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Wrenshall, Carlton school districts ponder path to the future

Now that school bonding referendums have failed decisively in both Carlton and Wrenshall, could it be time to talk consolidation again?

The answer to that question depends on whom you ask. Some say consolidation with a neighboring school is the only route that makes sense for the two Carlton County districts, while others support retaining the unique character of each small school.

Residents from both districts are showing up and talking at school board meetings in their home district and away, after voting down a $12.5 million bond referendum in Wrenshall in April and Carlton's $23 million bond referendum Aug. 8.

Sixteen people spoke at the Carlton School Board's Aug. 22 meeting, which close to 40 people attended. Several area residents suggested board members make consolidation with nearby Wrenshall a priority, while others expressed support for whatever the Carlton School Board decides to do moving forward.

Five miles down County Highway 1, and a day later, Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro told the Pine Journal that it's time for the Carlton and Wrenshall school districts to listen to all community members.

"The voters have spoken," Belcastro said. "With both referendums failing by over 70 percent, the communities are standing up and making a point. They're saying, 'We don't want to pay for referendums in both districts.' That's a big statement. And since then, there's been a new push for consolidation (from residents)."

But the question now seems to be, consolidation with which district?

Although Belcastro was referring to consolidation between Wrenshall and Carlton, Carlton board members decided to explore consolidation with the Cloquet school district.

"The board wanted to see if Cloquet is willing to discuss possible consolidation," said Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman, regarding the Committee of the Whole discussions. "The board didn't make any commitment, but wanted to know what (consolidation) would look like, tax impact, etc. There would definitely be a significant tax impact for Carlton."

According to Carman, the other option the Carlton School Board members wanted to know more about was how to pay for facility repairs and modifications without voter approval.

History of talks

According to longtime community members, informal consolidation discussions between Carlton and Wrenshall have been going on for decades.

In recent years, the neighboring school districts engaged in two very intense rounds of talks and research regarding consolidation.

The school districts initiated the first round. The second round of talks was triggered by a citizen group's request to the state, after the district-initiated talks ended without agreement.

When the second round of discussions ended in April 2016, the Wrenshall School Board passed a motion to locate a combined preK-12 school in Wrenshall with a sports/community complex at Carlton's South Terrace site.

The Carlton School Board voted on a total of five options, ultimately supporting three: a preK-12 facility at South Terrace, a two-site solution with the elementary grades in Wrenshall and secondary grades at South Terrace, or putting the question of where to place a single preK-12 facility (Wrenshall or Carlton) to the voters, on the condition that Wrenshall also put the question to its voters and that the state Legislature approve equalization aid for school districts that are consolidating.

Wrenshall officials had previously expressed concern that their votes would be drowned out by Carlton in a straight vote (according to Carlton County Auditor Paul Gassert, Carlton has 2,650 registered voters, while Wrenshall has 1,190) and therefore never acted on a similar measure.

Nine months later, in January 2017, the Wrenshall School Board acted again and unanimously passed a resolution on consolidation and cooperation with Carlton, indicating it would also — in addition to one site in Wrenshall — support a two-site solution with the secondary grades in Wrenshall and an elementary school at Carlton's South Terrace site.

At the time, Carman and the Carlton School Board were not interested in reopening talks. She clarified recently that there have been no formal discussions of consolidation or official overtures between the two districts since April 2016.

Carman said four of the board members expressed "great doubts" late last month that voters would pass a bond referendum for a consolidated Carlton/Wrenshall school district, regardless of where the building or buildings were located.

Consolidation with Cloquet has some appeal, she said, in part because more than 100 Carlton students already open-enroll into that district.

Although there have been no discussions yet, one possibility for a combined Cloquet/Carlton School District could potentially leave South Terrace Elementary School open at its current site, while sending secondary school students to Cloquet. But Cloquet's school taxes are higher than Carlton's, and a combined district would spread the costs out to the entire district. And there's the question of whether Cloquet has enough space to absorb Carlton's grades 5-12 students at its existing schools.

Path forward

Both the Carlton and Wrenshall school districts are moving ahead following the failure of their building bond referendums. In Wrenshall, enrollment is the highest it's been in years at 392, said Belcastro. Carlton has 449 students enrolled for this year. But facilities remain a problem for each.

At its Aug. 22 meeting, the Wrenshall School Board voted to temporarily close the school's Recreation Building because of ongoing health and safety concerns, roof leaks, fire code deficiencies and liability issues.

During an interview, Belcastro said Wrenshall's deferred maintenance needs — with no additions or remodeling — add up to about $3.4 million. In considering what and how to fix things, the district is keeping in mind the possibility of future consolidation, she said.

"I think what makes sense is a two-site solution where both communities can gain, where both communities still have a school," Belcastro said. "That is still a fiscally responsible solution."

At its Aug. 22 meeting, the Carlton School Board heard from Ehlers & Associates financial advisor Greg Crowe, who explained 10 ways that Minnesota school districts can finance capital projects, including several ways that don't require voter approval.

In some cases the money would be paid for through school property tax increases. Crowe explained that Carlton also could sell long-term facilities maintenance health and safety bonds without voter approval to improve indoor air quality, fire suppression and asbestos removal.

Carlton board members discussed seven options:

• Do nothing to significantly address facility needs.

• Make significant repairs at the high school and/or South Terrace via non-voter-approved financing.

• Try to pass a smaller referendum for repairs at just the high school.

• Pursue consolidation negotiations with Wrenshall.

• Pursue consolidation negotiations with Cloquet.

• Determine the tax impact of consolidation vs. a South Terrace project.

• Dissolve the district.

As previously noted, the board decided to pursue options 2 and 5 for now.

"The board is being systematic, thoughtful and intentional in making the best decision for the students and district moving forward," Carman said.

Carlton will hold its next Committee of the Whole meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, and its next regular meeting at 7 p.m. Sept. 18.

The next Committee of the Whole meeting for Wrenshall is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday in the library. The next regular meeting is Sept. 18.

All school board meetings are open to the public.