Carlton board rebuffs Wrenshall entreaty


January 20, 2023

Deeper cooperation between Wrenshall and Carlton schools was on the table Tuesday — and the Carlton school board promptly swept it off.

The board members dismissed a letter from the Wrenshall board seeking greater collaboration, declining to move beyond the full sports and activities cooperative that’s already set to begin this spring.

“We need to focus on Carlton,” board member Tim Hagenah said. “Wrenshall needs to work on their issues.”

Hagenah described how the Jan. 9 letter, made public at this month’s Wrenshall board meeting, caught Carlton board members off guard. He said it also failed to meet protocols for how boards ought to interact.

“It’s frustrating to be blindsided or not aware of something either at a meeting or even out in public,” Hagenah said. “Actually, I was hit (with questions) down at the game about this.”

Carlton board member Eryn Szymczak said she was surprised the idea of pairing other resources didn’t come from the existing committee overseeing the sports cooperative.

“This just seems to be a little vague for me,” Szymczak said.

Wrenshall’s letter to Carlton school board members was signed by Wrenshall board member Ben Johnson, the newly appointed school board clerk. In the letter, Johnson noted the retirement of superintendent Kim Belcastro, and posed the idea of the schools collaborating on positions including administration, grounds and facilities maintenance, and school nurse.

“We would like to form a committee from both districts to discuss further collaboration between the districts,” the letter concluded.

But the Carlton board decided not to move to create another committee.

“I personally am not in favor of a shared superintendent,” said Carlton board chair Julianne Emerson, describing how what looks like an opportunity at cost savings can yield new expenses. She cautioned against shared positions in general, and said any shared employees would need to show clear financial savings for both districts.

“We need to know what happens when that person who was wearing 10 hats in our district takes five of those hats and takes them to Wrenshall,” Emerson said, speaking on the topic of opportunity costs that would come with collaboration.

Emerson seemed to find it odd to hear from Wrenshall so soon in the new year with each district bringing on new board members, including Laura Nilsen in Carlton.

“That’s a very short period of time for it to be brought to fruition,” Emerson said of the Wrenshall letter. “It’s a bigger expansion of an idea than just a couple of weeks.”

Hagenah took umbrage with how the letter was signed by a lone Wrenshall board member and failed to come from the board chair, Wrenshall’s Nicole Krisak, and that it wasn’t presented first to superintendent John Engstrom.

“Then from there you get parameters for what you want to have the discussion on,” Hagenah said, outlining his idea of formal communication between boards.

“As much as I think there are some good intentions behind this letter,” Szymczak said, “there’s not enough here for me to support.”

Both Hagenah and Emerson stressed the importance of Carlton meeting the demands of a referendum year. District officials are in the process of organizing to conduct an operational levy referendum on Nov. 7. It would be the third time since 2010 that the once financially distressed district has sought additional funding from voters within the school district.

“The number one thing is we have to pass that operation levy referendum,” Hagenah said. “That should be our priority, not Wrenshall. Because if we don’t pass that, then we are in a world of hurt financially.”

Emerson described how Carlton isn’t on the same dire timeline as Wrenshall, which is in the process of making $300,000 in cuts this school year and facing a reduced budget the next.

“We are not on a timeline right now,” Emerson said, adding that Carlton, while open to future discussions, wasn’t in a position to be pushed.

The district has been the topic of a series of considerations in recent years, including ideas such as consolidation with Wrenshall, or sending its high school students to Cloquet and focusing on kindergarten through eighth grade. Those more dramatic changes haven’t materialized, and Carlton has been focused on doing its best to run a K-12 district faced with declining enrollment.

“Do we need to be ready to take the opportunity when it comes?” Emerson wondered. “Absolutely. … But I always want us to be thoughtful and careful.”


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