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Wrenshall to vote on $12.5 million school facilities plan

When consolidation talks with the neighboring Carlton school district ended last year, the Wrenshall School Board kept on making plans for their school — just without Carlton.

The plans they came up with include remodeling and expanding the school's current educational space, as well as constructing a wellness and fitness center that could also be used by community members. Now it's up to Wrenshall school district voters to give the $12.5 million proposal a yes or no vote on April 18.

Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro said the board held a final community meeting after the consolidation talks ended last spring which drew close to 100 residents.

"The message we heard was, 'continue moving forward, don't give up,' " she said. "It was very evident they wanted to maintain a school presence here, which has always been the sticking point with consolidation between the two school districts. When a small school is the heart of the community, it's very difficult to give up, for Wrenshall or Carlton."

Wrenshall officials built on some of the plans discussed during the consolidation talks, and worked with the same firms to draft further plans.

Belcastro said there are three main parts of the proposed project: renovation, new construction and partnership.

Renovation work would include the following:

• Roof replacement on two-thirds of the existing building

• Tuckpointing brickwork

• Replacing old single-pane windows at elementary school and shop

• Resurfacing parking lots

• Replacing telephone, intercom and security camera systems

• Upgrading and enlarging the Wrens Club preschool space by moving it to the current district office

• Creating a robotics and computer-assisted drafting lab

• Expanding and remodeling the metal and wood shop.

The current recreation building north of the main building would be torn down and replaced with a more-permanent 45,000-square-foot structure that would include the following:

• New handicapped-accessible front entrance with improved secure entry points

• Bus lane/drop-off zone and parking lot at the new entrance to improve student safety and traffic flow

• Addition of a multi-use science classroom and lab and business technology classroom, as well as English and health classrooms;

• Addition of new cafeteria and food-service facility

• New main gymnasium; and

• Relocation of district office and dean of students office at the new front entrance so the Wrens Club can be near the elementary school section.

The district also is working with Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College to create joint academic programming, including College in the Schools, a culinary arts program that would utilize the old cafeteria space and electronic technology programming, as well as horticulture, biology and sustainability programming.

A proposed athletic partnership with FDLTCC to build a new track and football field fell through, Belcastro noted in her most recent "Images" school newsletter column, adding that the new sports complex won't move forward without the college.

Wellness and fitness center

The district also has expressed interest in partnering with Cloquet's Community Memorial Hospital on a new wellness and fitness center. The original proposal was nixed by the CMH Board of Directors earlier this month, although CMH CEO Rick Breuer said that doesn't mean the two entities won't ever reach an agreement.

"We loved the idea conceptually of partnering with schools and getting outside our walls," Breuer said of the original proposal, "but we couldn't make it work with the numbers."

It's an idea that has worked in other area school districts. When Esko put in its fitness center 19 years ago and partnered with what was then St. Mary's/Duluth Clinic to staff it and offer physical therapy, it was the first school district in the U.S. to have that kind of partnership between school and a medical facility, said Julian Bertogliat, who was activities director then and is a school board member now.

The school district built the fitness center as part of the new school, and the hospital helped pay for equipment (along with grants and state funds) and staffed the building. The center sold memberships to the community and students could use the facility for free.

"It's worked out great for us," Bertogliat said, adding that Proctor and Two Harbors have built fitness centers since then and have some kind of partnership with Essential Health.

Wrenshall's proposed $1 million wellness and fitness center will be added to the new building, district literature explains, but financed through "a lease-levy agreement" between the district and a now-yet-to-be-determined partner — and not through the $12.5 million building bond that voters will vote on April 18.

The proposed wellness and fitness center will happen with or without CMH on board, Belcastro said, adding this week that the school district is planning to present CMH with another proposal soon.

Opposing views

On a home valued at $150,000, the school facilities work would mean an increase of $270 per year (or $23 a month) in the school district portion of property taxes, while the fitness/wellness center would cost a homeowner with a $150,000 home an additional $30 a year in property taxes.

Belcastro said the district is dealing with increased enrollment, particularly in the lower grades.

"Over the years, it's been common for the high school to be larger than the elementary school. Now it's the opposite," she said. "When you see that, it's a sign of stability and growth."

Wrenshall currently has 343 students enrolled in grades K-12 and another 50-60 in the preschool program. Next year they're projecting 371 students.

"It's been years since we've had that many students," Belcastro said.

A "Vote Yes" volunteer group calling itself "Grow Wrens" is holding meetings and working to get the word out about the plans.

However, not everyone in the Wrenshall School District is thrilled with the proposal. A "Vote No" group is organizing, Dan Conley told the Pine Journal.

"People are concerned about the referendum's impact on taxpayers and homeowners," Conley said, adding that the large number of open-enrolled students in the district is also a concern, because their parents don't pay taxes in the school district and their continued enrollment is not guaranteed.

For more information

There will be a final community meeting about the referendum at 6 p.m. March 28 in the Wrenshall School commons. The special election on the $12.5 million bond issue and building proposal is set for April 18 inside the school's Rec building. The school website — www.wrenshall.k12.mn.us — contains more information.

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