A deal by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation to sell 600 acres in May Township could close in nine to 12 months, meaning a new and uncertain future for the River Grove elementary school that has called the site home since 2017.
The news, delivered to school parents on Monday in an email from River Grove director Drew Goodson, has both shocked the school community and brought a familiar feeling: The school was created after some families lost their elementary school in a sweeping reorganization by the Stillwater school district that shuttered nearby Marine Elementary.
"It's definitely drumming up a lot of trauma response in our families," said Angie Hong, a school parent and River Grove school board member. "We're going to go through this again?" The K-6 school has leased several buildings that were once used by Concordia Language Villages; it has 225 students and a waiting list of 71 kids, according to Goodson.
"We're super confused and frustrated by the situation," said Goodson. "We don't know exactly what the Wilder Foundation is thinking."
A spokesman for the Wilder Foundation said the St. Paul nonprofit has signed a letter of intent to sell the property to the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership. The deal would mean the property will "continue to be used to provide a community service in ways that preserve the land's natural beauty and resources," said Wilder spokesman Andy Brown in a statement.
The sale would help Wilder pay for its work serving the needs of people in the St. Paul metro area. The potential sale price wasn't disclosed. Wilder has owned the property since 1957, operating programs there until 2003. The sale would be in keeping with a strategy crafted in 2009 by the organization's board to sell properties no longer need for Wilder's programs.
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership said the group has been searching for a property for two and a half years, and hopes to host campers by 2024. Tim Healy, in an email sent Friday morning, said the group wants "to provide hope and a better way of life for our youth."
"We see now, more than ever, that young people are struggling – from the mental health crisis that is gripping our youth, there is an increased feeling of isolation and addictions to social media and video games," he wrote.
"Faith-based camps and retreats are effective in changing the lives of young people. Kids need to encounter the person of Jesus now more than ever. They need to experience the hope found in a relationship with Jesus as well as the joy, love and laughter."
The camp would primarily serve the Catholic parishes and school in the Twin Cities metro area, but also be open to other faith-based groups. Healy said the potential buyers are evaluating the buildings on the Wilder land to determine how they fit their program needs.
The River Grove school's lease runs to next summer, and some River Grove parents said they hoped they could still negotiate a way to stay beyond 2023. Goodson said the school until recently believed it was on a path toward securing a long term lease on the land. It's been developing a relationship with the Manitou Fund, a White Bear Lake-based nonprofit that owns the shuttered Warner Nature Center, also in May Township. The hope was that Manitou would buy the land and ink a long-term deal with River Grove to remain on site.
The school learned of the proposed sale when Wilder sent a letter to the May Township Board on Sept. 1 announcing the deal.
In a statement Friday, Wilder spokesperson Andy Brown said the organization shared in June the appraised value of the land with the Manitou Fund and the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership. The Manitou Fund's opinion at the time was that the land was worth significantly less than the appraised value, Brown said in the statement. The Catholic Partnership group responded that same month with a letter of intent to buy the land, he added.
In July, the Wilder board considered both Manitou's opinion and the Catholic Partnership's offer, deciding that the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership met Wilder's criteria for selling. The criteria included that the buyer use the land for the community's benefit, that the buyer preserves the land's natural beauty and resources, and that the sales price meets Wilder's fiduciary obligations.
Wilder signed the letter of intent and notified both the Catholic Partnership and the Manitou Fund of their decision on July 15, Brown wrote.
The school, formally known as River Grove: Marine Area Community School, focuses on an outdoor environmental education that makes use of the Wilder land's towering woods and nature trails. In a letter to the Wilder Foundation sent Monday, River Grove officials pointed out that they've invested more than $300,000 in public taxpayer funds for the upkeep and maintenance of the school campus and buildings in addition to the $1.5 million in lease aid paid to Wilder for the past five years.
The letter asks the Wilder Foundation to reserve the portion of the Wilder Forest where the school campus is located until the school can organize itself to purchase the property and buildings next year. That's when the school will have been in operation for six years, the legally required minimum for a public charter school to own its land and buildings.
In a letter to the school community sent Friday, Wilder Foundation Board Chair Judy Kishel encouraged River Grove to reach out to the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership "to explore any arrangements that would benefit both parties."
River Grove parent Kate Seitz said she and her husband moved to May Township for the elementary school, arriving one month before the district's announcement that it would close it. (The city of Marine on St. Croix has since purchased the school building and reopened it this month as the Marine Village School; it has 30 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.)
After playing "a small part" in creating River Grove, Seitz had hoped her fifth-grade daughter and kindergarten-aged son weren't in danger of losing their school again.
"I'm having a hard time seeing this getting picked up and moved somewhere else because so much of the school is built around the buildings and the campus," said Seitz. "It's a priceless place."