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Wrenshall-Carlton school consolidation talks resurface

In yet another twist to the tale of consolidation talks between the Wrenshall and Carlton school districts, the Wrenshall School Board unanimously passed a resolution last month on consolidation and cooperation with Carlton, nine months after the last round of talks ended in a stalemate.

In April 2016, both school boards voted in favor of locating a preK-12 school in their own community. Last month, however, the Wrenshall board indicated it would support one preK-12 facility in Wrenshall or — a less favorable but still acceptable solution — a two-site solution with the high school located in Wrenshall and the elementary school at Carlton's South Terrace site.

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman said she and the Carlton School Board members were surprised by the Wrenshall resolution.

"Their newest resolution, however, does not change anything for Carlton," Carman said in a statement to the Pine Journal, noting that the Carlton school district is in the middle of a facilities study of its elementary and high school.

The Wrenshall School Board also voted last month to go out for a facility referendum vote on April 18 in the amount of $12.5 million to expand the school district's educational space and remodel some of the existing space. Wrenshall Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro said the bond referendum could be modified, however, if Carlton decided soon that it was on board with either consolidation option approved by the Wrenshall board.

Carlton doesn't seem interested.

"The Carlton and Wrenshall districts have discussed consolidation in-depth many times, and each time the boards are not able to reach an agreement," Carman wrote in a statement the day after Wrenshall's meeting. "While we can all agree on some of the advantages of consolidation, our school boards simply cannot come to an agreement on the location of a school or schools, the configuration of a consolidated district's board members and other factors that would need to be agreed upon to consolidate. To take more time and spend more resources to revisit consolidation yet again would be unfair and frustrating for our students, staff, and families."

Enter the third party in this debate: the residents of both school districts.

At least one father with children in the Carlton school district disagrees with that statement, and he says he is not alone.

"Frankly, there is a silent majority that's becoming less silent," said Blackhoof resident and local businessman David Chmielewski.

Chmielewski and his wife, Jennifer (a new Carlton School Board member), have two children attending South Terrace Elementary School. He has shared his own consolidation fact finding with the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards, he told the Pine Journal.

In his presentation, Chmielewski pointed out that the districts could basically double their student enrollment (Wrenshall has 330 students while Carlton reports 477) and eliminate one building and all its associated costs by consolidating and going to two sites. If the two schools consolidated, they would be able to offer more academic courses and extracurricular programs for a larger student body.

Chmielewski also noted that both districts need to make facility improvements anyway, and will need to gain voter approval to do that. With consolidation, the districts have a chance to get legislative aid as well, he said, which could lessen the burden on the taxpayers.

"Why would we pay more to get less?" he said. "That's exactly what both districts going it alone gets us. We pay more for less. Nobody does that."

The debate over consolidation between the neighboring school districts — which are just over four miles apart — isn't new. Wrenshall resident and retired judge Dale Wolf said he remembered Wrenshall suggesting consolidation 60 years ago and Carlton saying no, with a back-and-forth discussion ever since.

Wrenshall referendum

On April 18, voters in the Wrenshall school district will go to the polls to decide on a $12.5 million bond referendum that would allow the school district to both expand and remodel educational space.

On a home valued at $150,000, that would mean an increase of $270 per year in the school district portion of their property taxes, according to Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro.

In a school newsletter update, Belcastro also noted the Wrenshall school district is in talks with Community Memorial Hospital and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College for a joint community fitness center and a sports complex on school district property, which would be financed through a lease-purchase arrangement (non-voter approved) with the partners. That would cost a homeowner with a $150,000 home an additional $30 a year in property taxes.

Find more details about the proposed building renovations and additions on the school district's website, www.wrenshall.k12.mn.us.

Wrenshall is planning a community meeting regarding the referendum at 6 p.m. Monday in the Wrenshall School Commons. Another meeting is set for March 28.

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