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It’s official: No consolidation for Carlton, Wrenshall

CARLTON—In separate votes that surprised no one familiar with the issue, Carlton and Wrenshall school boards both voted unanimously to support consolidation with one prekindergarten-through-12th grade facility in their own city. Different cities four miles apart.

Official end of discussion … or at least until the next community petition or school board election.

While the vote on a preK-12 school in Wrenshall with a sports/community complex at Carlton’s South Terrace was the only option voted on and passed by the Wrenshall board — two other facility options failed to get a motion and a third died for lack of a second — the Carlton board considered a total of six options and voted on five of those.

In addition to voting 6-0 in support of a preK-12th grade facility at South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton, the Carlton board also voted 6-0 in favor of putting the question of where to place a preK-12 facility (Wrenshall or Carlton) to the voters, on the condition that Wrenshall also put the question to its voters and that the state legislature approve equalization aid for school districts that are consolidating.

The board also voted 5-1 in favor of a two-site solution, with the elementary grades in Wrenshall and secondary grades at South Terrace.

Two votes tied — and failed as a result — including one that outlined a two-site solution with the elementary school at South Terrace and the secondary grades in Wrenshall, and another that simply approved consolidating with the three existing facilities (the high school and South Terrace in Carlton and the preK-12 school in Wrenshall) and the understanding that a future consolidated school board would select one site for construction of a consolidated preK-12 school.

Carlton Board member Michael Gay motioned for the vote on the two site solution with a preK-4 facility at South Terrace and grades 5-12 at Wrenshall, which ultimately failed.

“I think this is the best option if we’re going to end this off-and-on-again dating relationship and actually get married; this is really the only one that will get it done,” Gay said. “Both boards have drawn lines in the sand that they are not going to vacate their community … It doesn’t have to stay two buildings, but it would give the communities a chance to come together and make probably a better decision about what the long term facility should be.”

A motion to vote on a preK-12 facility in Wrenshall died for lack of a second in Carlton and didn’t get to a vote.

“Per last evening’s board meetings, it is evident that the consolidation talks are now over and both school districts are moving forward independently,” said Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro in an email response Tuesday, adding that the option that passed in Wrenshall also included a provision to partner with Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College for athletics and academics possibly.

The debate over consolidation between the neighboring school districts — which are just over four miles apart — isn’t new. Wrenshall resident and retired judge Dale Wolf said he remembered Wrenshall suggesting consolidation 60 years ago and Carlton saying no, with a back-and-forth discussion ever since.

Most recently, the two school boards hired a consultant in 2014 to help them explore consolidation. It was a discussion that basically ended in the same place a year ago, with both boards unwilling to give up a hometown school but also mostly unwilling to consider a two-site option because it would not be as efficient as one site.

Then along came Better Together, a grassroots community group that is pro-consolidation, which effectively forced the two boards back to the table by submitting a petition and subsequent plat to the Minnesota Department of Education outlining a two-site consolidated district that would be known as the Jay Cooke District. Under state law, once the plat was approved by the MDE commissioner, the two school districts had 45 days to vote yes or no on the suggested plat, or not vote at all, which is equivalent to a “no” vote.

The two boards vowed to approach round two of the consolidation debate with open minds, and chose different consultants to work with this time. An ad hoc committee of two board members and the superintendent of each school district met five times with the hopes that a smaller committee would be able to come to a consensus and take that recommendation to their respective boards. They couldn’t.

Better Together’s Mandi Rosebrock said the votes were disappointing, even though the process went further than in the past.

Better Together is simply a group of people, many of them parents with young children, who could care less where the facilities are located as long as consolidation occurs,” Rosebrock said. “We love living in Wrenshall and Carlton and we acknowledge that both schools have great staff and programming. However, we have a common dream that together they could simply do more for our kids if they could join forces. … It still just seems crazy to think that we can do everything else together — play, pray, party, and work together — but we cannot join forces to educate our kids?”

Still, board members from both districts have insisted it was a good process and a sincere one, and left the two sides with a better understanding of each other’s position, even if they couldn’t reach a compromise to bring the two district’s together.

“It was a very good feeling when we left that last [committee] meeting in the sense that these are two very distinct communities and we respect that,” said Carlton Board Chair Julianne Emerson, who served on the committee for Carlton along with Penny Bennett.

Bennett agreed, and tried to explain to the board and the 20-some community members at Monday’s meeting that Wrenshall was willing to talk, but they don’t have a lot of motivation to consolidate, in part because they’re comfortable with their more recently remodeled school and also because they might not have equal representation in a consolidated district.

“They are very proud of their community, like we are,” Bennett said. “What we have that they don’t (have) is the numbers. We have 70 percent (of the population). I assume they believe that any future decision would be in Carlton’s favor, because there are so many of us.”

Wrenshall’s board and community members also struggled at its own meeting the week before with the fact that Carlton already pays higher school district taxes, so if the two districts combined, it would be Wrenshall residents who would have sticker shock, even though property owners would be paying exactly the same amount of school district taxes in a consolidated district. As well, the one-site remodeling/construction estimate for Wrenshall was cheaper, coming in at $29 million versus $37 million for one-site at South Terrace.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Bennett said, noting at one point that the Wrenshall board members and citizens felt like Carlton was trying to “cram” consolidation down their throats. “It would be easier if the school districts both were in more financial difficulty ... Because it’s going well, that made it more difficult to say let’s throw it all in and go.”

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman — who was thrown into the consolidation debate right when she started with the district three months ago — stressed that Carlton is in a good place.

“I think it’s imperative I tell all of you and all of our communities that the Carlton School District is not in crisis. With or without consolidation, I am confident and excited about our future. This district has been through a lot. It’s overcome a long period of hardship,” Carman said, referring to Carlton’s climb out of significant operating debt in 2011 and 2012. “However, that is in the past. We have excellent education happening and we have strong community support.”

Most of the board members and some community members expressed hope that the two school districts would work together again, as they have in the past, to partner in extracurricular, athletic and academic endeavors that might not have enough students in just one school district.

Emerson, who graduated from Carlton, said she hears good things from many of her peers and others who played on teams or took classes with Wrenshall students.

“That led to a discussion of where do we work best together,” Emerson said. “We’ve had great success with baseball and softball, track and field. We did express very clearly that we don’t want it to be only in times of attrition, so the kids and the community could depend on it long-term.”

More than “pairing and sharing” Emerson said, it was more of a discussion of where does each school’s strengths lie and how can they come together to benefit the kids.

They hope to proceed slowly and carefully with that discussion in the future, she said.

Gay was disappointed the two communities couldn’t come together on a two-site solution, noting that he is the only board member who supported two sites all along.

“There’s an opportunity here to do something great … great sports, great offerings in education,” he said, also questioning the high numbers for a two-site solution.

As the discussion drew to a close after the voting, Carman said she hoped the board would talk about long-term planning at its retreat the following week.