In a rare move for a Minnesota school district, Owatonna Public Schools may offer naming rights to local businesses that have pledged to donate nearly $25 million toward a new high school in the Steele County seat.

"To me, it's really heartwarming that we have a community and businesses that are so interested in education," said Owatonna Superintendent Jeffrey Elstad. He added that corporate donors had made no demands to have their names on the building.

"None of our business partners has stipulated naming rights," he said. "The district has said, 'We want to honor those donations and consider whether naming rights are appropriate.' "

The school district in the city of about 25,000, some 75 miles south of the Twin Cities, wants to replace its nearly 100-year-old high school. In a May referendum, voters narrowly rejected a $116 million bond issue for the new school, 50.5% to 49.5%.

In that vote, three of Owatonna's leading corporate citizens had announced they would donate more than $20 million toward the new school if voters approved the plan.

With a new referendum set for Nov. 5, the corporate trio — Federated Mutual Insurance Co., Wenger Corp. and Viracon — have upped their pledge, even as the projected cost of the school has been cut.

In return for a total pledge of nearly $25 million, the school district has agreed to negotiate "appropriate naming rights opportunities" with the three companies, according to a project summary filed with the Minnesota Department of Education.

The agreement between the Owatonna district and its corporate partners also includes a nondisparagement clause forbidding the school district, its agents or employees from making "any disparaging or negative statements" about the three companies.

Federated alone will cover nearly one-fifth of the school's cost, promising a donation of $20 million if voters approve a reduced budget of $104 million for the new school. Federated announced last week that it also will purchase an 88-acre building site in the city's southeast area and donate it for the school.

For that, Federated is "entitled to lead naming rights," according to a memorandum of understanding between Federated and the district included in the project summary.

Wenger, which makes performance and storage equipment for music, theater and sports, has agreed to donate $2 million toward the school. Viracon, which manufactures architectural glass, will provide all the glass for the new school at cost. Both companies also will be considered for naming rights.

Colleges and universities long have named buildings after donors. On the high school level, naming rights or corporate sponsorships for facilities have become more common in recent years in parts of the United States, especially in large states such as Texas, California and Florida. However, they're often linked to sports facilities such as football stadiums.

In Minnesota, a handful of school districts — including Shakopee and Alexandria — have named portions of school facilities after corporate benefactors.

But the practice "isn't common or popular in Minnesota," said Emily Bisek, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, adding that "the amount of naming rights being offered in Owatonna is on the larger end of what [we] have seen in recent years."

Paul Swenson, a longtime Owatonna resident who is opposed to the new school on financial grounds, said he's also disturbed by the non­disparagement clause.

Swenson said he called the head of the local teachers' union and told him: "I just think you should know that the school district has committed you not to say anything negative about three companies."

Elstad characterized the nondisparagement agreement as a simple matter of courtesy and gratitude.

School district attorneys reviewed the agreements between the district and the donors, he said, calling the language "pretty typical boiler­plate." The district isn't out to violate anyone's right to free speech, he added.

"I think the intent of that language is to say, 'We're a community; we work together; we like to have discussion if something has gone awry,' " Elstad said. "It's just to say, 'Look, we're getting a gift from these folks. It's a very kind thing to do and we should be respectful of that.' "

Todd Andrix, president of the Owatonna Education Association, the teachers' union, praised the generosity of the corporate donors.

"It's really great that local companies value education," he said, "and step forward with significant contributions to work together creating a better community and a better future for everyone in our community."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402