City, school district may discuss school purchase

The Stillwater Area School Board and the city of Marine on St. Croix may soon have a conversation about the potential for the city to purchase the Marine Elementary School building.

During the Feb. 23 Stillwater Area School Board learning session, the board directed staff to draft a resolution that would partially lift a stay that has barred the board from discussions about the sale of school buildings proposed for closure in the fall of 2017.

Peter Mikhail, attorney for the school board, said he had received a letter from the attorney for 834 VOICE — a community group currently involved in two lawsuits against the school district — that would allow the district to modify a stay that the board agreed to in April 2016.

“One of the terms of the stay prohibited the district from taking any steps to market or sell or lease these buildings,” Mikhail said.

Recently, a task force from the city of Marine on St. Croix approached the school district with the desire to talk about the sale of the Marine Elementary School building with the intent for the city to purchase the building. Fritz Knaak, attorney for 834 VOICE, sent a letter to the school board saying that his clients would allow the stay to change in order for the district to have conversations only with the city of Marine about a future sale of the building.

Mikhail said the board could modify the stay “on a contingency basis,” making it clear that there would be no actual sale of the building. He said the city of Marine would need to know that at any time the court of appeals could rule the school would not close.

“Mr. Knaak noted in his letter that his clients appreciate how deeply the city has been supportive of their efforts and they don’t want to get in the way of that kind of contingency planning from the city,” Mikhail said.

Some school board members said they were not opposed to talking with representatives from the city of Marine about the sale, but that the proposed sale of the building has been complicated by a bill introduced in the state Legislature.

A bill authored by Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, would give cities the first right to purchase, if the district closed and disposed of the school. Its companion in the state Senate was authored by Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, and Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes.

“There is no need to even address this at this point because if that legislation passes, that’s the law,” board member Tom Lehmann said. “I don’t see any need to modify the stay. I don’t see any need to enter into discussions until that legislation is either adopted or fails to get approval.”

Lehmann argued that if the bill were to pass, the process of negotiating a sale would be described in state law.

“[The proposed law is] basically circumventing what we would do if we were to sit down with them anyways,” Lehmann said.

Board member Sarah Stivland asked if it would be better to talk with the city of Marine and negotiate a sale of the building before the proposed legislation were enacted.

“Do you think they would come to us and say, ‘I’m going to pay you $1million,” knowing that if an appraisal came in at $600,000 they are going to do that? I don’t think they would,” Lehmann said.

“I think the city of Marine wants to have control over what happens in the middle of their town, and I think that is reasonable for them to want that,” Stivland said. “I don’t know why we would want to keep them from having that.”

“Sitting down with Marine, I don’t disagree with you,” Lehmann said. “But sitting down, they are going to say, ‘We’d really like to buy the building first,’ and we have a legislation that is basically saying the same thing,”

Board member Jennifer Pelletier said the board should wait until the Legislature decides.

“The bill threw a wrench in it, so I think we should wait it out,” Pelletier said.

Mikhail offered some advice to the board as to what a discussion with the city of Marine could accomplish.

“Find out what it is that they want to say to you, instead of guessing what they want to say to you,” Mikhail said.

Mikhail told the board that if it wanted to discuss the potential legal impacts that modifying the stay would have on the current lawsuits, the board could enter into a closed session as outlined in the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. The board voted to close their meeting to discuss with Mikhail the potential impacts on the lawsuits.

When the meeting was reopened, the board voted unanimously to direct Mikhail to draft a resolution to lift the stay related to conversations with the city of Marine about a future sale of the Marine school building. The board will vote on the resolution March 9.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]

  • Alex Mundy

    Nice alternative facts, Landman. You left a major variable out of your calculation. If 200 kids leave the district, we don’t have to spend any money on educating those 200 kids. Fewer teachers, fewer services, fewer classrooms. Both Withrow and Marine were under 200 students, so essentially, it’s the equivalent to the savings you get from closing a school. Plus, you’re assuming that the 200 kids are moving out of the district when the fact is that any charter in Marine, which is in the far northern part of the district, would have a significant number of students from outside of the district.