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Lots of talk, little movement at Carlton school meeting

A public meeting last week regarding the future of the Carlton school district yielded no easy answers, but provided proof that many Carlton residents are passionately engaged in their school district — they just don't agree.

School facilities were the immediate concern at the Tuesday night meeting. However, the issue of what to do about the aging school buildings following a failed building referendum earlier this year is part of the larger question of long-term plans for the school district.

Nearly 150 people attended the 2½-hour meeting. Twenty audience members shared their thoughts and questions, and every school board member spoke at the end of the meeting. As requested by the superintendent, disparaging comments were kept to a minimum — though it was apparent it remains a divisive issue in the small community.

Carlton resident Ann Gustafson pointed to a previous speaker's comments about the great kids, teachers and families that make up the district.

"It breaks my heart that people demonize people who are not for just dumping money into an old facility, rather than spending it in a way that brings communities together," said Gustafson, who was part of a previous community group advocating for a combined Carlton-Wrenshall school district and who has one child in the district.

"When you talk about tearing communities apart, I challenge people to ask themselves: Would all those great things people have mentioned — sports, teachers, families — not be true, if we were to consolidate with Wrenshall?" Gustafson said.

Mom and active volunteer Amy DeCaigny was close to tears when she spoke about all the activities her children have been able to do, and the need for better facilities.

"They deserve clean air and warm rooms," DeCaigny said. "We shouldn't have to fight so hard, and have people talk trash about our schools and our teachers. We've always been one of the cheapest districts — is that what our kids deserve? We need to invest in our schools now."

Many audience members supported the board in its likely path of bonding for health and safety improvements without voter approval, while others continued to advocate for consolidation with Wrenshall.

Carlton Superintendent Gwen Carman explained that the state allows school districts to bond for things such as air quality fixes, fire suppression (neither of Carlton's schools has a sprinkler system) and asbestos removal without voter approval.

In addition, she noted, the board could bond for some building repairs and pay the money back through long-term facility maintenance funds.

Carman said the estimate for projects at South Terrace Elementary totals about $5.6 million for an annual tax impact of about $122 on a house valued at $150,000. She didn't have an estimate for the high school, because it has much greater needs and will be a more expensive and complicated project that the board likely would not tackle until the summer of 2019.

The large group reached no consensus, although the majority of the school board members stressed the need for making building health and safety improvements soon.

On the subject of consolidation with another school district, Carman said talks with Cloquet halted after two meetings, although the two districts are exploring more ways to work together as they already partner on some sports. The majority of board members also seemed to reject the idea of consolidating with Wrenshall, with the exception of Jennifer Chmielewski.

"I think it would have been interesting if we'd had the election in August for consolidation with Wrenshall, rather than a new building," Chmielewski said. "If the people decided they didn't want it, then we'd be making a new plan."

Board member Board member LaRae Lehto also weighed in on the subject.

"We tried consolidating with Wrenshall. It didn't work and we should move forward. We tried a new building and that didn't work," Lehto said. "For seven years (since the district was in statutory operating debt), we've put things on hold. We need to take care of the kids now."

While there was no vote Tuesday, the School Board has a regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, when it may approve South Terrace elementary school projects for summer 2018.