Duluth's Many Rivers Montessori has asked the Duluth School Board to consider selling one of three former schools for its use, and to again rethink its policy against selling to competition.
According to a letter sent to the School Board Tuesday asking for a meeting, offers have been made for the former Rockridge and Nettleton elementary schools and the former Secondary Technical School. The letter, sent by Montessori head of school Mark Niedermier and Montessori board chairman John Kliewer, said that each offer has "been rejected without substantive discussion," and the Montessori school's leaders have been told about the School Board's policy that restricts sales to other K-12 competition. Last spring the board voted against suspending its policy to consider a $14.2 million offer from Duluth Edison Charter Schools for the former Central High School.
According to Niedermier, an offer for the Secondary Technical Center for $3.5 million was made in early April; one for Rockridge for $920,000 was made in June, and an offer for Nettleton for $370,000 was made in late August. The offers are all close to asking price.
"Many Rivers is really thriving and growing," Niedermier told the News Tribune Tuesday night, noting its recent expansion into middle school grades. "We need something larger."
Niedermier argues that the type of education offered by Montessori schools is different from what is offered by public schools, and isn't in competition for state dollars. Many Rivers is a private, tuition-based school that uses an educational philosophy developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori. It focuses on hands-on learning and one-on-one and small-group instruction.
The school's leaders say the school plans to remain small, currently serving 115 children from toddlers to middle school age, with more than half toddlers and preschoolers. It does intend to increase its enrollment for the older grades it offers, Niedermier said, but enrollment for its type of school generally doesn't come from the public school sector.
"Many Rivers is so pedagogically different from the public schools that it cannot directly compete educationally with you," the letter reads. "It is like apples and oranges."
The decision of district administration to reject the offers was based on the board's recent actions, said business services manager Bill Hanson.
The board voted two separate times in favor of maintaining the policy last spring.
At a Duluth School Board meeting Tuesday night, member Art Johnston asked why he and other board members weren't notified of the offers.
"This is money, this is budget, that is our duty to address this," he said, and whether it's decided to reject the offer, the members should still be informed.
Member Alanna Oswald agreed, saying the opportunity to debate whether a sale was good for students or taxpayers was taken away. She said she would consider the Montessori school's offers.
Member Harry Welty proposed changing board policy so that all board members would be notified of formal offers for property.
Board chairwoman Annie Harala - who said earlier in the day she was the only member aware of the offers - noted she agreed with the administration's decisions because of the "significant" discussion surrounding the Central offer and whether to suspend the competition policy.
"I can understand there is frustration with that," she said, "but we were continuing with board policy."
No formal action was taken regarding the Montessori school, which, in its third year of operation, houses its toddler, preschool and elementary programs in the former Jefferson School on East Third Street and its middle school program at 1025 London Rd.
Each of the three former Duluth schools Many Rivers is eying has been empty for several years, as part of the $315 million long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan, as it is commonly known, that built new schools and closed and consolidated some of them. Purchase agreements for all three schools have fallen through.