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Consolidation talks on ice this summer

An impasse between the Carlton and Wrenshall school boards is threatening consolidation efforts by the districts.

The Carlton school board reached a consensus at its working session Monday to not have further discussion with Wrenshall until August at the earliest. An email later this week between superintendents - obtained by the Pine Knot News through a public records request - confirmed the Carlton position.

"(B)ecause sending letters back and forth to each other doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere, our Carlton Board will be taking some time to reevaluate this process," superintendent Donita Stepan wrote Tuesday to her Wrenshall counterpart, Jeff Pesta. "We'll be in touch sometime next fall."

A sticking point remains and surfaced again Monday at a Carlton school board work session: who will fill administrative positions at the time of the merger.

Carlton wants to keep personnel from both schools in place during a transition period, while Wrenshall has rejected carrying over administrative contracts in favor of starting out a combined school district with hires made by what would be a newly combined school board.

"We feel strongly that a transition team of administrators and supervisors needs to stay intact," Stefan wrote Pesta. "We are unable to move forward until this transition team issue is resolved."

Meanwhile, Wrenshall board members say they would like to move beyond the future makeup of a main office, and move toward meeting higher-level consolidation requirements.

"Wrenshall's position is that the questions our boards need to answer in order to consolidate do not have to do with the makeup of the administration," Wrenshall board chair Mary Carlson said Wednesday. "I would like to see us answer the questions we're legally required to first."

Carlson was referring to questions required by the state board of education, including how many school board members a combined school district would have, and how any newly shared debt will affect residents of each district.

After both boards agreed in the spring to move forward with full-board participation of both boards in consolidation talks - rather than a scrapped committee approach - the sides have not agreed on a date or location to meet jointly. Wrenshall wants a neutral site. The Wrenshall board also declined a request to meet on July 8 because its board already had a meeting scheduled in Holyoke.

When confronted about a missed opportunity, Carlson said the annual meeting in Holyoke was historically important.

"Our Holyoke residents put that date on the calendar; it is the same Monday every year," she said. "We have families that do come to that so they can see us do our work."

Carlton previously canceled a full meeting originally planned for April.

The Carlton board's most recent letter to Wrenshall, on May 14, promoted the idea of keeping current administrators from both schools in place during a transition process beginning at the time of the merger. Wrenshall responded with a letter that asked to share three positions immediately - directors in community education, building and grounds, and athletics - that would be hosted by Carlton. But Wrenshall's correspondence did not address administrative roles. At its own work session Monday, Wrenshall board members expressed optimism that Carlton would share the three positions.

But, while endorsing the plan for a shared athletic director, superintendent Donita Stepan rejected Wrenshall's bid to share the other two jobs.

"I did not offer those two positions, because we do not have the capacity right now to share Scott [Bodin for building and grounds] or Daisy [Rose for Community Ed]," Stepan said. "We weren't agreeing to share positions. We were asking for a transition plan."

"We love Scott Bodin," Carlson said in a response to the newspaper. "We would love to have him as our (shared) facilities manager and start transitioning him into a role."

In her email to Wrenshall's Pesta, Stepan elaborated on Carlton's position.

"Carlton's letter was about a transition plan/team in place for a two-year transition period (following consolidation)," she wrote. "Wrenshall's letter stated your interest in 'sharing' positions. This was not the intent of our letter. ... Our intent was to agree to a transition team so we have a 'team' in place to get the consolidation work done and make sure it's successful."

Carlton board members expressed frustration Monday.

"I think that pride is getting in the way," board member Ryan Leonzal said, before referring to Stepan's long-term contract, which would take her into consolidation in 2025-26 as the prospective superintendent at roughly $140,000 a year. "The elephant in the room is one specific contract ... and looking at that sheet of paper, it should be really easy for us to meet in the middle ... and here we are for a third consecutive month."

Addressing Wrenshall's desire to hire administrative staff at the time of the merger, he said, "It'd be silly to start ... Day 1 with all new people."

Leonzal's assumption, that "new" people be hired, is not something Wrenshall has articulated. Rather, that board has expressed wanting a combined board to vet and hire administrators, even if some of those would be carrying over. Still, Carlson said she'd prefer to avoid further talk of administrators altogether.

"The new board, more than likely a board of 12 for a while, will sit down in a room a year from now, or however much time, and answer, 'How do we handle that?'" Carlson said.

Carlton board member Laura Nilsen emphasized a need for continued effort.

"I just want to go back to the ultimate reason why I believe consolidation is important, is because of the kids," she said Monday. "The students are what we need to focus on."

Leonzal warned that patience is wearing thin.

"There's a big part of me that thinks consolidation is what's best for our kids," he said. "I genuinely feel that way. But we've been chasing our tail for five months. I'd like to see what Carlton looks like with Carlton [and] no Wrenshall at this point in time."

Carlton is moving to a four-day school week for the upcoming school year.

"I want to get this done for the kids really badly," Wrenshall's Carlson said. "I'm disappointed for the kids that there's another Carlton delay. If they change their minds at any point, we are here, ready and willing to meet as soon as a date can be agreed upon."

Learning Academy

In other matters, high school principal Warren Peterson briefed the board on the Applied Learning Academy, Carlton's new initiative which would feature individual learning plans, dedicated support from educators, flexible curriculum, and a fresh, innovative learning environment. Students selected for the program would be able to establish their own unique goals with the opportunity to work with businesses, trade groups and outside-of-school mentors. State standards in core subjects would still have to be met, and many, if not all, students would still have to spend some time in a regular classroom.

The program depends on buy-in from businesses and unions, and Peterson was confident that would be forthcoming.

"It's going to be mutually beneficial," he said. "The trades and some of the smaller businesses ... [are] looking for quality individuals. And this is one way to tap into some individuals that are interested in that particular industry or market. It's symbiotic."

Much of the study would be self-

directed, so would the new program be as rigorous as standard programs?

"We have state standards that we still have to meet," Peterson said. "They'll be required to meet those standards no matter what."

For the first year, Peterson hopes to sign up 10 to 15 students from grades 10-12. Selection will be made based on student interest surveys and on how much help the program can be expected to give to a particular student.

Superintendent Stepan outlined how she intends to spend $25,000 in marketing funding, approved by the board in May.

Already, a new billboard promoting Carlton schools can be seen from the southbound lane of I-35 just about a mile south of the Carlton exit. In addition, 3,000 postcards will be going in the mail soon. Stepan also urged people to watch for a commercial to be run on WDIO-TV promoting Carlton schools and describing the Applied Learning Academy. Also mentioned in some of the ads will be the new four-day week for next year, which was approved by the State last Friday.

"We're trying to challenge the status quo," Stepan said.