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GUEST VIEW: Let common sense prevail on school buildings

The Wrenshall/Carlton consolidation debate


July 19, 2019

Only about 45 people out of a total of nearly 800 students and hundreds of staff attended the Carlton-Wrenshall consolidation discussion meeting July 9.

It was a meeting filled with optimism and rhetorical flourish.

Two years ago, I provided a summary financial analysis to the Carlton school board on the cost of a two-site consolidation option with Wrenshall (high school in Wrenshall and elementary in Carlton). This was based on the data provided by the consultants hired by both districts. I showed the math, information sources and formulas of how I arrived at my calculations. I heard nothing from them. This was before the $5 million was taken for upgrades on South Terrace Elementary in Carlton.

Carlton district resident Timothy Soden-Groves completed another analysis, based on the Sept. 8, 2017 plans developed by district consultants. It also was reviewed by a third-party architecture firm, and the numbers were confirmed. Still, silence from the Carlton school board.

Last week, the Pine Knot News published the positions of the various school board members who spoke at the July 9 meeting. Wrenshall chair Matt Laveau said many things, and I will excerpt a very important one: Having a high school in Wrenshall, and an elementary in Carlton, is administratively more expensive to run than having one school site, but the cost of constructing a one-site campus (either in Wrenshall or Carlton) is so expensive that the debt payments for the new school will never be less than the increased administrative costs of a two-site consolidated school district. I confirm that this is a mathematical fact. Thank you, Chairman Laveau.

Carlton board member Sue Karp wants to see the numbers on the two-site option, even though they were given to both school boards two years ago by their consultants, with additional analysis from both Mr. Soden-Groves and me (thank you, Sue, for at least being open to looking at the option two years later). Carlton’s Tim Hagenah and Sam Ojibway both favor one-site options. Carlton chair LaRae Lehto said she wants “a broader discussion about education.” I am not really sure what that means, but it sounds very pleasant. Keep in mind, the Carlton School Board just found out that their ambition to consolidate with Cloquet was met with a formal letter of “no thanks at this time.” It doesn’t hurt to ask? Check that box for the second time.

Let’s just try to get our heads around this manner of thinking: Hypothetically, say you own a house in Wrenshall and a cabin on Lake Venoah. Your main house needs a new HVAC system, an addition and some other upgrades for around $15 million, but it has good bones and no structural issues. It is paid for. Its replacement cost is about $35 million. Your cabin three miles away on Lake Venoah was just recently remodeled for $5 million and you are paying on that, but the cabin’s replacement cost is about $25 million. Do you walk away from your main house in Wrenshall and build a new house next to your existing cabin for $45 million? Or, do you drive the three miles back and forth between the cabin and the main house, and pay for the fuel and wear and tear on your car and the time spent in the car? If you build the new house next to the cabin, you understand you will not be able afford a new vehicle, vacations, quality food, new socks, etc. You will be living check-to-check. You will be a slave to your new debt for decades.

Some people probably would not construct the new house next to the cabin for $45 million. They would pay for the car’s wear and tear and fuel, and the extra time on the road, because it is still cheaper than the debt for the new home.

You currently have at least three Carlton school board members who want to construct the $45 million new house next to the cabin, except that in the real-world school exercise, you (taxpayers) pay most of the debt, not them.

I think that this can only mean one or two things: one, they are not big into the whole math thing; and/or two, they don’t mind the debt because the community will pick up most of the tab.

If some investment must be made, which it most certainly does, what would you do?

Dave Chmielewski is a resident of Blackhoof Township, served on the committee of Carlton Community Advisors and is married to Carlton school board member Jennifer Chmielewski.


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