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Consolidation talks end in stalemate

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Perhaps the only consensus on the issue of consolidation between Carlton and Wrenshall is that there is no consensus.

And that, effectively, means that the issue is dead, again — although both school boards have yet to vote on the issue.

More than 75 residents turned out for a public meeting on consolidation in Wrenshall Tuesday night that lasted close to 90 minutes. Audience members heard how thorough and open the two school boards and superintendents have tried to be in round two of the talks, which were revived by a community petition after consolidation talks petered out a year ago. The crowd heard how much effort the two groups have made, how many experts and legislators they’ve talked to and how — after all that — the ad hoc consolidation committee still couldn’t find a solution both sides could agree on at Thursday’s fifth and final committee meeting.

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman was in the audience and explained after the meeting why that meeting’s results sounded a death knell for the consolidation efforts, explaining that the committee members were supposed to “come to consensus and take that to their respective boards,” she said. They didn’t.

Although that didn’t happen, the boards will still formally vote on several different consolidation options at their respective regular board meetings on Monday, April 18, and nothing is certain until those votes are taken, including a vote on the plat put forth by the pro-consolidation group Better Together (the first consolidation petition in Minnesota history) and approved by Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius.

“We just want you to know that we really tried hard to come together and at this point in time, we have not,” Wrenshall Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro told the crowd. “It’s been very difficult here — and I’m sure in Carlton — on our staff members, our students, our community members. They want to know what’s going on. They want to know what things are going to look like. … At the same time, I truly respect our board that has also really dug deep and considered some options and really worked hard on thinking how can we do this. Because I think they think it would benefit our kids but they also know there has to be a compromise that would work for both communities.

“My motto is ‘both communities have to gain something out of the deal or it can’t happen.’ I truly believe that’s the case.”

The committee, which was made up of the superintendent and two school board members from each school district, worked with financial consultants from Ehlers Public Finance and architects from Krech Ojard & Associates. The superintendents have also been working with the state legislature to try to get enhanced debt equalization, which — if it passes — could cover as much as half of a consolidated building project by increasing the amount that the state kicks in toward paying off debt, therefore lessening the taxpayers’ burden.

Janaki Fisher-Merritt, treasurer of the Wrenshall School Board and one of the committee members, said both boards favor a one-site school serving pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. However, the Wrenshall board members want it in Wrenshall, where they are still paying for building renovations and which has more existing space (50 percent) already, and the Carlton Board wants it at South Terrace Elementary, which architects estimated has 28 percent of the required square footage but more usable acreage (22 versus 18).

The one-site estimate for Wrenshall was cheaper, coming in at $29 million versus $37 million for one-site at South Terrace, which is a more central location, although the two cities are less than five miles apart anyway.

A new master plan for two different two-site solutions came in at $32 or $35 million, more than twice what the previous consultants had said last year.

Fisher-Merritt said the previous consultant hadn’t included much renovation in the estimates while this plan is looking forward 20 years, hence the different costs.

“Is this a Cadillac plan (for the two-site options)?” asked Karola Delan.

Fisher-Merritt said no, but it was a “pretty good school” plan.

“So it’s a Toyota plan?” Delan responded.

Fisher-Merritt said the committee did agree on some things.

“We did find that there’s a lot of overlap in our vision as far as we want for our students,” he said, detailing various teaching and learning goals shared by the neighboring districts. “Unfortunately, facilities continued to be a real sticking point.”

He explained that the Wrenshall vision was to have a pre-K through 12th grade building in Wrenshall, by adding on some square footage and remodeling what they have, and also building a sports, activity and community center at South Terrace, so they would not be left with nothing.

“It’s a hard thing for a community to have a school taken away,” he said, also noting that Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College proposed putting a million dollars into the sports project, which would mean better shared facilities for the high school and junior college students.

Money was an issue for some in the crowd. A senior citizen talked about how much her taxes would go up if the consolidation passed and a new facility were built, noting that she and her husband would probably have to sell their home in that case.

Others weighed in on the opposite side, including Delan, a member of the Better Together group, and Jeff Holmes.

“I have $150,000 property, 30 acres and a small farmhouse, a fixer upper,” Delan said. “We pay $1,000 a year in taxes and I’m willing to pay $2,000 a year if it’s going to benefit our community school, our children’s education and the children that come after my kids, that they’re getting the best education that they can get.”

Tony Sheda Sr. said he had six children go through school in Wrenshall and get a good education. He asked what benefits would consolidation bring for the extra taxes and effort.

More stability in numbers, more extracurricular offerings and elective classes, he heard from the board.

A handout showed how much taxes would increase in each community if the different one-site options were built. Right now, Wrenshall pays lower taxes. That means Wrenshall taxes will go up more than Carlton taxes if everyone pays the same amount due to consolidation.

That worried Jack Eudy, who had written “NO” on a name tag stuck to his pocket and said he was thinking of people who have had land in the area for a long time who would see a bigger tax hike. However, Eudy did later suggest that the South Terrace site could make an excellent vocational site for a consolidated district as well as FDLTCC, pointing out that not all kids should go to college and that trades and skills can offer excellent wages.

The fact that Wrenshall’s building is in very good condition was also a point of pride for both board and audience members.

Retired Carlton County Judge Dale Wolf spoke, starting out by talking about the “immediate building crisis” at Carlton High School and issues with passing building bonds in Carlton versus Wrenshall, which did pass a building bond, in part by getting community members involved and supporting the school in years past.

“It’s cheaper to build in Wrenshall by $8 million,” Wolf pointed out. “If you put a new site in Carlton, all these people here who voted to have this beautiful building here, who supported it, we’re not going to be real happy to bail Carlton out of its building crisis.”

Fisher-Merritt agreed with Wolf on Wrenshall being a cheaper option and a good building. He said that’s part of why they suggested creating a sports complex in Carlton.

“Let Carlton have those Friday night football games, let them have a facility the community can still gather in and be proud of,” he said. “We thought that option had some chance of success, especially if we worked with other organizations like the college.”

Wolf, who worked in Carlton for 40 years, pointed out there are uses for the land that Carlton High School sits on now if it were torn down, pointing out the proximity to the courthouse.

“Carlton will continue to exist as a community because it is more than a school,” he said. “The bank is there, the restaurants and other businesses are there, the courthouse is there. That’s a much different profile than Wrenshall, where the school is the heart and soul of our community.”

With consolidation likely off the table for now, community members wanted to know if the two districts would look at pairing-and-sharing for some classes, extracurriculars and athletic programs.

Board member Matt Laveau said yes, he thought the chances were good.

“We brought that up at the end of the committee meeting, and asked (the Carlton committee members) where they stand on that,” Laveau said. “Basically it comes down to what we’re trying to accomplish with consolidation, we could do with pairing and sharing. We want more opportunities for our children. When I went to school here, we played softball and baseball together, fought it out on the basketball court, everyone got along just great. There were electives, almost every class (period) of the day there was a van going back and forth.

“Carlton sounded like they were willing to work on that,” he said. “We all agreed in that room that night that we could accomplish a lot of the same things by just getting along.”