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Letter: Why consolidation talks broke down before they began

With the Carlton School District continuing to show declining enrollments, falling test scores and a budget deficit, the clock is winding down on the opportunity to save the Carlton schools.

There is nothing like opportunity lost to cast a telling light on the nature of the earnestness with which the Carlton School Board approached the recently proposed and abandoned consolidation discussions with Wrenshall. Needless to say, it was painful to watch.

Last September, by a 5-1 vote of the Carlton School Board, a letter was sent to the Wrenshall Board inviting them to discuss consolidation.

"We are making this request without assumptions or pre-requisites" the letter read. "We are prepared to enter these discussions with sincerity ..." it further asserted.

These two statements established, for the record, standards by which the genuine nature of the Carlton Board's intentions, words and actions might be measured. Additionally, the Carlton letter expressed that "we also hope you will support pursuing these discussions under the direction of a neutral facilitator ..."

In the following months, letters and chains of "clarifying" emails were exchanged between school boards, or their board chairs and superintendents. Both districts wanted to wait for their new boards to be seated. Wrenshall offered to send their board chair and vice chair to come and speak directly with the Carlton Board.

In mid-January, the new Carlton Board chair asked for clarification: What would be discussed? Would other Wrenshall Board members be present? What would be the format? Would this be a presentation or a dialogue?

Having needlessly complicated a simple, direct exchange, Carlton then upped the ante as well; the neutral facilitator moved from "hoped for" status in September to one which Carlton "strongly supports," laying the foundation for a prerequisite to any negotiations.

Wrenshall wanted to find common ground with Carlton before bringing in any facilitator. Carlton wanted to know what Wrenshall's expectations of common ground might be, Wrenshall effectively responding with, "Let's get together and discuss it." Around and around it went.

In support of the resolution of Sept. 17 to open sincere discussions with Wrenshall, Carlton Board Vice Chairperson Gustafson offered another motion on Jan. 28, passing 3-2, to communicate Carlton's "desire to use a neutral facilitator to continue consolidation discussions."

But, in Carlton Board Chairperson Lehto's Jan. 30 letter, the "hope" of Sept. 17 and "desire" of Jan. 28 subtly morphed into: "The Carlton School Board would like to reaffirm our request to enter into consolidation discussions with the Wrenshall Board, under the direction and leadership of a neutral facilitator."

The hoped-for neutral facilitator had now become codified as a direct prerequisite to the discussions, presented as a previous condition simply to be reaffirmed. This was a clear misrepresentation of the Gustafson motion.

Finally, and without any direction from the Carlton School Board to do so, Carlton Superintendent Carman pulled the plug on the talks before they even began, asserting in this newspaper that "it is clearly established that the Wrenshall Board is not interested in developing a consolidation plan with Carlton ..." Later, in the Carlton Community News, she ventured further that "The Carlton Board received a response from the Wrenshall Board chair on Feb. 20, rejecting the Carlton Boards (sic) proposal for professionally facilitated consolidation talks."

In point of fact, Wrenshall Chair Laveau stated in that letter: "If the Carlton School Board is interested in further discussing possibilities for a two-site consolidation ... the Wrenshall School Board would be willing to do so."

Through all of this, except for its besieged opposition members, the Carlton Board has focused intently not on finding common ground, but on raising up an unacceptable prerequisite, "the neutral facilitator," to any substantive negotiation. In doing so, they undermined any claim to sincerity of purpose and broke whatever bond of good faith they may have imagined they portrayed to Wrenshall.

Carlton Superintendent Carman's unilateral actions to terminate consolidation discussions with Wrenshall fairly beg the question of the Carlton School Board: "Who is in charge here?"

Was this an opportunity lost? No, it was an opportunity unashamedly squandered by Carlton leadership. When smoke and mirrors replace vision and leadership the mere 4 miles between our two communities are obscured and appear to stretch to infinity.

Form your own opinion on this issue. You may find the complete exchange of Carlton and Wrenshall consolidation letters and emails from Sept. 18, 2018, to Feb. 20, 2019, on the "Carlton County Common Ground" Facebook page. You may also request pdf documents of this exchange from C2CommonGround@yahoo.com.

Timothy Soden-Groves

Carlton