28.
Board vice chair Jack Eudy brought the subject — which was not included with the posted agenda — up at the end of the meeting, and said he was concerned about the opportunities for Carlton athletes if they choose to open enroll at Wrenshall instead of going to Cloquet.
The potential tuition agreement between Carlton and Cloquet became an issue when Carlton’s superintendent announced during a July 19 school board meeting that informal talks between the districts had resulted in a general framework for more discussions. The Carlton School Board reached a consensus to move forward with formal talks during the meeting and the Cloquet School Board will discuss it at its next meeting Monday, Aug. 9, according to Cloquet board chair Ted Lammi.
Eudy said he had looked into eligibility requirements, and students who go to Cloquet from Carlton under a negotiated tuition agreement could play sports immediately. However, if a Carlton student open enrolls to Wrenshall, the Minnesota State High School League would require them to sit out for a year before they can participate in varsity athletics.
The boards for Carlton and Wrenshall were involved in advanced talks to consolidate the two small districts that are four miles apart. Talks stalled when needed legislation failed to get the approval of the Minnesota Legislature and disagreements began to emerge between the boards over debt sharing.
At that point, Carlton began informal talks with Cloquet over a tuition agreement to send its high school students to Cloquet.
Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro said she was “unsettled” by how the tuition agreement came about, but the Carlton-Wrenshall Raptors football team will compete as a cooperative team this fall and the two districts are trying to come together for track next spring. If Carlton and Cloquet come to an agreement, the cooperative agreements for Raptor football and any other sports would come to an end.
The MSHSL offers a "special circumstance" waiver Belcastro said she believes would allow Carlton students who open enroll to Wrenshall to play sports right away. She said Wrenshall would apply for the waiver and she would “fight for the students” to not lose out on an opportunity.
“Some of us and some people think this is a special circumstance,” Belcastro said. “If that high school is truly going to be closed in just over a year, then it is a special circumstance when those families are deciding where their students are going to go to school.”
Belcastro raised the possibility of Wrenshall entering into a similar tuition agreement with Carlton for high school students. Carlton Superintendent John Engstrom was asked a similar question at a Carlton School Board meeting June 21. 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.
Wrenshall has a disproportionately large number of students who open enroll into the district — less than half of its students live within the school district's boundaries. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 189 students open enrolled into Wrenshall in the 2020-2021 school year. Wrenshall’s average daily attendance during the same year was 365 students.
Eudy, as well as board members Michelle Blanchard and Alice Kloepfer, expressed concern that Carlton students would miss out on playing time or not make sports teams if they were in school at Cloquet.
“Just because they have an open tuition agreement with Cloquet, not everyone is going to make the team,” Eudy said.
Engstrom said Carlton has already been in touch with the MSHSL in the event a tuition agreement with Cloquet becomes a reality. Carlton is asking the league to allow students in 2022 who open enroll to a contiguous school district other than Cloquet — such as Barnum, Cromwell-Wright, Esko or Wrenshall — to compete in their new school immediately.
There is still plenty of work to be done on the potential agreement, Engstrom said, but the district wants to make sure its current athletes have a place to play no matter what happens.
“Carlton is trying to take care of the people who choose not to go to Cloquet,” Engstrom said.
Belcastro said she wants to make sure that all students have plenty of opportunities to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
“It doesn’t matter to me if the kids go to Carlton or Wrenshall, but there shouldn’t be one kid that misses out on an opportunity now,” Belcastro said. “We’ve had enough missed opportunities with COVID and everything we’ve been doing, and it’s not OK.”