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Carlton school district building referendum set for August

After months of public meetings regarding school buildings in the Carlton school district, the Carlton School Board voted last week to call a special election Aug. 8 for the purpose of voting on a building bond referendum.

There will be two questions on the ballot: The first would authorize the board to issue bonds not to exceed $23,575,000 for renovating South Terrace Elementary School and constructing a new high school addition at the South Terrace site. The result would be a two-section school with a shared cafeteria, media center, and office spaces.

The second question, for $3,310,000, would cover the costs of building an auditorium as well as outdoor instructional and athletic spaces, along with other site improvements.

"It's a very important and significant question that we're asking the voters to vote on," Superintendent Gwen Carman said before the board voted last Tuesday. "It's a very important question as far as the education in Carlton schools. It's also a very important question for our taxpayers, who would be assessed on their property taxes."

In front of a silent audience of a little over a dozen people, board members also approved several related resolutions, including establishment of a polling place (Carlton County Transportation Department Building) and absentee voting location (Carlton County Courthouse).

Each vote passed 5-1, with Carlton School Board member Jennifer Chmielewski the sole dissenting vote. Although she didn't explain her vote during the meeting, Chmielewski said afterward that she feels there are other options available "to address the challenges we have."

"The other options are far less risky, less expensive and will likely end up being far better for the students, teachers and taxpayers," Chmielewski said. "My constituents are telling me they are very concerned about this vote, especially those on fixed incomes."

According to the district's analysis of tax impact of the proposed new debt, the owner of a $150,000 home would see taxes increase $432 a year for Question 1, and $68 a year for Question 2, or $500 total.

The owner of a $250,000 home would see taxes increase by $804 a year if Question 1 passes, and $127 a year for Question 2, or a total of $931.

The second question cannot pass if the first one does not.

Carman explained that taxpayers with a household income less than $108,660 can qualify for the state's "circuit breaker" program, which offers a sliding scale refund for homeowners with relatively low incomes and high tax burdens. The maximum annual refund is $2,660. Those who qualify may receive a refund up to 80 percent of the the amount of the property tax increase caused by the referendum.

Carman said the district plans to hold many public meetings throughout the summer to assure voters have accurate information and opportunities to ask questions.

According the school district website, a phone survey of 300 randomly selected adult residents taken in the summer of 2016 indicated that 68 percent of those surveyed thought a new building plan sounded like a "good idea." According to the same survey, "typical" respondents said they would support a tax increase of $118 a year, while 33 percent would support an increase of $246 per year and 32 percent would support no tax increase for facilities construction.

The decision to ask Carlton school district voters to approve new construction came less than a month after Wrenshall school district residents voted against a proposed $12.5 million school renovation and expansion bond referendum, with 657 "no" votes and 250 voting in favor.

In a previous interview with the Pine Journal, Carman said Carlton consolidating with the Wrenshall school district is not "workable" at this point in time. Consolidation options were studied in 2015 and again in 2016, but discussions ended in both times after each board advocated for a K-12 school in its own district.

Some of those who organized against the Wrenshall referendum are now working against the one in Carlton, with the hope that the two school districts will finally find a way to consolidate if voters reject their plans to continue moving ahead separately.

One of the people spearheading that effort, Dan Conley, was at the Carlton School Board meeting last Tuesday. He said his group is holding a meeting at 6:30 p.m. June 15 at the Public House in Carlton.

The next Carlton School Board meeting is set for 7 p.m. Monday. Find more information about the proposed building project at carlton.k12.mn.us/about/facility-planning.

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