Wrenshall citizens weigh in on $12.5M building plan

WRENSHALL--Numerous arguments in support of and opposition to the Wrenshall school district's $12.5 million bond referendum were made in a packed community forum Tuesday night.

A student wearing a shirt supporting the $12.5 million Wrenshall School project passes by a sign opposing the project at the entrance to a community meeting Tuesday in the school commons of Wrenshall School. The meeting was about a proposed $12.5 million project to update school facilities. Clint Austin/Forum News Service

WRENSHALL-Numerous arguments in support of and opposition to the Wrenshall school district's $12.5 million bond referendum were made in a packed community forum Tuesday night.

Some in the audience, wearing "Grow Wrens" T-shirts, said voting for the referendum on April 18 would be an investment in children's education, but others pointed out that although they support education, they can't afford a tax increase on a fixed income.

The increase would pay for renovations and to construct an addition to the Wrenshall K-12 school. About $70,000 would be earmarked for updating technology at the school. The school's PA system - which is how school lockdowns are announced - needs to be replaced, and the phone system no longer meets the state's requirements for location information if a 911 call is made from the school, said TJ Smith, the school's technology director.

The current building can house up to 500 students, although when it was built elementary numbers were smaller, affecting capacity now as different age groups need different types of spaces. New construction will add space for another 100 students. The building footprint would go from 133,479 square feet to nearly 182,000. Some of the proposed highlights include expanding the metal and wood shop, creating a computer assisted drafting lab, and building new classrooms and a new cafeteria and gym.

The plan - approved by the state - calls for Wrenshall district homeowners to pay $270 per year on a home valued at $150,000, for 20 years. Another part of the project is a proposed $1 million wellness center, which voters will not weigh in on, financed through the lease levy. The district is seeking a financial partner for that, which could lower the cost.


The issue of open enrollment - 40 percent of Wrenshall's students don't live in the school district - was repeatedly raised on Tuesday due to concerns that open enrollment numbers could decrease or questions about why the district hasn't capped open enrollment. That prompted some parents who live outside the district to point out that they chose the school because of its smaller size and its community feel.

In response to a question about the school's future if the referendum doesn't pass, Wrenshall School Board member Janaki Fisher-Merritt said it wouldn't mean an end to the school.

"It doesn't mean everything is going to go downhill. What it does mean is that we've missed an opportunity to really set ourselves apart and really ensure our stability. There are no guarantees about anything, but it really sets us up well for the next 20 years, to be able to provide the type of education our kids need," Fisher-Merritt said.

Superintendent Kim Belcastro opened Tuesday's forum by saying that open enrollment has been a "misunderstood topic." Open enrollment is mandated by the state and those students are considered the same as resident students as soon as they enroll in the school, Belcastro said. The district's 134 open enrollment students bring in about $1 million annually, she said.

"What that does for us here is that allows the district to keep the operating levies low here," she said.

Nearby districts also rely on open enrollment, although not to the extent of Wrenshall. Carlton sits with more than 30 percent of its students from another district, while Cloquet, Proctor and Esko about 20 percent, according to the Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium.

Wrenshall teacher Denise North pointed out that open enrollment also creates more stability in the district. Declining enrollment means teachers are cut or need to go down to part time, something that she's seen happen before in her 20 years at Wrenshall. It also boosts Wrenshall's athletics. Without the additional students it gains, the district would not be able to have sports teams, she said.

Trish Swanson, a Wrenshall alumna who now works at the school, open enrolled her seven children in Wrenshall and her grandchildren are open enrolled in the district. She urged people to support the referendum.


"Kids are our future. Our grandparents paid for kids, our parents paid for kids. Why would any of us question to help pay for kids, no matter where they live?" she asked. "Our own resident students don't turn their backs on open enrolled students; why would adults?"

Wrenshall resident Dan Conley said the referendum is a good idea with nice plans. However, he said, "We're relying on kids from Duluth, which is a variable. It's not for sure. We're relying on kids from Carlton, which is another variable, not for sure."

He also pointed out that there could be an increase to Carlton County taxes because of a utility lawsuit going through the tax courts ... on top of increased taxes from the school district's referendum.

"This isn't scare tactics; this is reality. We have to deal with reality. There's people on fixed incomes, but there's people that own homes and ... it's going to hurt you bad. It's going to be a lot of money," he said.

Carol Anderson, who taught at Wrenshall for 28 years and had two children graduate from the school, said she's concerned about increasing taxes as a senior citizen. She said she's heard comments that other senior citizens are doing fine financially and it won't be that much of a burden on older residents. She likely won't be around for the next 20 years, but that burden will then fall on the family that buys her house, she said.

"That's why I cannot in good, fair judgment vote for the [referendum]. I'm not against education, I was in education for over 30 years," she said.

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