Plans to open a new Duluth Edison Charter High School in 2017 are off, a school official announced Friday - but that doesn't mean efforts to build a school are finished.
Wetland issues have become a major stumbling block for the developer hired to build the school on the southern edge of the Snowflake Nordic Ski Center along Rice Lake Road. In July the Duluth Planning Commission rejected an appeal that sought to overturn a May decision by the city's land use supervisor to deny Edison's request for approval of a wetland replacement plan.
The developer hired by Duluth Edison - Idaho-based Pacific Education Partners - has appealed the July decision to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. That puts the charter school group on a timeline that is out of its control, said Bonnie Jorgenson, head of the Duluth Edison Charter Schools.
"We want to be responsible in our planning and to our students and their families," she wrote in a letter to Edison families. "To that end, we have decided to delay the opening of our high school as we work through these processes."
She later said she is still confident there will be a high school, and if it's necessary, other options would be explored.
Duluth Edison Charter School's board president, Neil Byce, said he's expecting a "successful" outcome from the state agency.
"The board remains resolved in building a high school for our parents and our students," he said Friday.
The state Board of Water and Soil Resources received the petition for appeal Aug. 9, said Travis Germundson, the board's water management coordinator. He said the board has 30 days from receipt to make an initial decision. If it decides to go forward with reviewing the matter and ultimately weighing in on it, the process could take at least eight months and involve hearings and an attempt to settle the dispute.
At issue is the removal of wetlands on the 171-acre site that includes ski trails for Snowflake. The developers had proposed to replace more than 2 acres of wetland in the headwaters of Chester Creek by buying more than $217,000 in wetland credits in the southern Lake Superior watershed. The site plan also calls for the installation of an underground stormwater collection system that would ensure 25 percent less runoff from the developed site than there is now.
The planning commission deemed the site poor for a high school based on a technical evaluation panel that suggested not enough was done to show alternatives to lessening wetland impact, or why alternatives wouldn't work.
The developer felt it had met "the letter" of the Wetland Conservation Act, but the Planning Commission did not, said Keith Hamre, director of planning and construction services for the city.
"It was a very sound decision we made," he said. "I feel like we've been doing our due diligence on this."
Paul Goossens suggested that some commissioners - volunteers who are appointed to the citizen board - acted inappropriately in their judgment. Goossens is president of Tischer Creek Building Co., the nonprofit that owns Duluth Edison's school buildings and collects rent from the group. His company intends to eventually buy the high school building, which will first be leased to Duluth Edison by Pacific Education Partners, who is also expected to build it. Under Minnesota law, charter schools can't own buildings.
"They went well beyond their authority or scope in their discussion and rationale," Goossens said of the commissioners, noting "absurd" suggestions to build a school near the nearby county jail, or where more wetlands were documented.
He singled out commission chairwoman Zandra Zwiebel, and alleged she opposes school choice.
"We have the president of the planning commission on the front page of your paper earlier this year vehemently opposed ... to the creation of a charter high school in the community," Goossens said.
Zwiebel was quoted as a public speaker at a Duluth School Board meeting in a May story about the potential sale of the former Duluth Central High School to Duluth Edison. (Duluth Edison was trying to acquire that site for a high school while it also moved forward with the Snowflake project.) Zwiebel said then that she wasn't in support of the sale or another high school in the city.
Zwiebel on Friday said she was representing herself at the meeting, but has no response to Goossens "clouding the issue."
Her decision to vote to deny the appeal was based on recommendations from experts, she said, noting she has a background in hydrogeology.
The commission recommended the developer appeal the decision to the state board, she said, and was happy that the developer did.
Plans for the $25 million project include a two-story, 100,000 square-foot building, 330 parking spots and a track and athletic field.
Jorgenson said she's not worried that projected enrollment - a specific number needed to afford lease payments - will change based on delaying construction.
"We've never had a high school program and we still have a wait-list," she said, noting it was 160 deep for next year combining the lists of both the K-5 Raleigh Academy and the K-8 North Star Academy. "I don't see it having any impact."