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Cloquet, Carlton to discuss consolidation



It was late August when Carlton School District officials sent a letter to Cloquet, wondering if the larger school district would be interested in discussing possible consolidation.

On Tuesday, Cloquet School Board members agreed with Cloquet Superintendent Ken Scarbrough that it is an idea worth exploring. Carefully.

"I indicated [to Carlton] we'd be interested in looking at what's best for the kids, what's best for our school districts, but we want to do it in a very deliberate and open manner," Scarbrough said, before asking for board members to volunteer to serve on a subcommittee. "The understanding has to be that this is an open process. We're not going to do anything behind closed doors."

School Board members Dave Battaglia — who worked for the Carlton School District for 30 years — Ted Lammi and Nate Sandman volunteered to meet with Carlton School Board members for the initial discussions.

Scarbrough said that legally there are many factors to consider, including finance, debt, student populations, personnel contracts, and more. In addition, there's the simple question of facilities. Cloquet just built a new middle school and moved the fifth-graders up to the middle school to make more room in the crowded elementary schools.

Community member James Mallery asked the board, "Is there room for another 40-45 students in each grade at the middle school and high school," under the assumption that Carlton's South Terrace Elementary School would remain open if the two districts consolidated.

Scarbrough said determining facility needs would be part of the deliberate and careful process, and would involve the help of professional consultants.

Carlton and Wrenshall school districts have also discussed consolidation in the past, and two rounds of talks between the school boards failed over the past two years. Many residents of the small school districts are still pushing for consolidation, and some Carlton residents had suggested looking at Cloquet.

Both Wrenshall and Carlton lost building bond referendums this year by more than 70 percent, when the school districts asked voters to approve money to improve or build new facilities for the small school districts.

In other matters Monday, the various school principals reported on the start of school, with many positive comments on the new middle school and the renovation projects at the other schools.

"It puts our kids on a more even playing field," said Connie Hyde, principal at the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program on the third floor of the Garfield building where they got new office and counseling spaces, along with new "amazing" bathrooms. "It lets the kids know they matter."

CMS Principal Tom Brenner said things are still changing daily at the new middle school, as construction is ongoing. The industrial tech room is still unfinished, as are the boilers and some bathrooms. They also have a "punch list," he said, of final touches that need to be completed, including the front entry.

"There are a lot of little things that need to be fixed before they pick up their bags and leave," Brenner said of the army of construction workers.

The school doesn't have a PA system yet, or bells to mark class periods.

"All of the staff have been fabulous and very patient," Brenner told the board, adding that the basketball hoops for the outside play space should also be in this week, and the new bike racks have arrived so kids can stop locking their bikes to the fence.

Traffic has been an issue, but things are improving on a daily basis. School staff are now monitoring the pickup lanes next to the building and not allowing parents to park their cars and get out to go find their child, otherwise it causes a huge backup of cars, as they discovered on Day 1.

"Now we've got it to where parents should be able to get in and out in about 10 minutes," he said. "Of course, some people are figuring out different places to pick up their children, like the church parking lot (off 18th street) or the laundromat.

When Mallery asked if the district was still under budget for construction, district finance director Candace Nelis said yes.

Scarbrough noted that the district still has $1.3 million set aside for the demolition of the old middle school if the sale doesn't go through. If the sale is successful, that money could be spent elsewhere.

The new Cloquet Middle School grand opening and community tours will be held from 6-9 p.m. today, Thursday, Sept. 14. The new Early Childhood wing at Churchill Elementary School is also holding an open house from 5-7 p.m. today. The public is invited to both.

Board members also voted unanimously Monday to hold this year's CHS graduation ceremony in the new middle school gym.