Charter schools to buy three Mpls district buildings

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
November 18, 2008


The Minneapolis School District is close to finalizing the sale of three of its shuttered buildings. But unlike previous real estate deals, the district this time entertained offers from charter schools.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minneapolis School Board member Pam Costain calls the sale of Franklin, Putnam, and Morris Park Schools "uncharted territory." That's because, even though the district has leased space to private schools before, there used to be a policy banning the sale of any of district buildings to charter schools — with the idea that they're the competition.

But that's exactly who's in line to move into these buildings, in North, Northeast, and South Minneapolis.

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    Costain says her personal hope is to send a signal that the Minneapolis district likes the work these three charter schools do.

    "It isn't just a situation of trying to unload property and get some money," Costain said, in an interview. "We desperately need to unload property, which carries debt and is a burden on our district — but not at the expense of high-quality education for our kids."

    Fellow School Board member Tom Madden agrees. It would be foolish to sell a building to an underperforming charter school because it would only result in those students returning to the Minneapolis district, he says.

    It was also important to find good-performing schools that would fit with the neighborhoods, according to Madden.

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    "If we just put all the buildings out for bid and said 'highest bidder,' you'd have all sorts of schools, churches, companies coming in and buying these buildings for, in some cases, next to nothing," he said. "What good does that serve if the neighborhood's no involved in the process and we don't think about kids first?"

    That's not to say the deals aren't without their critics. Northmarq, the company hired to find buyers for the properties, noted in its summaries that some people who spoke at community meetings for Putnam School preferred to have the district keep the building, in case enrollment grows in the future.

    The building sales are the results, in part, of many meetings in which the district and local neighborhood groups sought input on what should happen to the vacant buildings.

    Betsy Lueth got the impression the communities wanted the school buildings to keep being used as schools. Lueth directs the Yinghua Academy, which is currently located in St. Paul. The school needs a bigger space because it's growing so fast, Lueth says.

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    Moving into Putnam School, she says, is logical because "it's an existing school building, so it's pretty turnkey for us."

    "We don't have to take a business-shaped building and build a gym and a cafeteria, so it's really ideal for us," she says.

    In the spirit of partnerships, Lueth says she's had a number of hopeful talks about working with the city schools that offer their own Chinese language classes, like South High School, though nothing formal has been set.

    The Minneapolis School District currently has 12 closed buildings — but at this point, these are the only three slated to be sold to other schools.

    Three more — Howe, Holland, and Northrop — are also on the market. Northrop has been identified as a possible site for senior housing, while a group of residents in the Longfellow neighborhood want Howe to be made into a kind-of living and workspace for artists. Offers on those three properties are due next month.

    The other six shuttered schools are not on the market at this time. The district will keep Jordan Park, Tuttle and Cooper Schools for future use; Lincoln and Willard Schools will be sold, but only after current assessments with community groups are completed; and Shingle Creek School might be turned over to the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board as part of a land swap.

    For now, though, the Minneapolis School Board is focused on selling Franklin, Putnam and Morris Park to the charter schools. Board members will hear about the proposed sales Tuesday night, with final approval expected next week, Nov. 25. If approved, the three buildings will sell for a combined total of $11.345 million.