by Rachel Minske
Members of the Elk River City Council and city staff will continue to explore options regarding the future of Spectrum High School.
During a work session Dec. 19, city officials were unable to reach a consensus about the school’s future – including whether to relocate the school or allow its expansion – and decided to return in early February with some answers.
Spectrum’s history with the city
Spectrum High School is a public charter high school that enrolls about 625 students in grades six through 12.
In 2014, the Elk River City Council approved a conditional use permit that allowed the school to open a separate sixth-grade education center at 11044 Industrial Circle, which is located at the front of the horseshoe-shaped industrial park. The high school building, at 17796 Industrial Circle, where grades seven through 12 are now housed, is located across the street at the base the of the business park. Both buildings are located south of Home Depot at the Elk River Business Park.
However, the latest expansion proposal by the school was met with concern from the city’s Planning Commission, residents and business owners.
According to city documents, the concerns included the presence of a school in an industrial park – which is currently legal – school-related traffic around existing businesses, the impact of leasing vacant buildings adjacent to the school and reducing taxes collected in an industrial park intended to increase tax capacity, among other things.
The school sought a conditional use permit to expand its sixth-grade building, but the city’s Planning Commission denied the request on Nov. 29. Commission members felt the industrial park was not conducive to a school, said Eric Johnson, the commission’s chair.
Johnson, whose own children attend Spectrum, said the commission “has always been against having a school in that zone,” but the commission has struggled because it’s found Spectrum to be “an awesome school,” he said.
Aside from a handful of traffic-related complaints in that area, there have been interested companies looking to move into vacant buildings at the industrial park, but pulled back their interest because of the school’s proximity, Johnson said. Some companies are not able to be located near schools due to safety regulations, among other things, he said.
Spectrum withdrew its application for a permit on Dec. 6. Rick Peterson, the director of athletics and facilities, asked that consideration of the permit scheduled for the Dec. 19 regular meeting be removed from the agenda and pledged to continue working with the city for a resolution.
“We are excited to continue to working with the city to explore options for Spectrum to secure a site that will meet current needs and allow for future growth, while working collaboratively with the city and business park,” Peterson wrote in an email.
City considers other options for charter
City staff has since been looking for a solution for the school, including alternative sites, but a large enough parcel close enough to the school’s current location has proven challenging, according to city documents.
There is a 12.13-acre parcel of land owned by the city’s Economic Development Authority situated southeast of the school. The land was platted in 2005 as part of Northstar Business Park, but it’s proven to be a difficult piece of land to develop, said Dan Tveite, president of the EDA.
The parcel is oddly shaped and there’s a gas easement on site, he said. Plus, traffic access to the parcel is fairly limited.
Exploring the possibility of the city-owned parcel was simply a preliminary step, Tveite said, adding there have been no plans from Spectrum about how it would use the land.
“There’s a lot of constituents that have to be involved into that process,” Tveite said. “That includes the new neighbors, the Spectrum school. Obviously, I think there’s a lot of work left if this is going to happen. My take on this is that it’s very preliminary at this point.”
Under the proposal, the city-owned parcel would be zoned to allow school expansion, and institutional uses would be removed from business parks, according to city documents.
While the site would not displace existing businesses, would not share access with developable parcels and would not impact collected taxes as it’s currently city-owned property, some council members did point out the property’s shortcomings and suggested the exploration of more options.
“Does it solve the issue, or does it kick the can down the road?” asked Council Member Matt Westgaard.
Westgaard said since 2006, Spectrum High School has grown exponentially and looks as though it will continue down that path. According to school representatives, there is a long waiting list of students hoping to enroll.
“You’ve continued to grow, which is a great thing,” Westgaard said. “But with that, let’s be smart that wherever we find a place for Spectrum, it has room to expand.”
Council Member Jennifer Wagner echoed Westgaard’s statements and said while she would like to find the perfect spot for Spectrum High School, she’s concerned that traffic at the proposed city-owned parcel would be just as bad, if not worse, compared to the school’s existing site.
“I just don’t know if we’re solving any problems,” she said. Wagner said there are still questions about how traffic would be impacted along Twin Lakes Road and what the potential consequences are for nearby businesses.
“There’s a bigger picture that needs to be developed for me,” she said.
However, City Administrator Cal Portner said Twin Lakes Road is designed for heavy traffic.
“That’s where you want to put a huge flow of vehicles,” he said.
Council members and city staff tossed around a few other parcels of land located throughout Elk River during the work session but were unable to reach a clear consensus about a single viable option.
City staff and elected officials are expected to take up the item again on Feb. 6 to discuss possible avenues for the school.
“We need to come back with options or come back and tell the school we can’t find anything,” Mayor John Dietz said.
For more information about Spectrum High School, visit spectrumhighschool.org.