Guest view: Districts have a lot invested in schools
March 5, 2021
The Pine Knot News asked the superintendents of the Wrenshall and Carlton school districts to update readers on the state of consolidation. Wrenshall superintendent Kim Belcastro weighs in here:
Since being hired as superintendent of Wrenshall school in 2012, the Carlton and Wrenshall districts have been in and out of consolidation talks for at least eight of the nine years. Many community members from the two districts will state that these talks have been going on for decades. It has been my priority to work closely with the Wrenshall school board in supporting its vision for our school district.
The Wrenshall board has not faltered in its plans for our district while being open to consolidation talks with Carlton — as long as the proposed plan involved the two-site option. The Wrenshall board is a cohesive group of community leaders who want to make sure that a school remains in the Wrenshall community. Therefore, this is the position that I have supported and communicated on behalf of the board.
My position has been consistent in that both communities need to gain something through the process. Since both of the districts have invested significant non-voter approved funds for indoor air quality, fire suppression, and asbestos abatement, there is also a great deal to protect. To my knowledge, Carlton has invested about $4 million while Wrenshall has allocated over $9 million in public funds over the last few years. The South Terrace elementary school and the Wrenshall school have updated facilities that can easily be transformed into a combined Carlton/Wrenshall district.
Recognizing the need for community input, the two districts shared in the cost of a formal survey of both communities last winter. School Perceptions is a reputable survey company working with school districts in the state to determine community opinion toward school consolidations, including voters’ feelings about potential referendums. Results of the survey overwhelmingly indicated that both communities supported consolidation with the two-site plan, locating the elementary school at South Terrace and the high school in Wrenshall.
Things were moving along swiftly as the districts attempted to secure state funding through the Enhanced State Debt Equalization Aid, projected to reduce the tax burden to the public by 46 percent. It was at this juncture that Covid-19 basically put consolidation on hold and the measure to get funding was not passed in the legislature.
I reached out to Carlton superintendent John Engstrom in January in hopes to set up a meeting for early February to reassess the situation and determine if the timing was right to reopen consolidation talks. Superintendent Engstrom and I had been in contact with legislative lobbyist Reid LeBeau, who felt that the climate was right to try to secure the funding once again for the proposed consolidated district. On Feb. 2, a meeting was held with Engstrom, Carlton board chairwoman Julieanne Emerson, Carlton assistant board chairman Sam Ojibway, Wrenshall board chairwoman Michelle Blanchard, Wrenshall assistant board chairman Jack Eudy, and myself.
The online meeting began with introductions and then I inquired how things were going and whether Carlton was interested in continuing consolidation talks. I said things had been very busy in Wrenshall with the completion of the first phase of the air quality project and plans for another phase to take place this spring and throughout the summer. I also indicated that the Wrenshall board membership had changed, with three new members just getting acquainted with their new roles.
Superintendent Engstrom mentioned that Carlton completed contract negotiations for the custodial unit. He also noted that he was wondering where things stood and welcomed the time to touch base.
Blanchard indicated that Wrenshall was interested in continuing consolidation talks, provided the two-site option would still be on the table. She also clarified the Wrenshall board’s reluctance to fund another survey or to hire a lobbyist unless consolidation would be a shared goal.
Eudy said the previous survey clearly showed joint community support for consolidation and reiterated Blanchard’s position that the Wrenshall district would be interested in only the two-site option.
Superintendent Engstrom then informed the group that Carlton’s long-range planning committee had recently met about a variety of options available to the Carlton district, indicating the need for another survey. He also said district sustainability was important to the Carlton board and expressed concern that the proposed consolidation would not be sustainable. Engstrom then asked if expanding the consolidated district might be wise, perhaps including the districts of Barnum and Moose Lake.
When Blanchard asked what other models the committee was considering, Engstrom noted three: consolidation with Wrenshall, a K-8 school in Carlton, or a K-12 school in Carlton. He said that the committee did not show preference for any one option.
Carlton’s Ojibway followed up, noting that the committee had a brainstorming session that did not include the entire Carlton board.
Blanchard asked what a Carlton K-8 would look like financially and how long this process might take.
Emerson indicated that she was not involved in the long-range committee brainstorming session but said that Carlton wanted to keep consolidation with Wrenshall as an option but not the only option. She also noted that Carlton is not united on this yet.
Ojibway said he still has concerns about the two-site option, stating that the plan seems to be counterproductive.
Blanchard asked if the group should “pause” the consolidation discussion. Emerson stated yes, as Carlton needs more time to determine where it is in the process.
Eudy said Wrenshall would keep consolidation in mind with all the facility work that is being done.
Engstrom said that “pause” is a good word for where things currently stand, while Emerson added that the Carlton board needs a lot more discussion before it can provide any indication of its direction.
I concluded by stating the Wrenshall district will continue with the district’s strategic planning efforts at this time.
I believe that the proposed Carlton/Wrenshall two-site option with students up to grade five at South Terrace and grades six to 12 at the Wrenshall site remains a viable option that would benefit both communities. It has warmed my heart to see the students form the Carlton/Wrenshall Raptors sports teams. Students from both communities have shared with me how much they are enjoying having more friends and new opportunities.
The districts now have combined programs for football, cross country, and fall cheerleading.
Kim Belcastro is the superintendent for the Wrenshall school district.