Two Carlton School Board members expressed concern over a lack of community support for a tuition agreement with Cloquet during the board’s committee of the whole meeting Monday, Sept. 13.
Board vice chair Sam Ojibway and member Eryn Symczak both said they’ve seen little enthusiasm for the plan that would send Carlton’s high school students to Cloquet since the details about the plan emerged over the summer.
Symczak said parents and students at Carlton aren’t excited about attending a school as large as Cloquet. Instead, they want the small school atmosphere that exists in Carlton.
“I haven’t come across one parent or one community member in the last month since our school board meeting that is for our high school students going to Cloquet,” Symczak said. “I think there are a lot of people that just still don’t understand. They feel their high school students are being abandoned and neglected, that we’re not putting money into them.”
Symczak said she encouraged the people she spoke with to attend some of the school board meetings to learn more about the tuition agreement, but only two members of the public attended Monday’s meeting.
Ojibway said the people he spoke with are “overwhelmingly” in favor of pursuing a single K-12 school instead of the K-8 with a tuition agreement.
Ojibway and Symczak are both members — along with board chair Julianne Emerson and Superintendent John Engstrom — of the committee negotiating the agreement with Cloquet.
Ann Gustafson asked if the Minnesota Department of Education would approve a referendum for a new K-12 facility.
“My understanding is that in 2017 with 50-60 more kids than we have now and the ask was in the range of $23 million,” Engstrom said. “Even that was a tough sell with MDE in the past and it was not a sell at all with the community in terms of the level with which it was rejected.”
Emerson and board member Tim Hagenah both said the reaction they’ve seen around the community has been more mixed.
Hagenah also said the community might become more supportive of the tuition agreement once it was implemented, much like when the district moved sixth graders from South Terrace Elementary School to Carlton High School several years ago.
“When we moved sixth graders over to the high school, that ruffled a lot of parents at the time,” Hagenah said. “After they got moved over and we started the middle school concept with the sixth, seventh and eighth graders — halfway through the school year, a lot of the parents that had big concerns, they thought it was a good plan.”
Gustafson urged the board to reconsider a survey of the community with three options: a K-8 plan with a tuition agreement, a K-12 plan and consolidation with Wrenshall.
“If we really want true information that’s going to get us to the place that we need to move, we can’t just go with anecdotal conversations,” Gustafson said.
Referendum ‘would feel rushed’
Engstrom also recommended the board pause planning for a referendum to expand South Terrace to a K-8 school until the tuition agreement with Cloquet is complete.
“I’ve really thought about this and looked at where we are in the calendar year and all the backfilling that would need to happen,” Engstrom said. “Doing a referendum right now would feel rushed. I would recommend hitting the pause button on a referendum ... and see if we could get the tuition agreement worked out. We could function in the short term with two sites, let it breathe, give it some time and come back to the community a couple years down the road with a clear understanding of where we are at.”
Emerson said she thought pausing referendum talks now could be beneficial and allow the board to work out the final details of a tuition agreement and also explore the possibility of a K-12 school in the district.
Emerson also encouraged members of the public to reach out to board members or Engstrom with questions or concerns about the tuition agreement or the future of the district.