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School consolidation talks reach stalemate

Consolidation talks between Wrenshall and Carlton dissolved Monday night, as the desire to retain a school in each community proved to be the dealbreaker.

Consolidation talks between Wrenshall and Carlton dissolved Monday night, as the desire to retain a school in each community proved to be the dealbreaker.

Despite what Carlton School Superintendent Peter Haapala called “some forward movement” previously in the talks, both districts have now gone back to the drawing board to examine their own long-range plans - and one of them is even looking at the possibility of sending some of its students to Cloquet.

After more than two hours of earnest discussion among members of both school boards during the meeting at Carlton High School, the Wrenshall board voted 3-1 to move ahead with the plan to unite the two small neighboring districts. But moving forward required positive votes from both boards, and the motion failed on a 3-3 vote on the Carlton side.

Technically, both votes were straw polls. Wrenshall board member Janaki Fisher-Merritt explained that their board couldn’t legally take a binding vote away from Wrenshall, and Carlton members said in that event they didn’t want their vote to be binding, either.

But both Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro and Carlton Superintendent Peter Haapala said Monday’s actions effectively killed the issue.

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“I was very pleased with the input given by both of the school boards,” said Belcastro on Tuesday. “It is clear that the Wrenshall Board is willing to consolidate if the facility choice would be to make significant updates and building improvements at the Wrenshall site. I truly felt that this was great progress and being open minded to even the concept of consolidation.”

Haapala recognized the fact that the Carlton vote was evenly split, but acknowledged that half the board “strongly believed that the South Terrace (Elementary) site (in Carlton) is more centrally located and a better location for a K-12 building.”

“I still have to talk with our Board chair later today,” Haapala said on Wednesday, “but I think this ends our discussions with Wrenshall at this point.”

“It was evident that both of the boards were concerned about the ramifications of the idea of not having a school in their own communities,” agreed Belcastro.

That was the prevailing sentiment throughout the evening’s polite but adamant discussion before about 60 people.

Wrenshall members generally argued for expanding the existing Wrenshall School to serve the entire district as a preschool and K-12 school. Carlton members argued just as strongly for a preschool and K-12 school to be built new at the site of the current South Terrace Elementary.

Haapala suggested a third option: a preschool and K-5 school in Carlton and a 6-12 school in Wrenshall.

Carlton board member Michael Gay favored that idea.

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“It bridges the gap between the tables here,” he said. “And it works. It’s financially the best option.”

But that option drew little interest from other members on either board.

Ironically, it was the Carlton board that originally brought the consolidation idea to Wrenshall. But when pressed to give his recommendation, Haapala reluctantly suggested the plan not go forward.

“I see in 20 years even a combined district is probably not going to be viable,” Haapala explained later, adding that consolidating now might just add another painful step along the way.

“Looking at the demographics,” Haapala said, “the state says the school-age population will decrease across the county in the future. Then what are we going to do with seven districts in the county? Individually, all of them are doing an excellent job of educating kids, but maybe we could do even a better job as one district in terms of programming and services for kids.”

Belcastro spoke in favor of the consolidation, and of a single school building at Monday night’s meeting. A merger of the districts would create a single school of about 800 students.

“We are still small even if we had 800 kids,” Belcastro said.

Haapala further pointed out the efficiencies of just one building.

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“It’s not real efficient in the terms of staff, facilities and services having two different buildings,” he said.

Following the meeting, Belcastro admitted disappointment with the outcome.

“I was hopeful that the boards could have come together,” she said, adding, “They are elected officials and they spoke for their communities, and that’s what it’s all about.”

In the meantime, Belcastro said the Wrenshall School District will continue to move forward in offering a comprehensive PK-12 education at their current site, and the board will be doing their annual goal setting at their next Committee of the Whole meeting in March.

As for Carlton, Gay said he hoped for a cohesive next step among Carlton board members.

“I think everything is on the table from rebuilding in Carlton to doing something totally different,” Gay said.

Haapala said the Carlton School Board will be considering where it wants to go in the future, possibly in terms of further pairing and sharing of classes and extracurriculars with other schools, as well as looking at maintaining the Carlton District as it now is.

“We’ll also have to give some consideration to whether there’s voter support for a referendum in order to consider a new building or updates to the current ones,” said Haapala, adding that a prior rough estimate put the cost of a new K-12 school at some $26 million or updates to the current buildings at some $8.7 million.

Haapala said the district has also “put out some feelers” to assess the possibility of working with Cloquet, since the two schools already share in several athletic programs, even suggesting the possibility that Carlton could consider sending its approximately 250 students in grades 6-12 to Cloquet.

“These sorts of things are hard for people to talk about,” acknowledge Haapala, “but there are at least a couple of board members who have said they would be willing to look at it.”

Related Topics: CARLTONWRENSHALLEDUCATION
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