A public meeting regarding the future of the Carlton School District yielded no easy answers, but provided proof that many Carlton residents are passionately engaged in their school district, they just don't agree.
School facilities were the immediate concern at the Tuesday night meeting. However, the issue of what to do about the aging school buildings following this summer's failed building referendum is part of the larger question of long-term plans for the school district.
Nearly 150 people attended the 2 1/2-hour meeting. Twenty audience members shared their thoughts and questions and every school board member spoke at the end of the meeting. As requested by the superintendent, disparaging comments were kept to a minimum, although it was apparently a divisive issue in the small community.
Carlton resident Ann Gustafson pointed to a previous speaker's comments about the great kids, teachers and families that make up the district.
"It breaks my heart that people demonize people who are not for just dumping money into an old facility, rather than spending it in a way that brings communities together," said Gustafson, who was part of a previous community group advocating for a combined Carlton-Wrenshall school district and who has one child in the district.
"When you talk about tearing communities apart, I challenge people to ask themselves: Would all those great things people have mentioned — sports, teachers, families — not be true, if we were to consolidate with Wrenshall?" Gustafson said.
Mom and active volunteer Amy DeCaigny was close to tears when she spoke about all the wonderful activities her children have been able to do, and the need for better facilities.
"They deserve clean air and warm rooms," DeCaigny said. "We shouldn't have to fight so hard, and have people talk trash about our schools and our teachers. We've always been one of the cheapest districts — is that what our kids deserve? We need to invest in our schools now."
Businessman Wes Vork suggested consolidating with Wrenshall and using two of the existing buildings until the combined district has enough money to build one new building on a neutral site. Former board member Mandi Rosebrock wants the board to create a vision everyone can support.
Many audience members supported the board in its likely path of bonding for health and safety improvements without voter approval while others advocated for consolidation again.
Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman explained that the state allows school districts to bond for things like air quality fixes, fire suppression (neither school has a sprinkler system) and asbestos removal without voter approval. Abatement bonds for parking lot and sidewalk repairs can also be made without going to the voters.
In addition, she noted, the board could bond for some building repairs and pay the money back through long-term facility maintenance funds.
Carman said the estimate for projects at South Terrace totals about $5.6 million for an annual tax impact of about $122 on a house valued at $150,000. She didn't have an estimate for the high school, because it has much greater needs and will be a more expensive and complicated project that the board likely would not tackle until the summer of 2019.
The large group reached no consensus, although the majority of the school board members stressed the need for making building health and safety improvements soon.
On the subject of consolidation with another school district, Carman said talks with Cloquet halted after two meetings, although the two districts are exploring more ways to work together as they already partner on some sports. The majority of board members also seemed to reject the idea of consolidating with Wrenshall, with the exception of Jennifer Chmielewski.
"I think it would have been interesting if we'd had the election in August for consolidation with Wrenshall, rather than a new building," Chmielewski said. "If the people decided they didn't want it, then we'd be making a new plan."
Board member Julianne Emerson hadn't given the Wrenshall proposal for two-site consolidation, with grades 6-8 in Wrenshall and preK-5 at Carlton's South Terrace, much consideration because the neighboring school district had not reached out to Carlton.
"I'm not aware that we've been invited back to the table," she said, noting that the Carlton Board voted on six different options in April 2016, and Wrenshall didn't pass its new resolution regarding a two-site solution until December. It didn't "officially" notify Carlton of that decision until just before the meeting Tuesday, when the board chairman delivered the resolution 11 months after the vote. (Editor's note: The December Wrenshall vote has been covered more than once in the Pine Journal, and Carlton officials have known of the vote because the paper and their constituents have brought it up repeatedly.)
Board member Board member LaRae Lehto also weighed in on the subject.
"We tried consolidating with Wrenshall. It didn't work and we should move forward. We tried a new building and that didn't work," Lehto said. "For seven years (since the district was in statutory operating debt), we've put things on hold. We need to take care of the kids now."
She noted that the proposed improvements are strictly for health and safety, "nothing fancy."
Responding to an earlier question, board Chairman Tim Hagenah said he and Carman had met with some Carlton County commissioners to discuss the possibility of the county expanding onto the Carlton High School site should the district have reason to close the high school
Carlton resident Timothy Soden-Groves took an entirely different direction when he took his turn to speak for three minutes, advising the board and audience that he is part of a "common ground" effort aimed at finding things that Carlton County residents can agree on. As part of that effort, he and others distributed copies of a paper poll and asked people to respond anonymously to several questions about Carlton School District options. That poll is also available online at surveymonkey.com/r/HWJHZ8Z. Soden-Groves said he hopes to have the answers collated by next week.
The lack of dialogue between residents and board members is an ongoing concern for some residents, who asked that the board change its policies so they could have a two-way conversation during meetings.
Lehto explained that the majority of school boards follow a similar policy, to keep meetings moving along, and it's part of the training for the board members.
While there was no vote Tuesday, the school board has a Committee of the Whole meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, and a regular board meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 20, when they may approve South Terrace elementary school projects for summer 2018.
Both meetings are public, but residents are not allowed to comment at the committee meeting.