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Fisher-Merritt column: Wrenshall Board remains open to cooperation

The Wrenshall Board's first choice for communications with other school districts is not the press, and we fear that a public airing of grievances is not a recipe for positive cooperation. However, it seems that a response to Supt. Carman's recent commentary in this paper ("Carlton's side of consolidation debate," Feb. 21 Pine Journal) is important.

The Carlton and Wrenshall school boards went through two extensive rounds of consolidation talks in 2015 and 2016. These discussions took place with the help of facilitators. It is ultimately up to us as engaged citizens to create the positive future our students deserve.

During these facilitated talks, both boards agreed that a single PK-12 site was ideal for a combined student body of our size, for many of the reasons listed in Supt. Carman's article.

Based on these discussions, it was clear that the most cost-effective facility option was a single PK-12 facility in Wrenshall. Two separate rounds of fact-finding with two different facilitators confirmed this conclusion.

However, it became clear that Carlton was not willing to give up having a school presence in their community. Thus, the Wrenshall Board proposed as an alternative a two-site option with the elementary school in Carlton and the high school in Wrenshall.

This was 12 percent more expensive than the PK-12 in Wrenshall, but still fiscally sound compared with other options. This was rejected by Carlton.

Superintendent Carman writes: "The school boards have had no discussions about what exactly would be included in any facility construction projects."

This is simply not true. In particular, the 2016 round of talks, which she was a part of, developed detailed preliminary plans for each of the four facility options discussed. Many of the non-facility-related questions she raised in her article are certainly valid issues that were also on the table during facilitated discussions in 2015 and 2016.

It is also not true that we have not been open to meaningful consolidation talks. Chairman Laveau and I offered repeatedly from late December through the entire month of January to come to Carlton board meetings to clear up misconceptions, make ourselves available to answer questions, and chart a course for productive talks. Those requests were denied.

Formal facilitated talks put a significant strain on our school district's staff and financial resources, and we simply are not willing to start them again when Carlton allows no informal discussions to lay the groundwork, and when the results of previous processes have been so roundly ignored.

It is true that we are moving forward with a $14.4 million bond referendum May 14. The primary objective of this project is to address the most urgent facility needs of our staff and students. However, the goals of future cooperation and taking care of our independent district are not mutually exclusive.

Those who have attended planning meetings can attest to the fact that we have been conscious to design the building in such a way that it would also meet the needs of a high school for a combined district. Superintendent Carman wrote that the "conversation would be very different if the Wrenshall facility were 'move-in ready.'"

I hope she is right, and that our project may clear the way for future cooperation between the two districts.

The Wrenshall School Board continues to support a two-site option. We also continue to be interested in establishing cooperative agreements for extra and co-curricular activities. The cross-country running program went very well this past fall.

It would be great to see this cooperation expand to more opportunities for all students. Perhaps combined football, track, speech and other activities can serve as a bridge to a cooperative future for our two communities.

Janaki Fisher-Merritt is vice chairperson of the Wrenshall School Board.