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Duluth Edison drops charter high school plans

A 2015 aerial view of North Star Academy and UnitedHealthcare. A Duluth Edison high school was proposed for the land northwest of North Star, but those plans have been scrapped. (News Tribune file photo)

Duluth Edison Charter Schools has scrapped its plans for a high school.

Head of school Bonnie Jorgenson said Monday that building a high school is no longer "financially feasible."

"We have explored numerous sites in and around Duluth and looked at several bonding and finance options," she wrote to Edison families and staff. "It is our intent to focus our attention on our current successful K-8 program and do all we can to support our students and teachers ... Please know this is not a decision that has been made lightly or without considerable thought, but is one we are confident is in the best interest of our schools' ongoing successful future."

Duluth Edison announced in 2013 it was considering opening a high school, and that year showed interest in buying the former Central High School owned by the Duluth school district. An offer on the property was made in 2014 and was rejected, although that wasn't revealed to the public until 2016 when another offer of $14.2 million was made, publicly that time.

It was again rejected by the Duluth School Board, which controversially stood behind a board policy that says it won't sell school buildings to competition. At that same time, Duluth Edison was moving forward with plans to build a high school close to its K-8 North Star Academy on Rice Lake Road. Numerous obstacles to that project — environmental and financial in nature — were encountered.

In January, an appeal that had been filed with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources was withdrawn. The appeal was filed after the Duluth Planning Commission voted last July to reject the Edison high school developer's proposal to build a school on the southern edge of Snowflake Nordic Ski Center off Rice Lake Road. City staff and commissioners cited concerns about the project's potential impact on local wetlands.

While the would-be developer began the appeal process, it was placed on hold soon after, when a citizen petition for an environmental assessment worksheet was submitted. The city said then it would require that to be done before the project could proceed.

Edison stakeholders said in January they would reassess plans.

Neil Byce, president of Edison's board of directors, said they have continued to work with the city on the project, but this spring they realized it would no longer be affordable to build a new school at the Snowflake site, or any other site. Interest rates have risen, Byce said, and land improvements were expected to cost more than anticipated.

"It then became obvious to us that it wasn't viable," he said.

In order to make it work, educational programming would have to be cut, he said.

Initial plans called for a high school to open in 2017. Proposed was a $25 million, two-story, 100,000 square-foot building with a track and athletic field.

"It's disappointing, there is no doubt," as a high school was a long time in the making, said Paul Goossens, president of the Tischer Creek Building Co., which owns Edison properties, since charter schools cannot own buildings.

"The desire continues to be there from the school and board and parents to have that alternative in terms of another public high school," he said. "But there is no way we would propose a building that would in any way compromise programming."

The Central building remains empty. Local lawmakers last year introduced a bill that would offer financial incentive to developers to purchase it and add to the tax base, but that bill expired. Sen. Erik Simonson said Monday that there was no provision in the recently approved budget that attempted to do the same. He said it wasn't introduced, because Duluth administration did not show interest.

Byce said Edison would not look to approach the Duluth district again for the Central property.

"Our prior experience with offering to purchase the old Central School site from (the district) seemed to divide the community," he said, and Edison "has no interest in having the community be brought through that process again. If in the future Duluth 709 wants to reconsider their position on the sale we will be available to listen."