Council vote on St. Andrew's Church pits neighborhood vs. charter school

Many neighbors support historic preservation status; school says it's detrimental

Sloane Martin
May 22, 2019 - 10:46 am
Church and sign

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St. Paul city council postponed a vote Wednesday afternoon on whether to designate the former St. Andrew's Church as a historic preservation site. It's a debate that's rankled both the neighborhood and other community groups, as well as the charter school that opposes it.

City Council President Amy Brendmoen proposed delaying the decision until June 5th. She wants both sides to come to to the table with a "third party facilitator."

"I encourage the parties to think about who might be a good group of three or four people to try to look at this challenge in a new way," she said.

The vote would be to amend Chapter 74 of the Legislative Code with a new section designating St. Andrew's Church as a St. Paul Heritage Preservation Site.

Officials with the Twin Cities German Immersion School purchased the property in the city's Warrendale neighborhood in 2013, not expecting barriers to modernize their campus with a new building for classrooms, a cafeteria, gym and special education space. The enrollment is expected to expand to 600 next school year and Board Chair Sam Walling says the school, that brings an international presence to the area, needs a new building for the students' best interests.

"We can't afford to both preserve (the church) and build additional space adjacent to it," Walling said.

But dozens of neighbors say the school made plans with "no meaningful community input" and that the church is a vital part of the neighborhood. Some excerpts from letters submitted to the city council say the church "contributes to the architectural richness and charm of our city" and that tearing it down is "disrespectful and harmful to the health and history of a storied St. Paul neighborhood" and doing so would "alter the character of a small, historic neighborhood."

The debate revolves not only around neighborhood vitality, but also the philosophy of charter schools. The St. Paul NAACP and St. Paul Federation of Teachers also support the proposal to for the historic designation, saying the charter school's expansion exacerbates racial inequality. TCGIS is 87 percent white with 7 percent of students living in poverty compared to 79 percent students of color and 68 percent students living in poverty in St. Paul Public Schools, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

"This is yet another charter school looking to expand unchecked segregation in our city," Federation President Nick Farber said in a letter. "We do not think this benefits the public good and it has detrimental effects for our students in the long run. These schools are increasingly pulling more and more students out of much more integrated learning environments of Saint Paul Public Schools. This is increasingly draining funding from our public schools, who accept all students and when demographics are taken into consideration, out-perform these charters."

"Expansion of such a predominantly white and relatively wealthy charter school in the heart of the city would frustrate efforts to desegregate St. Paul schools and continue to further racial and socioeconomic segregation," the St. Paul NAACP said in a statement.

The council held public comment last week. The church was designed in 1927 by St. Paul architect Charles Hauser.

Walling says the board looked extensively at alternatives and consulted with an architect for "viable" plans to preserve the church and stay within budget, and also examined other locations or splitting the campus. They decided the best solution was "demolish and replace."

"We have tried, I think, very hard to be sympathetic to the concerns of the neighbors who live in the area and have emotional attachments to the church, have memories of significant events in their lives that have happened there," Walling said. "This really wasn't an outcome we wanted to arrive at."