2017-10-05 / Front Page

Montessori starts on $1.1 million project

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

 Leelanau Montessori Public School Academy has launched a campaign to raise funds to purchase and renovate the Connie Binsfeld Resource Center in Lake Leelanau.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $1.1 million.

“Putting Down Roots,” the name given to the capital campaign, has a fundraising goal of $250,000. The amount represents the school’s down-payment on the center.

A purchase agreement for the center was signed in August, with contingencies.

“It feels right,” said Colleen Macdonald, vice president of the Montessori school’s board of directors. “It falls in line with Connie Binsfeld’s love of children and all the work she did in the state legislature to change the foster care system.”

The county’s only charter school was granted an eight-year charter from the Bay Mills Indian Community near Sault Ste. Marie last month.

Montessori has been seeking a new authorizer since January when the Suttons Bay Board of Education, under the direction of former superintendent Chris Nelson, declined to reauthorize of the school’s charter. The Suttons Bay-authorized charter expires on June 30, 2018.

Bay Mills authorization allows the charter school to operate using a per-pupil foundation allowance from the state of Michigan. Students attend without charge.

Unlike the academy’s current charter — which limits enrollment to kindergarten through sixth grade — the new authorization is for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

State law allows charter-authorizing entities to collect up to 3 percent of the charter school’s foundation money.

Royston said he didn’t know how much of the fee Bay Mills would be collecting.

For reference, the Montessori academy paid $21,000 to $22,000 per year to Suttons Bay Public School, its authorizer.

The new charter was key to the future of the school.

In addition to the expiring authorization with Suttons Bay, Montessori had been looking for a new home as its lease for space in a vacant wing of the public school will also expire at the end of June 2018.

With charter in hand, the group is turning its attention toward a new home.

The Binsfeld center has been the home of the Benzie-Leelanau County Health Department since it opened in 1999. The non-profit Northern Health Foundation (NHF) is the “owner” of the building.

NHF exists, in part, to help local health departments meet real estate needs since multi-jurisdictional health departments are not authorized to own property.

The department has been the main occupant of the building and has acted as the on-site operator of the building, collecting rent from other non-profits to cover the mortgage payment.

The scenario went smoothly until 2008 when the “alternative” Leelanau Peninsula High School, a major tenant of the building, closed its doors.

With the school’s closure, the department was put in a difficult financial situation. NHF was able to refinance the mortgage to a more “conventional” loan that offered flexibility for the health department.

Still the building has been for sale since 2010, when it was originally listed at $799,000.

The center has 14,200 square feet and its previous use as a school lends itself to similar use. The area used for the alternative school was 4,500 square feet. Royston said Montessori would like to occupy an additional 2,500 square feet.

“We have plans for six classrooms: one for toddlers and infants, two for pre-school and kindergarten; two for grades 1, 2 and 3 and one for grades 4,5 and 6,” Royston said.

Looming large for the academy is the Nov. 30 deadline for inspections and an appraisal of the property. It’s also the deadline for the academy to come up with the $250,000 down-payment needed to close the deal.

“We have a very short window to make all of this work,” Royston said.

There’s a six-month “build out” on renovations to the structure, which Montessori board members hope to open June 1, 2018.

“It’s a win/win for the health department and Montessori as it will save both groups $30,000 a year,” Royston said.

Total cost of the purchase and planned renovations is $1.1 million.

Additional information about the “Putting Down Roots” campaign can be found at leelanaumontessori.org.

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