I unfairly cast blame where it did not belong

In today’s Trib story about the possible reuse of the Rockridge School I fussed that the neighbors of the school were making it hard to get rid of. That’s true but I got a wonderfully thoughtful letter from a parent who has sent a lot of useful information my way over the last year that puts the neighborhood’s concerns in a different light. Since the Red Plan a lot of neighborhoods have felt that ISD 709 road roughshod over them. Rockridge is no different and who can blame them for a low level of trust?

Here’s my short reply to ***********:

As always ************* you you make a great deal of sense. You have insights I was not aware of and after reading your extensive thoughts I can no longer blame the Rockridge neighbors for this slice of the Red Plan disaster.


PS I am putting this on my blog

And here it is:

Hello Harry,

I am what could be called a neighbor of the Rockridge School. We do not necessarily live extremely close to it, but we do live on ********* Street.

I am not particularly opposed to using the building as a school for the students at Woodland Hills. I would rather see it used as a school than as apartments. The idea of having Woodland Hills students there during the day is not one that seems all that concerning. I do know, however, that many in this neighborhood feel quite differently.

However, after thinking about it for some time, I am a bit disappointed that the blame for lack of selling the school was put on the neighbors in your recent blog post. There is plenty of blame to go around for the empty, unsold district properties. However, blaming the neighbors for Rockridge still sitting empty is not fair, nor do I think it will be useful in trying to repair district relations with the people in the Lakeside, many of whom are already very unhappy with ISD709.

Perhaps the biggest blame belongs to

Johnson Controls, who assured the district that these properties would fly off the market at top dollar.

The next blame could be aimed squarely at Aaron Schweiger, who entered into a purchase agreement on a property that he knew was not zoned for what he wanted to do with it. He seemed like a very untrustworthy actor in the process that unfolded. If you follow the sequence of articles in the News Tribune about his plans for the property, they continually shifted. It seemed to me that he was purposely using the paper to float ideas that were extremely outrageous at first so that his less extreme, plans (that were still outside the in place zoning policies) would seem more acceptable when it came down to the time for the city to vote on them. His budgets kept being “off”. Things kept getting “more expensive than planned”. He initially proposed high-end and market rate housing. That morphed into high-density, low-quality town homes. Then he said he would need TIF money, after having earlier said that no TIF money would be asked for.

Also, Schweiger’s communication with city officials seemed sparse and sometimes non-existent. I remember correspondence with Jennifer Julsrund and Ketih Hamre in which they told me something to the effect that he was presenting plans to the paper and the neighbors as “done deals” even when in some cases the city had not even seem them yet. I believe I remember Ms. Julsrud publicly questioning Mr. Schweiger’s capability to bring a building project to fruition at this site.

If one reads through the articles on Schweiger’s plans for the Morgan Park site, one will see the same kind of issues. In August 2016 he announced his already scaled-back plans for Morgan Park were on hold since the bids came in so much “higher than expected”. An article on August 21, 2016 in the News Tribune outlines this familiar story pretty well. The article presents Keith Hamre as being perhaps a bit puzzled by Mr. Schweiger’s assertion that the Morgan Park project is too expensive. Mr. Hamre notes that many high quality, market rate units are currently being constructed with other developers finding a way to move forward.

In general, I believe Mr. Schweiger was in no position to construct anything at the Rockridge site unless he received large concessions and TIF money. I do not believe he was ever a solid buyer for the site. Maybe Rockridge is truly bad site for development. If it was a good site for development, it would have sold long ago and had many more takers than Mr. Schweiger. It seems that other developers might recognize that Rockridge is not a good investment, a point which gets us back to the false promise made to us by Johnson Controls.

Finally, a third point of blame could be laid on the majority members of the current school board and the current administrator of the district. The blog post says Mr. Schweiger’s offer was the only solid offer received by the district. Upon examination, his offer may not have ever been solid. Furthermore, it was not really the only offer. Montessori presented a high-value, solid offer on the property. This offer was not ever seriously considered and was initially never even presented to the whole board. Selling to Montessori would have made neighbors really happy and put needed money into ISD709 debt retirement.

The neighbors are not to blame for the problems at Rockridge. Some of the neighbors are taxpayers of Duluth who are tired of handing over TIF money to enable developers to make higher profit margins. They are the parents and grandparents of Duluth school kids. These people are upset about the Red Plan. They are upset that Rockridge was even closed in the first place. They are upset that up to 31 kids are being squished into a single room at the new Lester Park School. They are upset about the tire mulch at Lester Park that no one wanted while the parents at Congdon got to keep the wood material. They are upset about the short school day, short lunch, short recess, and lack of access to electives for our kids. They are mad about Zero Hour. They are upset about Mr. Gronseth saying at a Think Kids meeting that he did not believe Lester Park was too crowded. At this same meeting he assured us that the development at Rockridge would have no impact at all on the already overfilled Lester Park, since he was confident that it would be sold to a developer who would build high-end “empty nest” style apartments that would not add any kids to the population of the school. About two weeks later, Mr. Schweiger’s proposal hit the paper showing about 87 or more new 3 bedroom townhome units described as workforce housing. Lester Park School would have been plunged into chaos if 80+ new families with kids moved in. To blame the taxpayers and families of Duluth for Rockridge remaining unsold perhaps now another reason for them (us) to be frustrated with the district. People that are this upset are not likely to be all that cooperative.

We have been told that Rockridge was being considered to house an expansion of early childhood programs. Additional capacity in quality pre-school programs is something we need in this neighborhood, especially now that St. Michael’s preschool is scheduled to close. The idea of Rockridge being used for early childhood was in the paper as recently as last week. Not too many months ago, former board chair Harala said she was reluctant to sell Rockridge since it would useful since there were plans for the district to offer more pre-K opportunities. We have heard nothing about an increase in the actual number of pre-K spots in the district. Instead we learn that secret meetings about using the school to serve Woodland students have been going on for some time. Many neighbors found out about the plan because Mr. Gronseth announced it on Twitter. The secrecy was a bad idea. Using Twitter to announce it was a bad idea. This was not a good way to positively re-engage the neighbors. Again, a series of bad ideas might sink this deal, a deal which think could work out OK for the district if all the current frustrations and mistrust did not already exist. If this plan fails, I do not think any blame will rest with the neighbors. I think blame will again rest with the failed promises of the Red Plan, with the majority members of the school board, and with a superintendent who has not done a lot to positively engage the families in the Lakeside neighborhood.

I hope that Rockridge can be used again as a school. The best bet is to sell it to Montessori and letting them pay to fix it up, but I bet they will be buying the St. Michael’s building. I have also heard the Waldorf School might have an interest in Rockridge, but they know any potential offer would be turned away. Another good option might be the idea of it as a school for the Woodland Hills students, as presented, as long as the district does not end up spending a lot more money on fixing it up than the building is actually worth. I think, though, that this idea may face large battles with the citizens of Duluth, mainly due to the existing already strained relationship.

I continue to hope for a change on the board in the next election cycle. I hope you decide to run again. You will have my vote.I hope we have a different person representing our neighborhood. In closing, I want you to know I am not upset with you at all but that I just wanted to express my frustration with being blamed, as one of the neighbors, for Rockridge still sitting empty.

As always, thank you for your time and all your hard work.


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