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To move forward, Carlton will revisit the past

It wouldn't be a surprise if both Carlton and Wrenshall school district residents and school board members occasionally feel like they're living out the plot to the "Groundhog Day" movie, where the same day repeats itself until weatherman Phil Connors finally starts learning from his mistakes and gets his producer, Rita, to fall in love with him.

Except in the case of Carlton and Wrenshall, the issue of consolidation has repeatedly resurfaced over the decades, and ultimately failed to materialize each time.

The last time members of the two boards met to discuss consolidation was in 2016 and talks ended in a stalemate. Since then, the two districts have tried to move forward without each other with only middling success.

After building referendums in each district in 2017, the two districts took different paths. The Carlton School Board passed a non-voter-approved levy to fix a number of health and safety issues at South Terrace — work is nearly complete — and the Wrenshall School Board is asking voters to approve a building referendum in November.

But the residents won't let go of the consolidation issue.

Carlton School Board members found that out last month when a group of 15 volunteer community advisers presented their strategic planning report. Although the board supported the idea of getting more community input, the committee worked completely independently of the board.

It took the advisers, with guidance and support from at least three different consultants/researchers, six months to research and draft the report. Drawing from individual interviews with a diverse group of 36 residents, a community meeting with 70-plus attendees, a staff visioning session and an online survey, the community advisers worked after each stage to analyze and organize the input from residents.

With ideas running the gamut from building a new K-12 building for Carlton students to increased vocational programs to consolidation or even dissolution of the school district, it wasn't easy. But the goal wasn't to tell the School Board what to do, step-by-step; rather, it was to help the board understand what residents and staff really think, and to develop a general vision and strategy for the district that focused on student results as well as the physical learning environment.

Three of the recurring themes throughout the report were financial concerns in the face of declining enrollment, support for consolidation and collaboration with other school districts and a strong wish that the School Board not pass anymore non-voter-approved levies.

Ultimately, the community advisers offered four broad goals, or "vision elements" to the board, which didn't specifically include or exclude the idea of consolidation:

• "Our students benefit from schools and communities that have mutually strong, supportive and collaborative relationships.

• Our students have access to good instruction, tools and curriculum in an inviting atmosphere that prepares all students for their future.

• Our students benefit from schools that are educationally strong, financially healthy and have a growing enrollment.

• Our students have a physical learning environment that is safe, flexible, functional, appealing and well-maintained, that supports 21st century learning and that is open to the public."

The board discussed the strategic report and related items for during a three-hour-long retreat Aug. 21.

During that meeting, Carman said the board decided to pursue an invitation to the Wrenshall School Board to reopen discussions about the consolidation of the two school districts. "Hopefully, the Wrenshall community will also embrace and recommend their board support consolidation discussions," she said.

Based on her experience in the short-lived consolidation discussions between the two districts in 2016, Carman is hoping for two things if Wrenshall agrees to meet again:

• That the two school boards will hire a professional facilitator to help guide them through the discussions;

• That the state Legislature will come through with funding to help consolidating school districts with new construction — an issue brought forward in 2016, but which never passed.

Carman said the Carlton School Board also discussed getting community groups from Carlton and Wrenshall together, noting that a number of the Carlton community advisers volunteered to meet with counterparts in Wrenshall if that works out.

Carlton School Board members also asked Carman to draft an implementation work plan for the strategic report and revise some of the vision wording.

They will discuss those changes at a Committee of the Whole meeting Monday, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m. in the Carlton High School library. That meeting is open to the public.

Wrenshall will hold an informational meeting about its upcoming referendum and a new Wrenshall Building Trades Academy proposal at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, in the Wrenshall School commons area.