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Our View / Duluth public schools: Do away with no-sale policy

For the second time this year, the Duluth School Board met with a potential buyer of one of its former, now-empty school buildings, a buyer hoping to reuse the structure as a school.

That’s despite a School Board policy specifically prohibiting such a sale from even being considered.

Clearly, with the policy now regularly being ignored and with the Duluth school district’s bottom line long in need of selling surplus properties, the policy can be done away with. Withdrawn. Scrubbed from the books. How about as soon as when board members meet next?

The original intent of the policy made sense. Why sell an asset like a school building when doing so would help out a private, parochial or other nondistrict educational entity looking to pull away students and the state funding that comes with them from the public school district? No business would help a competitor steal away its customers.

Nonetheless, after stonewalling representatives for Duluth Edison Charter Schools for three years, the School Board ignored its policy and held meetings this spring to consider a $14.2 million offer for the former Central High School property at the top of the Duluth hillside. The district had listed the property at $13.7 million and was, at the time, facing a $3 million budget deficit. But a majority of School Board members decided the short-term benefit of a sale wouldn’t outweigh its long-term negative impacts. The offer was rejected, and the public backlash was, understandably, fierce.

More recently, Many Rivers Montessori, a private, tuition-based school serving toddlers through eighth-graders, made offers for three different district-owned school properties that are no longer being used in the hopes of acquiring one of them. The offers initially didn’t even make it to the School Board. They were rejected by board Chairwoman Annie Harala and district administration. The School Board policy was cited as the reason.

Nonetheless, at the request of School Board members Art Johnston, Alanna Oswald and Harry Welty, the policy once again was ignored, and Many Rivers representatives this month met with the School Board, urging a sale. A special School Board meeting is being scheduled next week to consider a single offer resubmitted by Many Rivers — for the former Nettleton school — as well as one and possibly two other offers for district-owned properties, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said this week in a meeting with News Tribune editorial board members. He cited a confidentiality agreement in declining to divulge details of the other offer or offers.

Even if the School Board votes to do away with its policy, members still can — and absolutely should — consider the competitive implications of selling to and helping out another educational entity. That can be part of a lot of considerations as determinations are made about what’s best for the district and its residents.

But a policy that prevents elected School Board members from even knowing an offer has been made, as the current policy does, seems close-minded. It could prevent a great deal from even being considered, potentially to the detriment of taxpayers. It demands to be repealed.