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Schoolcraft takes another crack at Deer Lake

Deer Lake Elementary's building and grounds have sat empty for years. Schoolcraft Learning Community leaders almost struck a deal last December to move their K-8 charter to the dormant school building, and they're taking a second crack at it this year with a different company. (Pioneer file photo)

BEMIDJI—Leaders at Schoolcraft Learning Community are taking another shot at an out-of-commission elementary school.

The charter school's board voted last month to enter into a lease agreement with Deer Lake Properties for the former Deer lake Elementary building about 15 miles north of Bemidji. The school needs to clear up some language in a tentative lease and the property company needs to secure financing for some hoped-for renovations at the site before the move is official.

"What we have been telling people here is that we're at like a 92 percent sure," said Adrienne Eickman, executive director at Schoolcraft, which has operated out of the Concordia Language Villages since the school was founded in 2000.

This is a familiar spot for the charter school and the company. Deer Lake Properties is operated by Dave Bahr, a former BSU physics professor who purchased the Deer Lake building and grounds from Bemidji Area Schools in fall 2016.

Bahr hoped to turn it into a post-secondary engineering school, but those plans were torpedoed when the U.S. Department of Education stopped recognizing the organization that would have accredited Bahr's school.

He was ready to sell the property to TrekNorth, another Bemidji-area charter school that was looking for a place to expand, last fall. But leaders at that school backed away late in the game amid concerns about the financial corner they might paint the school into if they went through with the deal.

A second company, Great Western Properties, was ready to buy the school and lease it to Schoolcraft, but the company was reluctant to front the money for renovations and additions school officials said they needed there. School staff worried the new building would be noisy and cramped while they found the money to renovate it, but those concerns were rendered moot when Great Western pulled a tentative lease agreement off the table hours before Schoolcraft's board was set to deliberate it in December.

What's different this go-round, Eickman and Bahr said, is that Bahr and Deer Lake Property are more willing to renovate the site. Schoolcraft staff want a new 7,000-something square foot building on the property for science and music classes, plus some renovations to the existing building like upgraded security measures, office space and partitions.

Bahr said he's working on a way to fit the costs of renovation into the tentative $300,000 annual lease for the property, which Eickman said is the same price they would have paid Great Western.

"As long as we can make the finances work, you know, make the renovations that they need and do the other things without going over budget there, we're good," Bahr said. "I'm not trying to make a lot of money on this. I'm just trying to solve a problem that I've got."

This most recent plan for the Deer Lake site is Bahr's fourth attempt, by his count, to make something of it. He joked that he's as confident about the new deal with Schoolcraft as he was about the sale to TrekNorth.

"I was 100 percent confident with that project, so you can take that for what it's worth," he said wryly. "I'm very confident that this will only be the third time I've been very confident."

Schoolcraft pays about about $227,000 every year for their space at the language villages. Eickman said school leaders expect to make up the $70,000 or so difference with more lease aid from the state and a relatively small amount from their own pockets.

Moving to Deer Lake could also save the charter about $10,000 every year because faculty and staff there won't have to move out every spring to make way for the language villages' summer camps and move back every summer before school starts.

"This is a huge decision, and we've been considering it really carefully," Eickman said of the potential move. "There's been a lot of tears here and a lot of excitement. It's one of those things where it's mixed feelings 'cause we love it here, but we also feel like this is a great opportunity and if we don't take it now, we might lose it forever."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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