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Carlton moves closer to high school solution

Superintendent John Engstrom read his prepared statement. After a pause that encapsulated the import of his words, Carlton school board member Sue Karp said “well stated.”

Three other board members agreed.

“Our hearts are in a K-12,” Karp later said.

The lament in the school library during one of those typical short July meetings was palpable.

Engstrom had just laid out a future for the district that didn’t include educating students in grades 9-12. He announced that talks with Cloquet to release Carlton students to its high school had reached a “general operating framework.”

Engstrom was seeking board consensus to move forward with the rare but possible idea of what is known as a tuition agreement. The four board members who heard his statement gave that go-ahead, including Karp, Julianne Emerson, Eryn Szymnczak and Sam Ojibway. Absent from the meeting were Ann Gustafson, who has disagreed with the Cloquet plan, and Tim Hagenah, who has supported an agreement.

Cloquet board members will discuss the idea of moving forward with taking in Carlton’s students at their regular meeting on Aug. 9.

If approved by both boards, it would mean that the coming school year in Carlton would be the last for high school classes. The district would concentrate on students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Engstrom said. Keeping the high school would take a “massive capital investment” and “we would struggle,” he said.

He and board chairwoman Emerson were designated by the board to engage in talks with Cloquet. She said releasing the high school students to Cloquet was an effort to “educate our kids in the best way possible.”

“A tuition agreement model would guarantee that our high school students could attend a school that offers rich and diverse programming, including an excellent American Indian program,” Engstrom said.

Narrowing options

The current long-range plan for Carlton comes after years of debate considering consolidation with Wrenshall along with other possibilities in the past year in an effort to winnow options as the district continues to struggle with student numbers. In particular, the district can’t make the budget numbers work with its small high school class sizes. With that, it also can’t offer the programming those students deserve, Engstrom said.

After voting “no” 5-1 to consolidation with Wrenshall earlier this summer, the board favored two options: either shoring up the South Terrace elementary to house more students — going from a pre-K through grade five school to include three more grades — or creating an all-grades school at the site.

Board members agreed that building a K-12 school would be a heavy lift when it came to asking voters to pay for it. Thus, the focus has largely shifted to the discussions with Cloquet.

On its part, the Cloquet School Board agreed that superintendent Mike Cary and board chairman Ted Lammi could have discussions with Carlton’s Engstrom and Emerson. But that is basically the only discussion all board members have had on the issue, Lammi said in a phone interview this week.

He said he couldn’t speak to other board members’ thoughts on the idea of taking Carlton’s students and wouldn’t share details on what the four talked about in negotiations.

He said Cloquet is looking at how the intake of more students would affect its bottom line, especially on the ”wear and tear” on its high school building. Cloquet would capture the state funding that comes with each new student. And Carlton will have to “pay over and above” to Cloquet in any agreement. “(Carlton) taxpayers will have to kick in,” he said.

Cloquet has no taxing authority in another district, so the tuition agreement fee will serve that purpose. Engstrom said there are four years left on any operating levies associated with the high school and money attached to each high school student will go to Cloquet as part of any agreement. After 2025, a Carlton school board would have to “find money to pay for high school education,” Engstrom said, referring to the costs above and beyond the state funding for each student.

Pressure to vacate Carlton High School has been alleviated by Carlton County’s growing preference to build a new jail outside of its Carlton campus, which abuts the high school. Engstrom said it gives the district an option should a referendum fail to win the support of voters and no changes are possible at South Terrace. Students in middle school grades could stay on at the high school building. It’s not optimal, but an option, Engstrom said.

The superintendent said the district “bridged an emotional hurdle” during the past few years of consolidation talks with Wrenshall. The plan the two districts created positioned a high school in Wrenshall. That makes the loss of a high school in Carlton easier to swallow, he said.

Carlton’s class sizes in upper grades have been growing smaller for years with open enrollment options. Some 60 percent of district residents who open-enroll already choose to go to Cloquet, Engstrom said. A tuition agreement would guarantee enrollment for any others who want to go there.

Losing the high school, he said, would allow for a concentrated effort to shore up enrollment in the lower grades, perhaps bringing the total up to current pre-K-12 levels.

The Carlton board expects to meet for another long-range planning discussion on Aug. 9, the same night the Cloquet board will discuss the idea of taking Carlton students.

Engstrom said the upcoming school year will transpire as planned, as a K-12 district with ongoing athletic co-op agreements in place with both Wrenshall and Cloquet.