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A lot can happen in five years

Approximately five years ago, Peter Haapala started his new job as superintendent of the Carlton School District. He wasn't even done with his first week on the job when he found a letter -- in a pile of letters on his desk -- from the Minnesota ...

Approximately five years ago, Peter Haapala started his new job as superintendent of the Carlton School District.

He wasn’t even done with his first week on the job when he found a letter - in a pile of letters on his desk - from the Minnesota Department of Education informing the school district that it was in big trouble. The Carlton School District was so far in debt, in fact, the state threatened to withhold payment of funds to the school if the district didn’t submit a plan to get out of debt within three years, no simple task.

Carlton residents, school board members and staff were stunned. Haapala was too. Somehow - and this writer (also new five years ago) never quite figured out how because the previous superintendent didn’t return my call - no one had previously realized the district was operating in the red, deeply in the red.

The news rocked the small community. Oddly, many people attacked the new superintendent. Perhaps they were just “shooting the messenger,” or maybe it was just difficult to pull their heads out of the sand and understand that some fairly dramatic and long overdue cuts would need to be made if Carlton schools were going to survive.

In the years since then, the Carlton School District - with the support of residents and the highest voter-approved school levy in the county - has made a dramatic turnaround.

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In August 2010, the MDE approved a plan formulated by district officials and school board members to get Carlton schools out of debt. Voters passed an $1,100-per-pupi-unit operating referendum. District officials made staffing cuts. And by June 2012, the district was officially declared debt free.

The fund balances went from almost a million in the hole to a more than $500,000 surplus fund balance four years later, an increase of more than $1.5 million.

The most recent teacher contract was successfully negotiated before the previous contract expired, a feat Haapala said he’s heard hadn’t been accomplished in 30 years.

Carlton initiated consolidation talks with Wrenshall this past year, but from a position of strength, something almost inconceivable five years ago, when there was also talk of consolidation.

Whether or not that effort will succeed is unknown. In the meantime, Carlton is implementing a new digital initiative and “moving forward,” which appears to be the new mantra of the district.

On Monday, in a note tucked at the end of his latest “moving forward” update, Haapala announced he is going to retire, effective July 1.

“I feel very good about what has been accomplished in the five years I have spent with the District,” Haapala wrote. “I also  believe that I am leaving with a great leadership team in place, who jointly possess the capacity to lead the Carlton Independent School District in the future.”

We hope those leaders will follow in Haapala’s footsteps, and not be afraid to tell the truth or take actions which might not be popular, but will keep the schools viable and vibrant centers of learning.

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Peter Haapala could have turned tail and run away when he figured out how bad things were at his new school district five years ago, but he didn’t.

Instead, he chose to lead.

We hope you throw him a fabulous retirement party, Carlton. He wasn’t here all that long, but what a difference he made in those five years.

~Jana Peterson

Related Topics: OUR VIEW
Opinion by Jana Peterson
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