DULUTH – An Iron Range school district and public charter school on Monday settled a monthslong legal battle over which school should sit on Eveleth property the district claims is the only suitable plot for a new high school.
Rock Ridge Public Schools, a new merger of the former Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert districts, planned to exercise the power of eminent domain to build a new high school on the site where the East Range Academy of Technology and Science (ERATS) currently leases space.
But school boards for both parties approved a settlement Monday that will allow ERATS to remain where it is through June 2021 while Rock Ridge starts construction on other parts of the property. The school district will also pay $260,000 to ERATS to cover moving expenses.
The settlement means lingering questions about what authority school districts have to take property by eminent domain when the land being condemned houses a public charter school.
Attorneys for ERATS previously argued that allowing Rock Ridge to execute its plan could set a precedent for other districts that see charter schools as a competitive threat to traditional public schools.
But those representing the newly formed Iron Range district said Rock Ridge was dealing with unusual circumstances. Officials identified the Eveleth site as the only land suitable for the new high school and claimed they had to exercise eminent domain to avoid construction delays.
On July 23, a St. Louis County judge issued an order in favor of the school district because he did not find their move “arbitrary or unreasonable.” The ruling said because Rock Ridge complied with the Minnesota statute that lays out school districts’ power to acquire property by eminent domain, ERATS would have to vacate the property by Aug. 31.
On the last page of his order, District Judge Robert Friday chastised both the district and the charter school, writing that he “sincerely hopes the swords are sheathed, and that the schools will work collaboratively for the benefit of those we serve.”
“Ultimately the student population which both parties serve is the same,” Friday wrote. “The failure of the parties to reach accord only harmed those that were not a party to this dispute, namely the children.”
Erik Honkanen, an attorney representing ERATS, said the charter school would have appealed Friday’s order had they not been able to reach an agreement with Rock Ridge.
“People that are interested in charter schools should take a careful look at this case and ask their legislators to maybe fix this going into the future,” said Honkanen, who added that while he found the judge’s decision concerning, he thinks the matter will ultimately need to be settled by state lawmakers or the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Representatives for Rock Ridge did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In May 2019, voters in the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia districts approved a $180 million referendum to fund the construction of new schools. District officials cited a lack of buildable land that is not subject to mineral rights when picking the charter school property as its new high school site.
ERATS, which serves about 180 students, had a lease on the property running through June 2023. District officials approached the charter school to try and buy out the lease, but both parties claimed in lawsuits that the other was unwilling to negotiate.
The charter school, which serves many students who are homeless, in poverty or struggling with behavioral issues, has already been looking for a new home.
“I’m just happy we have some time,” said Zachary Topping, a shop teacher who also serves as vice president of ERATS’ school board. “We have a year to figure it out. We can and will find a new place, and it will be better than where we’re at.”