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Carlton school district residents to vote on spending for new school

Signs in support (left) and opposing (right) next Tuesday's Carlton school district referendum have been a frequent site in and around the Carlton County community. (Pine Journal)

Voters in the Carlton school district will weigh in Tuesday on whether the district should renovate and expand its elementary school to become a preK-12 campus.

The bond referendum consists of two questions: The first asks for approval to borrow nearly $23.6 million to renovate South Terrace Elementary School and construct 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 (contingent on the first one passing) is whether to approve an additional $3.3 million in borrowing to build an auditorium, improve athletic spaces and make other site improvements.

District officials and supporters of the referendum say the project is needed to replace outdated or failing facilities, and they say it's a modest proposal.

"This is no cathedral," said longtime board member Tim Hagenah. "It's all about academics."

But the property tax impact would be substantial, more than doubling the school district portion of some residents' property taxes.

Former Carlton School Board member Brenda Tischer has been a vocal critic of the proposal, mostly because she doesn't think such a large tax increase is affordable for many who own property in the school district. She also doesn't think it's the best option for the local students.

"There's more we can gain by looking at other solutions," Tischer said, referring to consolidation with one or even several other Carlton County school districts. "A building is not the best solution. It's too narrow of a focus — there's more we can do with someone else."

For owners of a $150,000 home, the estimated percentage school tax increase is 98 percent if the first question passes, or about $432 a year. If both questions pass that leaps to an increase of 113 percent, or about $500 a year.

The tax increase could be mitigated for some, the district says, through agricultural credits and federal and state programs for property tax refunds, deductions and deferrals.

If the referendum fails, the district has authority via state statute to levy up to $12 million without voter approval to devote to solving health and safety issues in its schools, Superintendent Gwen Carman said in a previous Pine Journal interview. However, she noted, they "really don't want to do that."

Road to referendum

The proposal for a new combined building grew out of a community process in 2014, Carman said. That was followed by a facilities study that revealed the needs of the current elementary school, built in 1961, and of the high school, built in 1915 with 1953 and 1969 additions, and the costs to address those needs.

Further planning was put on hiatus for a couple years as the district went through two rounds of talks and research regarding consolidation with the nearby Wrenshall school district. Those talks ended in a stalemate both times, with both districts agreeing that a combined preK-12 school made more sense, but each wanting that facility in their own community.

In April, a year after consolidation talks failed for the second time, Wrenshall school district residents decisively voted "no" to a $12.5 million bond referendum for school renovations and an expansion to that district's existing preK-12 facility.

Meanwhile, Carlton school district officials moved ahead with a series of community meetings regarding facilities. Those meetings led to the upcoming referendum.

Carlton High School social studies teacher Ryan Schmidt said there's a great need for upgraded facilities.

"Right now we have kids who walk the hallways with blankets all winter, because some rooms are freezing and others are hotter than Hades," he said.

Schmidt said the high school sometimes has garbage cans in the hallways to catch leaks from melting snow and rain.

A new building could also help with student retention, Carman said. Close to 50 percent of the students in the school district — 316 — open-enroll in other school districts, while only 184 of the district's students are from elsewhere.

"A lot leave because of the facilities," said Schmidt. "Curb appeal is definitely a selling point, especially when people are new to the area."

The new facility is not being constructed with consolidation in mind, Carman said. But because several grade levels aren't at capacity, there would be room for up to 150 additional students.

"If this were a Carlton-Wrenshall plan, it would be bigger," she said, noting that a state demographer predicted slow but steady growth for the school district. "It's not."

Carman said the proposal in the first question would produce a building with about 4,300 square feet less space than the district's existing facilities.

But some opponents, such as Timothy Soden-Groves of Carlton, who is part of a group advocating for the Carlton and Wrenshall districts to consolidate, say that's still too big and costly for a district with declining enrollment.

"The design reflects the dreamy notion that, in an era of declining enrollments, an oversized school will capture the educational market (and) return the near-50 percent of district children who open enroll elsewhere," Soden-Groves wrote in an email to the News Tribune.

Soden-Groves wrote in a column for the News Tribune's editorial page last month that it's clear the Carlton school facilities are in need of repair, but the proposed plan "does not appear to be capable of breaking the complex cycle that brought us to our current educational crisis. ...

"The $26.9 million idea that, 'If we build it, they will come,' is quite a gamble, one that is neither fiscally responsible nor a realistic plan for educating our children," he wrote.

The News Tribune contributed to this report.

Tuesday vote

The special election will be held from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Carlton County Transportation Public Building, 1630 County Road 61, Carlton.

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