Guest commentary: The case for consolidating Carlton schools
The School Board at Carlton ISD 93 will have two new board members and the re-election of one existing board member. At the last meeting, there were many things said that were thoughtful and true. Some perplexing.
Before going further, I need to say this: Board members and community members can stay at ease and know that publishing or repeating facts does not constitute a personal attack on someone.
If you are an elected official, your vote is public record. If that record is published or discussed, that is not a personal attack. Conversely, if you talk about someone's appearance, that is a personal attack and an opinion.
If your voting record is published and your candidate gets re-elected, then the people apparently like what your candidate is doing.
In the case of Susan Karp, she was re-elected with the most votes of the three candidates. That would indicate to me that a substantial portion of the community either like Sue personally and/or like what she is voting for.
I personally like Sue Karp. I have found her to be a very kind person. I do not agree with many of her financially based votes, because I am 100 percent certain there are better alternatives. I am pretty sure that is how democracy is supposed to work?
The subject of consolidation is brought up at board meetings because there are many in the community that want it discussed. It is viewed as a potential solution to some challenges. One longtime board member, Tim Hagenah asked the question: "Why is it that not one person has explained to me why we should consolidate with Wrenshall? What do they have to offer?"
I found this perplexing because it has been discussed, in great detail, for years while Tim has been on the board. Nonetheless, it is still a good question.
So, for Tim and maybe others, here is one person's analysis (this is deep and technical, so bear with me):
Why is consolidation of any kind being discussed? We have seven school districts in a county with 36,000 people. Carlton has around 422 students. The state of Minnesota sets up the rules of the game. For each student enrolled, the school district receives an allotment of money. The more students you have, the more money you receive.
It then comes to how the district balances that income stream against their operating costs. Between Wrenshall and Carlton, there are three buildings and over 800 students. If you consolidate with a two-site option, you could eliminate one building. Duplicated staff and services would be reassigned or eliminated.
A two-site option is discussed, because neither community wanted to completely give up their school, and Carlton just put $5.5 million worth of non-voter-approved money into the elementary school.
Consolidation was also brought up because both districts say they have facility deficiencies. Facility construction is costly and supported primarily by property tax dollars. When you spread out those costs over two districts versus one, the cost to the taxable properties is diluted or generally less money per household.
Wrenshall passed a resolution that they are willing to talk about consolidation with Carlton, including, but not limited to, a two-site option.
Finally, considering consolidation was a strategic planning recommendation of the Carlton community advisers at the conclusion of many months of meetings and $10,000 worth of consulting fees.
Carlton School Board member Tim Hagenah also brought up consolidation with Cloquet. If the new Cloquet School Board and superintendent are willing to talk, then that option can be explored. Some stakeholders have concerns about a large- versus small-school environment.
Those are all things that could be discussed in a Carlton/Cloquet consolidation scenario, as well an obvious question: Does Cloquet even have the space, and if not, what is the cost/political appetite for more space? Is there any interest at all? That can be easily determined.
What are the risks/concerns about consolidation? It is not a magic solution. It is more work for the school boards and staff, on top of their regular duties. It puts stress on sensitive families and students who have long established social orders, positions on sports teams and other activities. There are rivalries in some cases, and different demographic mixes that result.
In the short term, it requires uncomfortable conversations and extra work. When you add that to the everyday work of running a school, that makes it less desirable for some people who feel that the cannot handle more.
In the case of Carlton, there is a concern that the consolidation will not yield a full transfer of students, especially from those families that live in the western end of the district. The more students lost during the consolidation, the more the benefits of increased cash flow are eroded.
Conversely, fewer students puts less pressure on facility expansion needs, and thus, property tax resources.
For example, if a consolidation between Carlton and Wrenshall nets 600 students from a possible 800, it puts less pressure on the facility expansion requirements, and the local tax base. You still end up with two buildings versus three buildings, and you still get to eliminate duplicated services. The loss of 200 hypothetical students also assumes they have somewhere else to go, if not to the newly consolidated district.
It all requires varying degrees of self-sacrifice that some people are either unwilling or unable to provide.
What comes next? The first round of utility company lawsuits have concluded, and it was determined that the utility companies were overcharged for their property taxes. Those dollars need to be paid back. There are more lawsuits pending. The result is fewer property tax dollars in the pool for school facility funding.
The state demographer's report indicates that population growth for Carlton County will be flat for the foreseeable future. Carlton and Wrenshall have reported they have facility deficiencies, hence the referendums and the non-voter approved levy, in Carlton's case.
Carlton has an upcoming budget that will be challenging and they have still not completed the teacher's salary negotiations. If Carlton were to consolidate with another district, there still will need to be a levy to deal with facility deficiencies, although that cost would be spread out among more taxpayers.
The wildcard is the consolidation aid from the state. That is a large sum of money that can solve a lot of problems locally, but is not guaranteed. One thing is for certain: Without a consolidation, there is zero chance at consolidation aid.
In the short and long term, the school boards have to deal with big-budget and facility challenges. The question is, what approach will be used to overcome these challenges?
The voters will ultimately be responsible for the choices they made, as the people they elected will be making these very important decisions. These decisions will have long-term effects on our kids, our teachers, our cost of living as residents and our ability to retain, grow and attract more businesses. Very important.
I will keep my fingers crossed.