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MPS’ school shuffle is further along than one might think

In which Your Humble Servant learns an important lesson about the use of social networks as reportorial sources. To wit: If one decides to write about a Facebook post, one should preserve said post because Facebook, revisited, may deny it ever existed.

Last week, a presumably well-intended, civic-minded Minneapolis gentleman who is concerned about the city’s loss of the state aid funds known as LGA began a Facebook campaign to put pressure on Minneapolis Public Schools to sell off mothballed schools in the hope that the properties would land back on the tax rolls. Not a bad impulse given the property-tax sticker shock city homeowners are currently experiencing.

Unfortunately, the citizen activist — now lost to the Facebook feed of some unknown education-activist mutual friend — had just enough facts to be dangerous. Having accurately, I believe, lamented the impact the condo market’s downturn has on investors’ ability to rehab old schools for new uses, he went on to lambaste MPS for refusing to sell shuttered buildings to charter schools.

There he was acting on incomplete information. The enrollment declines of recent years forced MPS to close a number of buildings and redraw attendance boundaries. As a government agency, MPS pays no property taxes. Many of those properties are still off the tax rolls, and worse, require tax dollars to be kept from decrepitude.

And once upon a time — say, five years ago — the district did in fact have such doctrinaire thoughts about charters vs. mainline public schools, and was so enamored of generating new shades of red tape, that administrators saw no problem with spending tax dollars to maintain buildings that would never again serve district students.

Frustrated potential buyers, including city of Minneapolis officials, begged the Board of Education to appoint a neutral party to sell them quickly but smartly. Current board member Carla Bates, then just a razor-sharp district observer, even nominated former city coordinator and onetime school board member Colleen Moriarty to do the job.

Madden sought to resolve issues
Fast-forward to 2007, a disgruntled populace elected a new board, which included one Tom Madden, who quickly made the sensible resolution of the facilities problem one of his pet crusades. Alas, it’s not sexy work, and in these days of diminished newspaper reporting staffs stories about things like requests for facilities reuse proposals and long-term space planning have gone the way of the profitable classified section.

One of the first things the new board did was to pass a policy directing staff, essentially, to treat charters shopping for homes the same way they would any other potential buyer — provided the charter in question seemed like a solid proposition. (Remember, this was also an era where headlines about charters closing to financial pratfalls were much more common than ones about beat-the-odds charters.)

And then, of course, in 2008 the stock market crashed, real estate crashed, tax coffers crashed even harder than they had been doing since 2003, and MPS’ 21 “excessed” buildings began to seem very much like city-block-sized millstones.

Well-intended Facebook guy, if you’re out there: Madden and MPS Chief Operating Officer Steve Liss are only too happy to provide a status update [PDF] on the district’s attempt to resolve its property woes.

The bad news first: Former elementary schools Longfellow, Cooper and Howe have become sore spots for the Longfellow neighborhood. Playgrounds have fallen into disrepair and residents worry the abandoned buildings may draw loiterers.

Howe was sold for senior housing in 2009, according to Liss, but the deal fell through because the expense of keeping and rehabbing the original building turned out to be prohibitively high. The deadline for offers for Howe is the end of this month; Liss hopes to receive viable ones and to present a plan for all three buildings in December.

Putman, Morris Park and Holland were sold
Putman, Morris Park and Holland have all been sold, the first two to charters and the third to a church. Franklin and Hamilton have been leased, to a charter and to the city, respectively, with purchase options. North Star and the 1250 Broadway building have found new lives as the sites of consolidated district service centers.

In addition to Howe, the district currently is reviewing proposals for the sale of the Lehman Building, on Lake Street in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood, and the former Brown Institute on Lake near the light rail line. Regarding the latter, Madden would like Midtown residents, foodies, artisans, small business boosters and anyone else concerned with the future of the Midtown Farmer’s Market to know that MPS is committing to ensuring the market a permanent home there.

Leases are under negotiation for Tuttle, the particularly lovely Lincoln and the Gordon Center, with charters — including one that appeared in this space recently — and the Urban League, again, in respective order.

Jordan Park is likely to end up home to the Hmong Academy and to a new, first-of-its-kind, teacher-governed MPS French-language immersion school, while Shingle Creek is slated for demolition. Possibilities for three other buildings are under consideration. Lastly, the current district HQ will go up for sale when a new central office facility is completed across the river on the north side.

(Speaking as someone who’s been in and out of 807 Broadway frequently since, oh, well before the bad old days when selling to charters was verboten, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rambling, ramshackle building ultimately must just go gently into the good night. It’s already listing into the earth on one side, it’s widely rumored to have rats, and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and her executive team share the nicest of the single-stall, kindergartener-proportioned toilets.)

Less spending for warehouse space
There’s one more, small piece of good news for taxpayers: The facilities shuffle has allowed the district to end almost $2.8 million worth of leases on 16 properties that are no longer needed. MPS now pays just $128,000 a year for warehouse space.

“We think the results are substantial, especially given the state of the real estate market,” said Liss.

Mr. Facebook, wherever you are, I hope you sleep better tonight, and urge you to channel your energy for civic advancement in some other worthy direction. Perhaps MPS could use a citizen-lobbyist at the Legislature in a few short weeks? Just a thought.

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