Legislation would give cities 1st right to buy school buildings

Two local legislators say that when a school district decides to “close and dispose of a schoolhouse or site,” the city where the school is located should have the right to purchase the property.

A bill authored by Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, would give cities that right. Its companion in the state Senate was authored by Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, and Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes.

“It came to me from some of the parents in our district,” Housley said. “And there are parents in other districts also that this has been an issue with, that don’t want their schoolhouse to die, even if they have moved the school district out of the building — they just want to make sure that the building can stay within the community.”

The legislation has special relevance to the St. Croix Valley at a time when the Stillwater Area School District plans to close Oak Park, Marine and Withrow elementary schools later this year.

While the district plans to use Oak Park Elementary for office space and community education, there are no plans to repurpose the other two buildings. The city of Marine on St. Croix has expressed interest in purchasing the Marine school. Grove Elementary, a planned charter school, has also expressed interest in using the building, but the Grove Elementary school board is currently negotiating a lease at another site.

The Stillwater school district had declined to discuss the potential lease or sale of Marine Elementary while a lawsuit over the school closures worked its way through the Court of Appeals.

Dettmer represents Marine on St. Croix, and he said it makes sense to guarantee the city an opportunity to buy the school if the district no longer wants the building.

“Being that it’s a local school that’s part of a community, hopefully the community could have first bids at purchasing it,” Dettmer said, adding that the legislation would apply to any city where a school might close in the future. “If there’s a local community that would like to purchase it, why not give them first choice?”

Housley agreed, saying schools are often at the center of a community, especially in rural areas.

“If the community can have the first right to purchase the building, then they can decide what to do with it,” she said.

In their current form, the bills (HF 553 and SF 552) would require a school to be offered to the city where it’s located at a price determined by an appraiser selected by the school board. If the city didn’t purchase the property “after a reasonable opportunity,” the board could seek another buyer.

The idea of giving cities the “right of first refusal” to purchase public buildings is not without precedent. Both Dettmer and Housley cited the state law governing the sale of National Guard armories. When the Guard wants to sell an armory, the law requires it be offered first to the city, then to the county where the building is located.

Reached Feb. 21, Stillwater Area School Board chair George Hoeppner said the board had not yet taken a position on the proposed legislation, but had asked its legislative work group to craft recommendations for the full board to consider.

Hoeppner said he personally had questions about some of the language in the bills, such as whether the school board would be allowed to get multiple appraisals and what constitutes a “reasonable opportunity” for a city to purchase a property.

“It seemed to me like it was a draft, if you will, and it needed some specificity put into it,” Hoeppner said.

Housley and Dettmer said they’re open to amending their bills.

“That happens a lot when you put some language together first and get some feedback on it,” Dettmer said.

Dettmer is already considering adding a timeframe into the House version of the bill. The city of Marine told him 90 days would be a reasonable opportunity to make a decision, and six months would be reasonable for making a purchase.

Marine on St. Croix Mayor Glen Mills didn’t return a call for comment.

Both Housley and Dettmer said the bill doesn’t hamper local control at the school district level, because the proposed law wouldn’t kick in until the district had already decided to close and dispose of a school.

“Local decisions are best, but also when you have a whole group of people begging to take ownership in their community, you want to help them out too,” Housley said.

If the legislation become law, it would take effect “the day following final enactment” and would apply to “all schoolhouse closings not yet completed on or after the day of enactment.”

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]