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Duluth school district to sell Central High School for $8 million

Board members agreed to a purchase agreement after a 90-minute closed session Monday night.

Duluth Central High School campus.
The newer, but still closed, Duluth Central High School on Aug. 4.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — After meeting for about 90 minutes behind closed doors, Duluth Public Schools leaders agreed Monday to sell Central High School for $8 million.

Members voted unanimously to sell the property to Chester Creek View LLC for slightly higher than the $7.9 million for which it was listed. Board member Paul Sandholm was not present.

“I am very pleased that the district is moving forward with the sale of Central High School for more than the asking price,” Superintendent John Magas said in a statement from district staff shortly after the meeting. “It will be helpful in providing additional resources to the students and families of the district, and will be a wonderful development opportunity for the city of Duluth.”

The building, which sits at 800 E. Central Entrance and has been dormant since it was closed as part of the district’s “Red” facilities plan, is already on its way out. Crews are removing asbestos from inside and, the plan goes, will demolish it this fall.

“This is an exciting next step which will be beneficial for our schools and our community,” Board Chair Jill Lofald said in the same news release.

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Its real estate broker claims the list of potential buyers for the property has narrowed from three to one. The district is preparing to demolish the building as soon as November.

The newly approved sale doesn’t apply to the entire school grounds. School leaders are holding on to about 22 acres worth of property at the school site, on which the district is currently building a new headquarters and other central buildings.

This is the fourth formal attempt to sell the building since school officials mothballed it. A $10 million deal with Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors fell through due to cost concerns in 2015. Board members nixed a $14.2 million sale to Tischer Creek Building Co. in 2016 for a Duluth Edison charter high school, and a $7.4 million sale to Saturday Properties fell through last fall.

The district is still planning on moving forward with the demolition of the building.

Purchase agreement

The special meeting at which board members agreed to sell the school popped up on the district’s website late last week, labeled as a meeting about a “Central on the Hill PA” and later changed to “Re: Property Sale” about Central High School.

The News Tribune asked the district for an electronic copy of the purchase agreement on Friday morning, but district staff denied that request, citing a portion of Minnesota’s open meeting laws that let school board members close a meeting to discuss land sales and other business concerns. That law, though, does not stipulate whether a purchase agreement itself would be public or private.

“The purpose of the statute is to allow public officials to talk confidentially about their negotiating strategy and options, which would obviously cause a competitive disadvantage if the other side could listen to such discussions,” said Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. “But that’s clearly not applicable when offers or proposals are given to or received by the other party.”

Later on Friday, Brett Mensing, the district's business services coordinator who fields requests for public data, said he'd see what district staff could do Monday morning and "hopefully" send the News Tribune a copy of the agreement before the board meeting that afternoon. On Saturday, communications officer Adelle Wellens again cited the same part of the state's open meeting laws.

Wellens cited a portion of Minnesota’s data practices laws that classifies some, but not all, “estimated or appraised values” of property as non-public.

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But Anfinson said that law doesn’t restrict access to a purchase agreement itself, and that district administrators could redact any purchase or sale amount included in a purchase agreement, assuming the amount was obtained in accordance with the second state law they cited.

“The remainder of the agreement,” Anfinson said, “would still be public.”

Staff at Minnesota's Data Practices Office, a state agency that offers advice and assistance on open meeting and data practices laws, said in general, those data laws classify individual pieces of information, rather than entire documents, as public or non-public, according to Director Taya Moxley-Goldsmith.

"When there are public and not public data elements combined in a document, the entity must fulfill its obligations to provide access to public data and to protect not public data and they can do so by redacting," she said Tuesday. "If the agreement includes appraised or estimated values, those elements can be redacted. If the entity cannot identify a statute that protects the remaining data, then they should provide it upon request within a reasonable amount of time to respond to a data request."

The paper asked for a copy of the agreement with those values redacted, but district staff said that, on advice of their legal counsel, were denying that request, too, also citing the second state law.

The News Tribune received a printed copy of the purchase agreement shortly after board members approved it Monday.

This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. Aug. 9 to clarify staff statements about the News Tribune obtaining a copy of the purchase agreement before the School Board meeting Monday. Comments from the state's Data Practices Office were also added. The story was originally posted at 6:33 p.m. Aug. 8.

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Related Topics: EDUCATIONDULUTHDULUTH PUBLIC SCHOOLSDULUTH SCHOOL BOARDREAL ESTATE
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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