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School Board set to vote on Rockridge Elementary

The former Rockridge Elementary is likely to be retained by the Duluth school district and used for Woodland Hills Academy. (file / News Tribune)

The former Rockridge Elementary in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood moves a step closer to becoming the home of Woodland Hills Academy next week if the Duluth School Board approves a design services contract.

A $155,000 contract with Architectural Resources will allow work to examine the property and determine the cost of renovating it for the 100-plus kids served by the academy. The current estimation is $2.5 million.

"We're not at the point of no return," said the district's business services manager Doug Hasler. If the renovation is deemed too costly, then the decision to house the school there will be re-evaluated, he said, hoping to know by May so the School Board can vote and work can commence if the project moves forward.

The Duluth school district is responsible for the education of the clients of The Hills Youth and Family Services, formerly known as Woodland Hills, a mental health and behavioral treatment center. The school is now housed in the former Cobb Elementary in Woodland, and needs more than $3 million in repairs. Leased by the district so its teachers can instruct there, The Hills has asked for upgrades or a new facility, raising the district's rent from $156,000 a year to $340,000 if it chooses to keep teaching in the Cobb building. The district's lease expired in the fall, and the two entities have been operating under the old lease until a new agreement is reached.

The Hills staff is "really excited" about both improving the school's program and its educational setting with a move to Rockridge, executive director Jeff Bradt said, and is no longer looking to work with a charter school attempting to open in the area, which the district would need to approve as the designated educators of the Hills clients.

"We're committed to partnering with the district," Bradt said. "We are very willing to be patient about giving them the time to have the building ready. Rockridge is a beautiful site in much better repair."

Rockridge was a K-1 school until 2011, when it closed as part of the district's long-range facilities plan.

How renovations are paid for hasn't been decided. Part of the project can likely draw from a long-term maintenance fund, but some parts might not be eligible. The work of Architectural Resources will determine that. A set amount can be drawn from the maintenance fund each year, so if Rockridge moves forward, other projects planned for completion next year — such as a couple of new elementary school roofs — will be deferred. That maintenance fund is also expected to pay for new playground mulch.

Hasler said it's possible the district would need to do some short-term borrowing to complete the project in one phase, with hopes to have it done in a six-month window. The worst-case scenario has the district adding to its estimated $2.3 million general fund deficit. District officials have said it's more financially feasible to renovate Rockridge than to pay rent on a continual basis.

The 17-acre property below Hawk Ridge — some of which has been sold — has proven to be a tough sell, particularly as neighborhood residents objected to higher-density housing projects.

One deal with a developer fell through in 2015. The school at 4849 Ivanhoe St. is listed for about $1 million.

Rockridge neighbor Mark Irving said Tuesday that he wants what's best for the kids of Woodland Hills, but he would rather the district accept offers from other schools for the remaining unsold buildings, as sales were intended to pay down long-range facilities plan debt. Many Rivers Montessori, in particular, offered to buy Rockridge, but the School Board has stood by its policy of not selling to competition.

Irving suggested housing the Woodland Hills kids in part of the also-for-sale former Central High School or Secondary Technical Center, or to find a building that would cost less to renovate than Rockridge.

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