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Liberty Ridge project a done deal

Parents of Liberty Ridge Elementary School students can uncross their fingers because the District 833 School Board has approved a deal to buy space for a site expansion.

With approximately 900 students and more slated to come from new home construction, the school is currently full and no outside or inside the district transfers are being allowed.

At a school meeting a month ago, parents said they want to keep their children at the school and feared the deal might not go through.

The deal, which was approved over strong objections from board member Jim Gelbmann, is for $2.37 million to buy a building and property that will become eight classrooms. The property had been slated for a small neighborhood shopping center, and later for assisted living housing, but those efforts did not go forward and the building has been used for several years to house Liberty Ridge kindergarten classes.

The district currently leases 10,000 square feet for $14,000 a month. It will buy the site and a vacant lot with construction footings for an additional 12,000 square feet that will be connected to the existing building by a commons area.

The property will be paid for by the district's alternate levy that doesn't need voter approval and has been approved by the Minnesota Department of Education, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities.

Build-out of the addition, also known as Site II, is estimated to cost $2 million. It will be paid for with excess proceeds from a 2006 district construction referendum.

The district will pay from $7,000 to $10,000 in closing costs but the seller, an independent investment group, will pay pre-payment penalties for paying off the mortgage ahead of time.

The owners will break even after the mortgage is paid off, Vogel said.

Site II, originally expected to be open this fall, will need a conditional-use permit from the city of Woodbury that will take 45 to 60 days and allow for public comment. No opposition is expected from the city, he said.

As a result of the hearing process, closing on the property will be delayed until final approval by the city and the district will pay an additional two months' rent.

The city isn't concerned with the use of the property, said Superintendent Mark Porter, only about the building's design.

Gelbmann, who is opposed because there is room in other district schools for additional students, said the district usually buys property for fair market value, but the appraisal for Site II, including the vacant lot, is only $1.65 million.

Joseph Langel, attorney for district resenting the firm of Ratwik, Rosak & Maloney, said there's "inherent difficulty" is appraising the site because there's no market for a public school.

The appraiser used the sale of day care centers in the Twin Cities for comparison.

Deductions were made because the property is not a vacant lot, but has footings that would restrict its use, Langel said.

The appraisal would have been higher if the center were directly on Settler's Ridge Parkway, he said.

If the district walked away from the deal, it's unlikely that another buyer would be found, Gelbmann said.

In that case, the sellers would hang on to the property with the district's lease paying the mortgage. "They are only interested in selling if they can pay off the mortgage," Vogel said.

The district would not be throwing away money if it continued to lease and waited for a new contract on Valley Crossing School that is jointly operated by District 833, Stillwater and North St. Paul Maplewood Oakdale, for additional space.

The district could use the $4 million to pay each transferred Liberty Ridge student $10,000 for the "trauma of having to move," Gelbmann said sarcastically.

"It's a high price to pay when we have space in other buildings just so we can avoid the trauma," he said.

Other school attendance boundaries would have to be redrawn because of a "ripple effect," according to Laurie Johnson, board member.

"If you're a parent and you want your kids at that school, you'd better move close to it," Gelbmann said.

Johnson said moving students would be another temporary situation.

One move is a challenge, Porter said, two moves are not manageable.

Turmoil only occurs for one year, Gelbmann said.

The vote was 6-1 with board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd and members Tracy Brunnette, Ron Kath, Marsha Adou, David Kemper and Johnson voting in favor. Gelbmann opposed.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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