Saying it would bring unfair competition and less money than selling to a private developer, the Duluth school board refused a $14.2 million offer this week for a vacant high school that a local charter school wanted to buy, renovate and reopen.
The snub drew numerous public comments and letters to the editor as parents, teachers and residents sounded off on school choice, public school funding and an anticipated $3 million deficit for the Duluth School District. Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness even weighed in on Facebook, encouraging the board to sell the shuttered Central High School.
But school board President Annie Harala opposed the sale, saying it’s not in the best interest of the district to sell to a competitor. Selling to a developer probably would bring more money, she said.
“I looked deeply into the numbers,” she said. If the 77-acre site is developed as a mixed-use facility, it should generate taxes for years to come, she added.
Art Johnston, one of three school board members to vote for selling the school, said Duluth Edison Charter Schools made it clear that it plans to build a new high school if it can’t buy Central. Stopping the sale wouldn’t change that, he said.
“That’s the way it is,” he said.
Unloading Central High would have been an easy way to shore up the budget, he said, and Johnston thought he could negotiate terms that would include some enrollment caps for Edison.
Budget woes have already meant cuts at the city’s public high schools, including limits on a popular “zero hour” period before the official start of school that some students used to take electives like languages or music. The district has also gone from seven periods to six.
The public overwhelmingly supported the sale, Johnston said, pointing to anecdotal evidence such as the letters to the editor in the Duluth News Tribune and public comments at school board meetings.
“I’ve been on the board for a long time,” he said. “This controversy totally eclipsed everything I’ve ever been involved in.”
Superintendent Bill Gronseth said Central High sits on 77 acres “with arguably the best view in Duluth.” Available for sale since shortly after the school closed in 2011, it was nearly sold last year to a developer, but that deal collapsed. Gronseth said the district hopes to make the site more appealing by getting the Legislature to pass a sales and use tax exemption for materials and supplies used in the redevelopment of the site. That bill is pending.
Duluth has seen its student enrollment drop from 25,000 students years ago to about 8,600 today, said Gronseth. A long-range planning effort lead to Central’s closure.
Today, Duluth has two public high schools, and, in addition, the private Marshall School and a smaller charter high school, Harbor City International. “We have to look at the community and see how many entities [it] can ... support,” said Gronseth, who worries that all the high schools will stumble if there’s not enough students to go around.
The leaders of Duluth Edison Charter School, meanwhile, say there’s room for one more school, and now plan to open it next fall.
“We’ve moved on,” said Paul Goossens, president of Tischer Creek Building Co., the nonprofit that would own the building.
Edison already owns a 150-acre parcel adjacent to its existing North Star Academy middle school.
Goossens said he expects the 100,000-square-foot Edison High School to cost $20 million to $25 million. It’s slated to open in the fall of 2017.