Duluth schools disclose terms of sale for historic building after stonewalling for weeks

The nearly 130 year old Central High School building is one of Duluth’s most historic landmarks. The Duluth school district reached a purchase agreement with a Twin Cities developer to convert the National Register of Historic Places property into apartments last October.

It’s a matter of great interest to the public. Yet in apparent violation of state law, district authorities declined to disclose the details of what turned out to be a $3 million deal, finally relenting only last week after repeated browbeating by the Duluth News Tribune.

When a government entity, such as Duluth Public Schools, is selling a property, the purchase agreement becomes public data when the negotiating parties sign an agreement. The district has never denied that a purchase agreement has been signed, but is still refusing to release the requested information. By not doing so, the district is in violation of Minnesota State Statute 13.44 Subdivision 3(c).

The News Tribune first requested the purchase agreement April 7 using the district’s data request form and received a response saying it would be released once the sale closed. The newspaper once again requested the purchase agreement April 13 pointing to State Statute 13.44.

More than a week later, April 21, the district responded to the second request for data, citing Minnesota State Statute 13D.05, Subdivision 3, stating it “provides that purchase agreements are not public until closing.”

The district’s superintendent refused to divulge the deal’s details on the grounds of a law protecting discussions in closed-door meetings. But state officials told the paper the district’s claim was flat out wrong.

“The open meeting law does not classify data,” said Taya Moxley-Goldsmith, director of the Data Practices Office at the Minnesota Department of Administration. “When a government entity, like a public school district, denies access to data, it must cite the statutory provision that classifies the data as not public. The authority to close a meeting does not determine access to the underlying data.”

Minnesota Statute 13D.05, Subdivision 3, even says once an agreement is reached and the public body votes to approve the agreement, “the purchase price or sale price is public data.”

Yet district officials continued to refuse to cooperate with the paper’s data request, partly on the basis they’ve always done business this way.

“Acting under the advice of the school district’s legal counsel and past practices in how the district has sold other properties, we believe disclosing the purchase agreement for Historic Old Central High School before final closing would not be in the best interest of taxpayers or the district.

Last week the school district finally blinked, providing key details of the developer’s $43 million plan to convert the structure into 125 apartments. The agreement provides protections to maintain the school’s historic character, while giving the developer the option to back out under certain conditions.

One of the requirements is that the building cannot be used as a school. But the newspaper still hopes old Central High School has taught district officials one final lesson.

“Although it took nearly a month for our data request to finally be honored, the News Tribune is pleased that this public information has been released by Duluth Public Schools so that we can make it available to members of the community,” said Rick Lubbers, News Tribune executive editor.