For years, Minneapolis Public Schools has viewed charter schools as competitors and kept its distance, pointing to the high-profile failures of some of them.
The result: The district sponsored few charters and refused to lease empty schools to them even as many of its buildings stood empty. Still, other city charter schools thrived.
On Tuesday night, Minneapolis school board members heard a plan to sell three of the 12 schools the district has shuttered in recent years to charter schools. The district also intends to partner with the schools. Board members are expected to approve the agreements next week.
"For too long we said we would partner with charter schools, but it wasn't real," said board member Pam Costain. "I think we're on the cusp of something big."
Representatives of the three charter schools were interviewed by a team that included Minneapolis schools' academic leaders, said district operations chief Steve Liss.
"It wasn't just about the properties," Liss said. "We picked three schools that are really outstanding."
Under the proposal:
• Franklin Middle School, 1501 Aldrich Av. N.: Likely would be sold to WISE Charter School, a K-7 program on the North Side that serves about 300 students and plans to expand to eighth grade next year. Sale price: $5.3 million
• Putnam Elementary, 1616 NE. Buchanan St.: Yinghua Academy, one of the state's first Mandarin Chinese immersion programs, would relocate to Putnam from a site in St. Paul. Sale price: $2.4 million
• Morris Park Elementary, 3810 E. 56th St.: Hiawatha Leadership Academy, a K-2 that serves a large Latino population, would move into the school. Sale price: $2.9 million.
All three charter schools expect to see their enrollment increase in the near future and have agreed to partner with Minneapolis on joint training programs for teachers. They will also open their facilities to the community for enrichment and recreation programs.
While there has been a decline in student enrollment statewide, Minneapolis' decline has been much sharper because of competition from charters and suburban districts under open enrollment. A large portion of the elementary losses have come from the North Side.
Minneapolis closed five schools on the North Side during the past five years and began an ambitious plan to improve achievement at the remaining 10 schools. So far, the results of those changes have been mixed. While the charter schools won't be sponsored by Minneapolis or increase its enrollment in the short term, the prospect of adding WISE as a feeder school for North High is important because the school has faced sharper enrollment declines in recent years than high schools in south Minneapolis.
"We're very serious about that [partnership] because I want that school to stay vital," said Betty Jo Webb, founder of WISE charter school, a North High grad and a former Minneapolis schools' associate superintendent.
Liss said the district's first priority for the proceeds is to retire debt ranging from $425,000 to $1.4 million on each building. By law, the district may use proceeds from the sale to retire debt or improve other buildings.
NorthMarq, formerly United Properties, offered the three buildings in August with proposals due in September. In October, the district held community meetings with prospective buyers. Three to five groups made firm offers for each school, Liss said. The district and NorthMarq will move forward with plans to market and sell six of the nine remaining properties. It will keep three.
State law dictates that each charter school be owned by a third party, typically its sponsor, and lease the property.
Board member Chris Stewart said the partnerships come at a time when public education in all of its forms is under attack. As a result, Stewart said the agreements give both sides the opportunity to validate their mission to help all students achieve.
"People will watch us and see how this works out," he said. "Let's do a bang-up job and have some successes."
Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395