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Open enrollment a sticking point for some in the Wrenshall community

Nearly 40 percent of students enrolled in the tiny Wrenshall school district don't live within its boundaries.

That fact is a driver of some opposition to the district's $12.5 million bond referendum set for April 18, when voters will be asked to pay for renovations and an expansion to the preK-12 school about 25 miles southwest of Duluth, increasing its size by more than one-third.

Wrenshall's enrollment is "artificial," said Mike Rabideaux, a district resident and retired superintendent of the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School.

Proponents are using the rationale that the school is overcrowded, he said, "but it's really disingenuous" to make the argument that an expansion is necessary without any attempts to cap class sizes first.

Rabideaux understands some schools are better fits for students, he said, but Wrenshall's gain hurts other districts and their programs, as state money follows students. Duluth residents account for about 100 of the school's roughly 340 students.

Project supporter Kevin Olesen sees things differently. Approval of the project makes the school more viable, he said, and helps it compete for the limited number of students in the region.

"There is a school and nothing else in that town," he said. "If the school were to close, property values would drop. It would become one of those ghost towns where all the buildings are uninhabited."

The district regularly loses on average 80 of its own students to open enrollment. But based on registration, 30 students are expected to join the school in the fall. The district enrolls on average more than 130 students per year from elsewhere.

The plan — approved by the state — calls for Wrenshall district homeowners to pay $270 per year on a home valued at $150,000, for 20 years. Another part of the project is a proposed $1 million wellness center, which voters will not weigh in on, financed through the lease levy. The district is seeking a financial partner for that, which could lower the cost.

Enrollment growth comes from the younger grades, with much of the growth in early childhood education. That indicates stability, said Superintendent Kim Belcastro, as it means kids are more likely to stay, wherever they live.

Strong elementary numbers mean future strong high school numbers, she said.

"If that were flipped around, we'd be crazy to look at expansion," she said. "Our students coming in are staying."

Wrenshall resident and school alumnus Dan Conley isn't so sure.

"The problem is, it's a roll of the dice," he said, to depend on high numbers of continued future open enrollment from any of the surrounding districts.

Next year the school — which now has one section per grade — will add a section for both kindergarten and the sixth grade. At that point, Belcastro said, caps will be put in place for those grades. So far, she said, capping enrollment for any grade level hasn't been necessary. The state open enrollment statute allows kids to move to new districts, she said, "and we don't get to pick and choose" unless it becomes a capacity issue.

The current building can house up to 500 students, although when it was built elementary numbers were smaller, affecting capacity now as different age groups need different types of spaces. New construction will add space for another 100 students. The building footprint would go from 133,479 square feet to nearly 182,000. Some of the proposed highlights include expanding the metal and wood shop, creating a computer assisted drafting lab, and building new classrooms and a new cafeteria and gym.

Conley, concerned about tax increases the area may already face related to Enbridge Energy's pipeline, said some of the proposed upgrades aren't necessary, citing roof replacement as an example.

"These companies come in and they know they can make money off of the deal," he said. He pointed to construction management companies, saying they trump-up problems to gain support of a project.

Olesen said some of the facilities, like the gym, which he likened to a "pole building with basketball hoops" need to be repaired or replaced to attract students. With open enrollment, schools are "businesses looking for customers."

Belcastro said open enrollment helps the district survive, noting operating levies would increase without the additional student aid that comes with students from other districts.

Nearby districts also rely on open enrollment, although not to the extent of Wrenshall. Carlton sits with more than 30 percent of its students from another district, while Cloquet, Proctor and Esko about 20 percent, according to the Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium.

Belcastro noted the expansion isn't about making room for a future consolidation with the Carlton school district. The districts had been in talks for years about combining, but the two sides couldn't agree last year on where and how it would be done.

A forum on the proposed plan will be held today at 6 p.m. in the school commons. An opposition group plans a forum in the school commons at 5:15 p.m.

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