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Northeast Metro district moves forward with Lake Elmo land purchase
District 916 plans school in Eagle Point Business Park
Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District has entered into a purchase agreement for a $2.4 million plot of land within Lake Elmo’s Eagle Point Business Park along Interstate 94 at Inwood Avenue on the southern end of the city.
The nearly 20-acre parcel is zoned for commercial business park use and is currently a cornfield.
However, within the next couple years, those stalks of corn will be replaced by a public school for up to 150 kindergarten through 8th-grade students with autism and emotional behavioral disorders.
District 916 is currently in the middle of step one of a three-part facility upgrade plan. Karner Blue Education Center, a K-8 school also designed for students with Setting IV disabilities, is under construction in Blaine. The intermediate district plans to open that facility in fall 2014.
Superintendent Connie Hayes says the land in the Eagle Point Business Park was in a transportation “sweet spot” for its students.
“When we first started looking at this plan, we had conducted a transportation study to help us focus on [real estate] locations within the boundaries of our member districts. The land in Lake Elmo is close to some major roads and is easier for districts that are bussing students in. And most students’ bus trips will be shorter than they are now.”
The district has a purchase agreement with the land owner, United Properties, and plans to move forward now that Lake Elmo officials have green-lighted its use as a school.
District 916 has 11 member districts, including the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District and Stillwater Area Public Schools. Students with special needs in these member districts can be referred to programs offered by District 916.
916 also offers alternative high school options at three facilities across the metro area with an emphasis on flexible and personalized learning plans. Additionally, the district offers technical training programs at a career center on the east campus of Century College.
Although District 622 has enrolled many of its Setting IV students with emotional behavioral disorder in Northeast Metro District’s special education programs in the past, it recently re-arranged several of its programs to different facilities within the district in order to make room for some of those students. The move is expected to save the district an estimated $1.2 million in tuition each year.
Hayes says bringing these students back into their home districts is encouraged, and does not affect District 916’s plans to construct the new K-8 facilities.
“We commend [the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district] for making the effort to keep students in their home district,” she said. “The more they can do that, the better for the students.”
Some Stillwater Area Public School students with similar learning disabilities are also enrolled in District 916’s programs.
District 834 superintendent Corey Lunn voiced his support of 916’s programming by speaking before the Lake Elmo City Council at its Dec. 3 meeting.
“As school districts, we often have small groups of kids in need of services,” Lunn explained. “As individual school districts, it’s sometimes hard to provide a high-level service at an efficient cost.”
At the same meeting, city officials voted to allow the future construction of a facility that would help the district provide those services more efficiently.
Design plans TBD
Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate District staff says the school in Lake Elmo will probably look much like the 70,000-square-foot, $15 million Karner Blue Education Center in Blaine, but official plans have not yet been drafted, and likely won’t be for another year or so.
Hayes says the district doesn’t plan to begin designing the school until spring 2015 so it can learn from what works and what doesn’t at Karner Blue.
“We’ll open up Karner Blue in fall, and we want to get about a year in that building before we start designing the next facility,” Hayes explained.
The building plan for Karner Blue has a nature theme and is tailored to best fit its intended population with small, quiet areas interspersed between classrooms where students can go to “re-regulate” behavior, Hayes stated.
“Most school buildings are traditionally designed: long hallways with classrooms on both sides,” she explained. “When a youngster in one of the classrooms becomes agitated for whatever reason, they would go out in the hallway to regulate their behavior.”
That agitation was easily seen by other children and sometimes led to their own agitation, Hayes said. Smaller spaces help contain outbursts and limit the number of students affected.
The cost of the project will be divided amongst the 11 member districts.
Planning commission recommends denial
District 916’s proposal to build a school in the Eagle Point Business Park met some resistance when it was first presented to the Lake Elmo Planning Commission Nov. 25.
The current zoning ordinance did not include a school as a permitted use for the land, so the district requested an amendment to the Planned Unit Development (PUD) and also asked for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that would allow for the construction of a public school facility.
City staff outlined the district’s plans and recommended that the Planning Commission approve the requests. A public hearing was held, and a representative from Bremer Financial Services, which neighbors the property, expressed concerns regarding buses and other vehicles potentially disrupting traffic flow to and from the bank.
District officials informed Bremer and the commissioners that only about 20 buses would arrive and depart from the school each day, and most of the other traffic would be from staff in the morning before school and in the afternoon after school hours.
Commissioners were divided on the issue, with some voicing concerns about the potential loss of revenue due to the district’s property-tax exempt status as a public entity.
District administrators addressed the issue by offering to enter into a public services agreement to help address any increase in services, like fire aid and water connection. By the time the district begins building at the site, the property will have municipal water and sewer connections.
In the end, the commission voted 5-2 to recommend the city council deny the request for the PUD, and the CUP was not considered because of this recommendation.
However, city council members ultimately voted against the commission’s recommendation.
Council trumps recommendation
The project was presented to city council at its Dec. 3 meeting. Council members also expressed some concern about the loss of revenue, but those fears were allayed by the district’s willingness to enter into a service agreement. 916 has a similar agreement with Blaine for the Karner Blue Education Center.
Community development director Kyle Klatt also explained that the loss of tax revenue was actually considerably less than the amount presented to the planning commission.
The planning commission, he explained, was told the city may lose out on as much as $16 million in funds because of the school’s tax-exempt status. However, that figure represents the property’s total tax revenue, of which the city’s portion is only about $55,000.
“That’s quite a bit lower than what we had talked about initially,” Klatt said.
With their questions answered, council voted unanimously (4-0, council member Anne Smith absent) to approve amending the PUD to allow the property’s use as a public school.
The resolution to approve the corresponding CUP was then moved to the consent agenda of the Dec. 17 meeting, where it passed unanimously.
Pearson acknowledged that although the city may not receive property-tax money from the school, he believes it’s better for the agricultural land to be developed.
“It’s a larger picture than just this piece. [The land] sat there dormant,” Pearson said.
District, city officials show support
The North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district discussed the construction of the new facility and passed a resolution of support for the project at its Nov. 26 meeting.
Superintendent Patty Phillips shared her excitement about the new Lake Elmo school in a later interview, saying she was happy the facility will be within District 622’s boundaries.
“It’s great because there are students with specialized needs that we might not have a program in our district to address,” she said. “When you need a program like that, it’s nice to have a great facility like that.”
Lunn also expressed how the new facility would help students from the Stillwater district learn in a more personalized, cost-effective way.
“By having this facility in this area, other school districts, and specifically Stillwater District, will benefit from it, our students will benefit from it, not only from a program standpoint but also a cost effectiveness standpoint,” Lunn said at the Lake Elmo City Council meeting.
After Lake Elmo council members voted on the resolution, Pearson voiced his personal support for the project.
“This is going to be a good thing for Lake Elmo, the district and the students ... for a lot of reasons,” Pearson stated. “It’s great.”
For more information about Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District, visit www.nemetro.k12.mn.us.
Johanna Holub can be reached at email@example.com or 651-748-7822. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.