A Sixth District Judge ruled in favor of Virginia Public Schools in an eminent domain case Friday involving East Range Academy of Technology and Science.

Judge Robert Friday wrote in his ruling that Minnesota law allows Virginia to acquire East Range Academy’s leasehold interest in the Spectrum Health Services building.

The ruling said the taking of the leasehold on the property for public purpose — a new public school building — and “is necessary and convenient in furtherance of (East Range Academy's) intentions to use the land for public school purposes.” Friday ruled that the condemnation of the lease is not “arbitrary or unreasonable” and meets all statutory requirements for a “quick take” pursuant to Minnesota Statute 117.042. Therefore, the academy must vacate the property by Aug. 31.

Virginia Public Schools purchased property from Spectrum Health Services for $2.1 million in 2019. The building, 2000 Siegel Blvd., Eveleth, is currently occupied by East Range Academy, a charter school of about 170 students.

The academy’s lease runs through June 20, 2023, with a one-time five-year renewal option. It rents the space for nearly $200,000 annually.

Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia school districts recently consolidated to form Rock Ridge Public Schools, and have been working to create a new career academy high school. Voters from both districts approved a nearly $180 million referendum in May 2019 that allowed the districts to move forward with building two new elementary schools and a new high school. Voters approved the consolidation of the two districts May 12.

The property in question is the planned site of the new high school. Construction is set to break ground Aug. 5 in front of the academy's building.

Negotiations to buy the academy out of its lease broke down, leading Virginia to move forward with eminent domain proceedings.

Renderings of the new Rock Ridge High School. (Courtesy of Rock Ridge Public Schools)
Renderings of the new Rock Ridge High School. (Courtesy of Rock Ridge Public Schools)

“We are satisfied with the outcome, which is well-reasoned and based on clear law applicable to such proceedings,” Rock Ridge Public Schools Superintendent Noel Schmidt said in an email. “The court’s decision paves the way for the district to proceed with construction, as planned, and ensures that students will be educated in the district’s new high school facility according to project timelines, without delay or extra cost to taxpayers.”

Schmidt, who is the former Virginia school district superintendent, said the district would have preferred to resolve the matter outside of court through negotiations “in good faith” with the academy that would have been mutually beneficial to both parties.

“It is unfortunate the parties were unable to reach such an agreement, but ERATS will be fairly compensated through the statutory condemnation process and the district will work with ERATS to ensure a smooth transition to a new location,” Schmidt said.

As part of the condemnation process, the court will appoint three commissioners and two alternates to determine the appraised value of the academy's lease and assess any damages occurred, which will be paid to the charter school by Rock Ridge Public Schools.

“We are obviously disappointed in the court's decision in this matter and are reviewing our legal options at this time,” Erik Honkanen, attorney for the academy, said in an email to the News Tribune. “This is truly a sad occasion for ERATS students.”