An Iron Range school district's plan to build a new high school on the site of a charter school has prompted a legal battle over school districts' right to exercise the power of eminent domain.

Attorneys for the East Range Academy of Technology and Science (ERATS) in Eveleth said the case involving Rock Ridge Public Schools — a new merger of the former Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts — could have wide-ranging implications for public charter schools and school districts elsewhere in Minnesota. At issue: whether school districts, which have limited power to take property through the power of eminent domain, have the right to condemn and take over a public charter school.

The school district contends that it had to condemn the charter school property — a step required to exercise eminent domain — because no other land was available for a project that had been in the works for years. Trevor Helmers, an attorney representing Rock Ridge Schools, said the unusual case is unlikely to set a precedent for similar disputes in other locations, and that the district was forced to exercise eminent domain to avoid costly construction delays.

"Condemnation proceedings were a last resort after ERATS refused to negotiate, so that the districts could avoid the threatened litigation, meet project timelines, and ensure the Districts can educate students, as planned," Helmers wrote in an e-mail.

But Jeff Storms, the charter school's attorney, said a win for the school district could open a legal loophole for districts elsewhere. In some areas, competition from charter schools — which are publicly funded and privately operated — has meant considerable declines in enrollment from traditional public schools.

"It would give the public school districts effectively the ability to demolish and remove any public charter school within their geographical school district," Storms said.

Helmers said that scenario was not the district's plan.

In May 2019, voters in the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia districts approved a $180 million referendum to fund the construction of new schools. A district committee picked the site of the charter school as the home of a new high school — a process Helmers said was challenging within the district because of the lack of buildable land that is not subject to mineral rights. District officials approached ERATS to try to buy out the charter school's lease of the privately owned property, which runs through June 2023.

Helmers said the charter school was unwilling to negotiate a deal. But in its lawsuit, the charter school contends that it was the school district that wouldn't negotiate.

According to the lawsuit ERATS filed to halt eminent domain proceedings, district officials said publicly that their plans wouldn't disrupt the charter school, which has operated on the property since 2007 and serves about 180 students.

But ERATS leaders say the district was privately moving forward with plans to remove the charter school within the next school year. In an e-mail to the project's contractor, detailed in ERATS' lawsuit, Virginia — and now Rock Ridge — Superintendent Noel Schmidt wrote that ensuring the charter school was out by mid-May 2020 was a "must have for us."

Storms said the first conflict was actually over ERATS' nearby bus garage, which sits on property the school district wanted to take through eminent domain. While that dispute was being settled in court, the district moved to condemn the school itself so it could begin construction.

Helmers said the district has been upfront with its plans to buy out the lease and help the charter school relocate this summer. After a court hearing on the matter in late June, Helmers said, the district still intends to provide that help — but that the charter school is holding up that process with its legal challenge.

The district is moving forward with construction on the new high school, but ERATS' leaders said they're not ready to give up. Zachary Topping, a shop teacher who also serves as vice chair of the ERATS school board, said he's worried the dispute will result in disruptions for the charter school's students and families, including many for whom traditional public schools aren't a good fit.

ERATS serves many students who are homeless, in poverty, qualify for special education services, or struggle with behavioral issues.

"It really bums me out that two entities that are supposed to be going in the same direction have to argue to a scale such as this," Topping said.

St. Louis County District Judge Robert Friday has said he'll make an initial ruling by July 24.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790