Considering the opposition 

Clayton Howatt’s op-ed commentary in the March issue of the Bugle [“Opposing the Twin Cities German Immersion School expansion”] set off a flurry of passionate and sometimes angry responses in the school community. 

We have received letters and numerous online comments to the article from Howatt, the executive director of the Galtier Parent Organization. In the wake of the feedback, we learned that not everyone at Galtier School agreed with his analysis.

Meanwhile, one German Immersion School parent suggested the Bugle agreed with Howatt merely because we published his commentary. Not true.  The Bugle has taken no editorial stand pro or con on the school’s expansion plans. 

Our role, as I see it, is to provide a forum where the community can debate such issues, pro or con.  Along those lines, we published TCGIS director Ted Anderson’s commentary in our February issue and asked Bonnie Youngquist, of Save Historic St. Andrew’s Church, to explain their viewpoint, in our March issue.

Out of this debate, I have gained a greater appreciation on how each side feels. I have also seen occasions where it feels like both sides are not really listening to one another, that people are talking past one another rather than to one another. 

At the end of the day, I wonder if it would be helpful to have a mediator come in to help both sides find common ground and try to work out a joint solution. 

—-Scott Carlson  

    4 Responses

    1. John Baxter

      I would like to post here in response to the March 19 comment by Roy Neal. Mr. Neal speaks about SHSA, a small organization of which he is a founder, and the school as though they are equal partners in the buildings and campus at 1031 Como. I think it bears pointing out that the two “sides” are not equal partners because they do not have equal responsibility. One “side” bears all the obligations: the deep financial obligations of maintaining and operating a building, as well the school’s primary obligation of providing adequate educational facilities for its students. The other “side” wants to gaze upon a shell of a building in which it has no direct stake, nor financial responsibility, nor any interaction with the interior environment that is not functioning for the needs of the students and staff.

      Mr. Neal acknowledges “TCGIS explained that they were limited financially” but fails to acknowledge that (1) SHSA has done nothing to address this primary factor (such as raising funds for a restoration fund); and (2) has actively caused the school additional expense and delay. I am sure the school would most willingly sell the church structure for a dollar, and allow it to be moved and renovated by a preservation group with the experience and funds to do so. If the former church building amounts to a building of such historic caliber to justify its preservation for the public good, then the public should pay for it as such. Dedicated historic preservation funds, not education funds, should be used for its restoration. However, there are no funds to do so. There are no funds to renovate the structure; and what preservation funds exist (sadly, too little funding) are being directed at higher caliber preservation projects (Fort Snelling comes to mind). The school that has a primary purpose to educate children and has funding (sadly, too little funding) for that purpose. In order to educate children, a school requires appropriate facilities. That, my friends, is the crux of the matter: money. Not misinformation or uncooperativeness, it is money.

      But instead of looking for ways to actually solve the funding problem and save the structure, this very small and very vocal but well-connected group of activists have used their influence to bully the school. To that end, SHSA has muddied the preservation argument with any and all issues it can use to hurt the school. SHSA filed, but then withdrew, a restraining order (I guess that is technically a court order and not a law suit?) against the school. SHSA’s actions have required the school to hire an attorney, another expense that is taking away from the school’s budget. SHSA has lobbied the Planning Commission on parking and traffic issues, who required the school to pay for an independent parking study at a cost of $12,000. And, the king harassment tactic to date, this group has literally filed a petition requesting an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). For those who don’t know, EAWs are meant for large scale projects (mandatory categories include: nuclear fuel storage facilities and petroleum refineries) with the potential for significant environmental damage. As matter of public record, the petition representative on the EAW request against the school is Roy Neal. The petition has signatories from a 40-mile radius: as far north as Cambridge, to Farmington in the South, Rosemount in the West, and even Hudson, Wisconsin to the East—a full 80% of the hundred odd signatures came from outside St Paul—all of whom signed stating “significant environmental impacts” that that they would personally suffer from a school remodeling project miles away. (Also as a matter of public record, Mr Neal also does not live in the Warrendale neighborhood.) The so-called “significant environmental impacts” would be caused by standard construction practices, exhaust from school busses, and, this is a direct quote, from “increased noise levels from higher student population.” This refers to the sounds from children playing on the playground. Yes, Virginia, crusaders have taken decibel readings from sounds coming from human children playing outside and requested a $10,000 noise study. To repeat, these are grown ups complaining –not about amplified sound from a three day Lollapalooza concert, not about jack hammering at 5:00 AM—but about children playing outside, an activity that happens only on the days and during the limited hours when the school is in use. School children playing is an environmental hazard? What planet are we on?

      I will dial back slightly here. I do not wish to imply that traffic and playground noise are unimportant concerns; they are indeed an all-too-common source of tension between schools and neighboring residents. My main point is that (1) these concerns are separate from SHSA’s claimed preservation focus; (2) they are issues that the school is working on, in the interest of being a good neighbor, and (3) kids being loud is an occasional nuisance that warrants attention, yes, but at an appropriate scale. TCGIS has applied for a STAR grant to build a sound barrier wall instead of a simple fence, and D10 voted to support the request. The parking study found no surprises: typical school congestion as well as ample available on-street parking. Nonetheless, TCGIS has implemented recommendations for improvement, including adding a 5th bus route, using technology to make the carpool pick up more efficient, and educating parents and families where and where not to park.

      In closing, I would like to underscore that the EAW petition is more than just a delay tactic. The petition has to be evaluated to by the City of St Paul and the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, using up scarce city and state resources on a vendetta against a public charter school. If the EAW petition is granted, the “short worksheet” will require 2-3 months to complete; typically the answers amount to over a hundred pages of research by well-paid experts. There are real harms caused by SHSA. “Win, win” has been the oft-repeated rallying cry of SHSA, but there is no win-win when one side’s “win” is to be able to gaze upon a costly structure that they have no financial stake in. Every effort of SHSA is a step toward a “Lose, Lose-Bigger” result. They are using every dirty tactic to delay and cause tangible harms to a wonderful public school that is an asset to the state of Minnesota, as Mark Ritchie so eloquently argued in a recent MinnPost opinion piece in favor of the school’s expansion plans, which I urge anyone reading this to check out. [https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2019/03/the-twin-cities-german-immersion-school-a-valuable-asset-for-our-community-our-educational-system-and-for-the-global-stage/]

    2. Roy Neal

      Readers,

      Anthony and Rich are like unofficial spokespeople and advocates for TCGIS. They did not mention that. I support SHSA. I think Warrendale and St. Andrew’s is a special place that should be respected, not neglected.

      I understand that this controversy looks messy. Part of that is caused by half-truths and misinformation. It’s hard to know what’s true. TCGIS leadership must know some of their claims are bogus, but they still use them in their letter templates, on Facebook, in the media, and when messaging to their own parents. They have woven quite a tale of woe and anguish inflicted on them by pesky neighbors. But I must straighten the record on a few points:

      SHSA didn’t “fail to disclose” anything last October. Stop spreading that lie.

      I helped create the October 11 mediated session. It came about after a late night conversation between myself and TCGIS’ facilities director, who contacted D10 to mediate. And so it happened. We both wanted to turn the temp down through a face-to-face meeting between reasonable people. TCGIS explained that they were limited financially. SHSA asked TCGIS to abandon plans to demolish the bell tower over the MEA break, and join a neighborhood joint design workshop we proposed. Led by experts from the University of MN who graciously offered their time and expertise, this joint design workshop or “charette” would include everyone who cared—you, me, them, students, parents, neighbor, council members. It would explore new options to save the building while providing for the needs of the new school. It needed TCGIS input to work. SHSA agreed to be flexible (we are not as inflexible as someone wants you to think). TCGIS agreed reluctantly to participate—then abruptly quit. They quit!

      TCGIS did not take their toys and go home over a lawsuit. How do I know? Because SHSA did not file a lawsuit last October. That’s a distortion TCGIS spokespeople repeat often. TCGIS tried to fast track demolition on Oct 11 over MEA break. The same day as our planned meeting. Thanks to swift action by the city to stop TCGIS’ plan to destroy the “phallic” bell tower—as one TCGIS parent called it—a temporary restraining order (TRO) we had considered (not a lawsuit) to stop the demo wasn’t needed, wasn’t completed, and never scheduled for a hearing. We had the option, but didn’t use it. Rich and Anthony would have you think otherwise. Anticipation of a possible TRO must have triggered someone at TCGIS. So there was literally nothing to “disclose.” That doesn’t fit TCGIS’ narrative, so they call it something that sounds threatening rather than defensive, craftily mentioned above by both spokespeople. Sneaky move, fellas.

      TCGIS asks us to take its word that it explored “all the possible options” (23+ they claimed). They expect us to trust that they did so, and the demolition of an iconic Warrendale building is the only way TCGIS can survive. My BS detector is lit up. There has been zero community involvement, no sharing of reviewed “possible options,” nor willingness to include their own neighbors. The 2 biggest options they actually considered didn’t come from TCGIS—they came from SHSA! Call me skeptical of TCGIS’ claims.

      TCGIS claimed that St. Andrew’s wasn’t historical. They even sent that to the mayor’s office. Then our independent experts’ research was published and peer reviewed by the Heritage Preservation Commission and the State Office for Historic Preservation. We were correct. TCGIS was wrong.

      Through a MN Data Practices Act, we hoped to learn what options were explored. TCGIS had made it clear they would not share otherwise. We had seen a few sketches on their public website—including two that used the church building for a gym or classroom space, as we had hoped—but about 20 were missing. Instead of complying with the legal data request, filed last November, TCGIS’ law firm took 3 months to gather a stack of printouts from the public website, with no data on the missing options. Are we to trust TCGIS when they do that, even when compelled by law? Would that fly with any other St. Paul public school? Nah.

      There’s no evidence maintenance of the church is beyond TCGIS’ ability in the financial docs available publicly. Snow removal cost more than maintaining that lovely brick exterior in 2017. Past tenants were able to maintain the building for nearly 100 years. Why does TCGIS have issues they didn’t just 5 years ago, and that no one else had? What about the $8 million in bond funding in 2013, and the upcoming round of $8 million or so in 2019? That help?

      Rich says SHSA hasn’t brought them ideas. Wrong again. But TCGIS has stopped considering them. We recently shared an exploration of dozens of amazing actual adaptive reuse (permanent) examples of church spaces by schools and other organizations—in Germany. Great stuff. Creative spaces.

      SHSA has been clear that the best way forward isn’t bringing plans to TCGIS for an imperious up/down vote. That’s not collaboration! We want neighborhood collaboration. In order to meet their “real-world” needs, they can’t just spy and spit from afar. That defeats the whole purpose!

      It’s hard to find common ground when they mock calls for collaboration. Rich, I guess I should have said “come to the table,” right? I have an intimate understanding of this issue. There are important questions on both sides, but nothing unsolvable, IMHO. Just gotta get past the misinformation and uncooperativeness.

    3. Anthony Radecki

      Notwithstanding the debatable efficacy of filing a lawsuit against an elementary school, after SHSAs failure to disclose their legal action it was recommended by council that TCGIS not engage directly with this group. Therefore the school took the prudent approach and has been working through the D10 council instead.

    4. Rich Iwen

      There was a mediation session in October; SHSA failed to disclose at that meeting they had already filed a lawsuit against the school.

      Given that SHSA’s postion is that the church must remain at all costs, I don’t think there is any common ground that meets the space needs and financial constraints that the school operates under. TCGIS already investigated all the possible options for building a new structure on the Como site (on either side of the church, and adding onto the end of the classroom wing) and all of those options are unaffordable to the school due to the costs of maintaining the church. SHSA fails to accept or recognize the years of work and analysis that went into TCGIS’s decision simply because they don’t agree with that decision.

      SHSA will surely respond with “come to the table”, and “we know there are alternatives” and “win-win”, but they have failed to even suggest (at least publicly) any idea that actually meets the real-world space needs of the school and within the real-world financial constraints of the school, all of which is public information and familiar to those who have closely followed this debate.

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