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Tuition agreement with Carlton is all but set

Talks about a tuition agreement that would allow Carlton to close its high school and send students in grades 9-12 to Cloquet are moving toward action.

On Monday, committee members representing both school boards met in Cloquet. They touched on minor changes to the evolving tuition agreement. Both sides agreed that they were comfortable with the agreement, which outlines both student enrollment and financial arrangements between the districts.

The next step is to send the final documents to the Minnesota Department of Education for its approval. Carlton superintendent John Engstrom didn't expect dramatic changes from MDE.

They confirmed days and dates: both districts planned to share the tuition agreement with staff the next day and with the public after that. Both districts were also planning to post questions and answers regarding the agreement to their respective websites on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

Carlton is holding a public meeting on the tuition agreement at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13 in the school library, then board members should vote on the proposal at their meeting Dec. 20.

Cloquet will discuss the agreement at its Dec. 14 meeting, but not take any action until the next meeting on Jan. 10. If MDE suggests changes, the Carlton school board could address those at its meeting Jan. 3.

Once both boards have approved the tuition agreement, the schools will work together to enroll any Carlton high school student who wants to attend Cloquet in classes for next fall.

Outside students who currently open-enroll in Carlton can apply to open-enroll in Cloquet. Those who don't want to go to Cloquet can apply to other area districts as well. The tuition agreement doesn't require students to go to Cloquet, it just guarantees their acceptance if they choose to go there, which is not the case normally.

Final questions

Cloquet board members asked if there were any groups opposed to the agreement.

Engstrom pointed out the junior class - "I can't say I blame them," he said - along with some staff members and other individuals.

"I don't see it as any different from consolidation," he said. "The high school [in Carlton] would close in either scenario."

Carlton board chair Julianne Emerson said there hasn't been a large organized "no" faction like there was with the 2017 K-12 building referendum, which was soundly defeated.

She and other Carlton board members said they are excited by the facility and programs that Cloquet offers, and expressed hope that kids could tour the school if the Carlton board approves the tuition agreement. Emerson was also impressed by the number of College in the Schools classes offered at Cloquet.

"It will be nice as a board to talk about opportunity instead of what goes next, or making the best of the worst case," she said.

Longtime Carlton board member Tim Haganah talked about some of the challenges of declining enrollment and his hopes for developing a very strong preK through eighth-grade school. "It's a tough decision for this board, but we've got to do what's best for the district. We need to educate the kids the best we can."

Carlton board members also sought reassurance that Carlton students would get a fair chance to play on sports teams and participate in other extracurricular activities. Kids are selected on merit, Cloquet chair Ted Lammi said.

"Coaches like to win," Cloquet superintendent Michael Cary said. "They're going to look at the talent and put it on the field or court. I won't say it won't be more competitive, but principal (and coach) Steve Battaglia says 'once they're Lumberjacks, they're Lumberjacks.'"