As talks between officials in the Cloquet and Carlton school districts begin to heat up, at least one school board member in Carlton is unhappy with the direction of her district’s long term plans.

Ann Gustafson was out of town for the board’s July meeting when Superintendent John Engstrom announced that talks with Cloquet had resulted in a general framework for a tuition agreement to send Carlton’s high school students to Cloquet as soon as fall 2022.

Gustafson supported a second community survey asking residents to make their preference known from three options: consolidation with Wrenshall; building a Pre-K-12 school at South Terrace Elementary School; or expanding South Terrace to a Pre-K-8 school and developing a tuition agreement with Cloquet.

In June, however, other Carlton School Board members voted to take consolidation off the table, leaving the district with just two options. A referendum to build a Pre-K-12 building at South Terrace was resoundingly defeated in 2017.

RELATED: Carlton, Cloquet to continue tuition agreement talks

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RELATED: Carlton, Wrenshall officials pause school consolidation talks

Carlton Board Chair Julianne Emerson said a survey was still a possibility, but Gustafson wasn’t interested in paying for a second survey with only two options.

“If people are only thinking of two options, I think the decision has already been made to move forward with one,” Gustafson said. “I mean, why pay $10,000 if you’re only doing these two options ... I was for it when it included a consolidation component.”

While Gustafson said there was “strong community support” for consolidation, Emerson and board member Sue Karp both said there was reason for a survey because they had heard from residents supporting the Pre-K-12 option.

“I do think there is merit to it,” Emerson said. “Of the options out there right now, the ones that have been coming back to me most prominently are the K-12 option, not consolidation.”

In describing the decision-making process, Engstrom said the school board “deserves credit for collecting and examining a broad set of data.”

“Everybody up here is painfully aware of the fact that some folks in the community are going to be upset with whatever decision is made, but a decision has to be made,” Engstrom said. “The district cannot continue operating as is. Nor, quite frankly, can we afford to take the time to go back and relitigate past decisions.”

Gustafson said the board failed to “reality test” the decision before moving forward in talks with Cloquet and pointed back to the previous survey as evidence of community support for consolidation.

“We don’t know if the community as a whole would support that,” she said. “We’re going down this road, we’re doing all this work again and we’re just kind of going in blind. It’s really, to me, very disturbing that this is the route.”

In early 2020, just over 50% of Carlton residents said they would support up to $40 million in renovations and expansions to Wrenshall School and South Terrace in a proposed consolidation plan.

The tax impacts provided to those taking the survey assumed the Minnesota Legislature would change a 2014 law making school consolidations eligible for enhanced debt equalization aid. The aid would have paid for approximately 47% of the construction costs in a consolidation. The Minnesota Legislature, however, did not include the change in the bonding bill passed in October 2020.

The districts split the cost of hiring lobbyist Reid Lebeau to help guide the legislation. When Carlton proposed renewing the contract with Lebeau in February 2021, Wrenshall declined to split the cost.

This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Ann Gustafson's last name. It was updated at 4:45 p.m. Aug. 11. It was originally posted at 4 p.m. Aug. 11. The Pine Journal regrets the error.