Central High School offer rejected

The Duluth School Board voted against negotiating the sale of the former Central High School property Thursday night in a special meeting. The board intended to vote on whether to suspend policies that prohibit the district from selling a school ...

Duluth School Board member Nora Sandstad speaks during Thursday's school board meeting discussing the suspension its competition policy. Sandstad was one of the four members that voted against suspending the policy. (Clint Austin /

The Duluth School Board voted against negotiating the sale of the former Central High School property Thursday night in a special meeting.

The board intended to vote on whether to suspend policies that prohibit the district from selling a school to another K-12 entity, but a new resolution offered by member Harry Welty to enter into negotiations with Tischer Creek Building Co., the nonprofit entity that serves Duluth Edison's building interests, replaced that vote.

The board voted 4-3 against the measure, which would have resulted in dealing with the suspension of policies at a later date.

Members Annie Harala, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, David Kirby and Nora Sandstad voted against the measure, and members Welty, Art Johnston and Alanna Oswald for it.

Tischer Creek has offered $14.2 million for the $13.7 million 77-acre property, which ceased being a school in 2011 as a result of the Duluth school district's long-range facilities plan. An offer of $10 million for the property from housing developers fell through last summer.


Welty argued that negotiations with Tischer Creek and Duluth Edison could include enrollment caps or the withholding of parcels to sell to someone else.

"We've only had a short time to look at this and not enough time to evaluate whether this would be good for our district," he said.

Oswald said a solution could be sought somewhere in the middle, to satisfy people who want to stop paying for maintenance for the building and to "shore up enrollment."

"I want to have the opportunity to talk about what's in the middle," she said.

Sandstad said the sale would harm the interests of Duluth school district students, particularly marginalized students who don't have the advantage of school choice - a significant portion of Duluth's students. A loss of enrollment to an Edison charter high school would lead to fewer resources for the remaining students, "and these are the kids I am thinking about."

The $14 million, she said, also wouldn't go far to reduce construction debt or to keep for more than a few years a seventh period added back to the middle and high schools, for example.

Kirby said he was thinking of long-term repercussions, and that a short-term windfall didn't justify long-term problems. A charter school at that particular site will most likely draw students from West Duluth and Central Hillside and cause further imbalance at Denfeld High School, he said.

Loeffler-Kemp said her decision comes from more than two decades of involvement in the community, and lots of discussion over that time on why the district doesn't sell to competing schools.


Johnston said he wanted the chance to talk about "outside of the box" ideas. The district has had declining enrollment for years without Edison having a high school that draws students away, he said, noting he was disappointed in the "bashing" of Duluth Edison by many.

"Let's work with them and take their money if we can make a deal, and beat them at their own game," he said.

Sandstad and Harala talked about the need to do better at marketing the property and working with the city and county.

"We have to put the rubber to the road," Harala said.

Tischer Creek president Paul Goossens said he accepted the board's decision and appreciates the "overwhelming outpouring of public support of our schools and this proposal we brought forth."

"We are disappointed in the campaign of misinformation," he said, from various stakeholders. "We do understand there are many who oppose choice in public education so I am not surprised by this, but ultimately we look forward to opening our new public high school in August of 2017."

Duluth Edison board president Crystal Palmer thanked the district for being willing to be transparent with the community and hold a public meeting. She said the high school plan for the Snowflake Nordic Ski Center site was submitted Thursday to the Minnesota Department of Education.

While the point is moot, at least for now, state Reps. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, and Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth announced Wednesday and Thursday they were working to draft legislation that would require charter school board members in Duluth to be elected by voters, and would prohibit major purchases of land or buildings until that happens. It would also require funding mechanisms between charter schools and other public schools to be equal. Charter schools receive enrollment-based lease aid from the state to pay for schools, which comes from the general fund. Traditional public schools do not, but they are able to levy local property taxpayers. Both receive the same per-pupil funding.


"We just had this long discussion in our community about how we couldn't support two high schools financially," Schultz said.

Whether anything happens this session is unknown, Schultz said. She noted that people may not realize charter schools are paid for by statewide taxpayers.

"I don't know how we will support three high schools again that size," she said.

Palmer said more time was needed to process Simonson's proposal, sent Wednesday night.

"The conversation at hand is about the purchase of Central High School and 709's ability to sell, or want to sell," she said. We remain mindful of everyone's voice in this conversation and remain focused on the opening of our (Duluth Edison) high school, regardless of location."

Eirik Rennan of Duluth speaks during a public comment session at Thursday's Duluth School Board meeting. Rennan a former Duluth East student and soccer coach has children that attend charter school in Duluth. Rennan is concerned that no other offer for the Central High School property will top the one from Tischer Creek Building Company. (Clint Austin /

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