Board Members Call For Transparency In All Dist. Property Offers

Board Members, Chairperson, Larson, Ness Sound Off

The Duluth School District and taxpayers are forking out roughly $160,000 a year to maintain five vacant school buildings on three sites that are all waiting for a buyer, according to a district spokesperson.

So far, offers to pay millions of dollars for the properties have only come from competing education systems like Edison and now Many River Montessori School.

But selling to competition is against district policy – a policy reaffirmed by the current school board earlier this year.

Some board members aren’t happy they were not told about three separate offers from Many Rivers and say every offer deserves consideration and that policies can be suspended.

FOX 21’s Dan Hanger talked to both sides of the issue to try to gain clarity on future offers of the vacant school buildings.

There’s no arguing about it; the Duluth School Board, district administration and tax payers want the vacant Central, Rockridge and Nettleton properties sold now.

“I absolutely want these buildings sold,” said Board Chair Annie Harala.

Harala stresses, though, a strict board policy forbidding any property sale to a competing school program.

“It’s been board practice that if something is against policy, sometimes it will be brought up to the chair and then they have the discussion,” Harala explained.

However, that “sometimes” approach to discussion is a serious concern to some board members like Harry Welty and Alanna Oswald.

“I think we should examine every potential sale — case by case. I don’t think we should hide offers from the school board,” Welty said.

“The voters are who this money belongs to — and all these schools belong to — they need to know that we are actively pursuing every chance to sell it,” Oswald said.

Both Welty, Oswald and Art Johnston tell FOX 21 they are calling for more transparency from Chair Harala with any and all offers on school properties.

This comes after Many Rivers said in a letter to the board that it made three separate offers on Dist. 709 properties over the past four months, which will all ignored.

“This is just part of a changing dynamic in education and how we deliver it. And it’s all about choice now. It’s not about you take what you get. It’s about what fits my child the best? And we have to learn to offer better. And how can we do that when we don’t have any money to do that,” explained Oswald.

Looking for outside perspective, Former Mayor Don Ness told Hanger he agrees with an open-door policy involving any interest in the vacant school properties.

“The School Board’s policy preempts community consideration of how best to use these publicly owned assets. I understand they are difficult discussions to have and there are tradeoffs to consider. But the public deserves a chance to engage in these discussions to be able to weigh the pros and cons of each offer,” Ness said in a written statement.

Mayor Emily Larson, on the other hand, says she will work with any deal the district makes and believes strong education helps attract new business to the community.

“It’s not our land. So while it’s in our best interest to make sure it keeps moving and get back into the portfolio of our community, those decisions are not made by city staff. But decisions later on about their development, their zoning, that is,” Larson explained.

So what’s next?

Chairperson Harala confirmed to FOX 21 Tuesday that the board will meet next month to clarify and review parameters for the sale of properties moving forward.

“There are many views and opinions regarding this issue. What I was doing was really going with what board policy had been and it clearly needs to be discussed again in the future,” Harala said.

Harala also said it was important to point out that all dollars collected from the sale of old school buildings is required to pay off the roughly $216 million dollars in debt from the Long-Range Facilities Plan – also known as the Red Plan.

Meanwhile, the head of Many Rivers Montessori School, Mark Niedermier, told Hanger Tuesday night that he still wants that “courtesy” meeting with district officials about the offers he has made for those vacant properties.

Here is the breakdown of offers from Many Rivers.

Secondary Technical Center (on Central H.S. property for sale): $3,500,000

Rockridge: $920,000

Nettleton: $370,000

Also, since the three district properties went for sale within the past five years, it has cost the district $1.1 million to maintain, according to a district spokesperson.

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