2018-05-17 / Front Page

Montessori raises cash, to leave S-B

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

The planned break between Leelanau Montessori Charter School Academy and Suttons Bay Public School appears to have solidified.

Leelanau Montessori has raised the down payment needed to purchase the Connie Binsfeld Resource Center in Lake Leelanau.

Montessori head-of-school Eric Royston confirmed Monday that some $22,500 raised at the “Olly Olly Oxen Frida” fundraiser put backers over the required down payment needed for a federally-guaranteed loan to move ahead with their plans for a new facility.

“We’ve reached our down payment goal. We’re getting a lot of what’s needed checked off our list and we’re hoping to close on the property June 1,” he said.

If the loan comes to pass — or, as it now seems, when that occurs — the purchase would come less than a month before Montessori’s lease for space within Suttons Bay School’s closed middle school wing expires June 30.

A search for conventional loans didn’t pan out for the school, which receives funding in the form per pupil foundation allowance without the power to issue bonds like traditional public schools. But the public charter school academy has been approved for a federally-guaranteed loan administered through Chemical Bank.

Initially, school officials were told that a 10 percent down payment would be needed to secure the $1.1 million loan. That has since been reduced to 4 percent, according to Royston.

“This couldn’t happen without the work of a lot of different people,” he said.

In January of 2017 the Suttons Bay Board of Education, from which the charter school leased space, declined to extend the school’s charter beyond a June 30, 2018, expiration date. The lease expires that same day.

With the the the lease looming, the Montessori board of directors and Royston went to work to find a new authorizer and a new home.

Their efforts were rewarded last fall when the Bay Mills Indian Community near Sault Ste. Marie agreed to provide an 8-year charter for Montessori academy.

Simultaneously, school officials secured a purchase agreement in August to buy the resource center for just less than $700,000.

The Binsfeld center has been home of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department since it opened in 1999. The non-profit Northern Health Foundation (NH) is the official “owner” of the building with the two-county health department its biggest tenant.

The department has also acted as its on-site operator, collecting rent from other non-profits to cover the mortgage payment.

The “alternative” Leelanau Peninsula High School was a major tenant of the building until its closing in 2008.

The center has plenty of room with 14,200 square feet. However, extensive renovations will be needed. The area used by the alternative school was 4,500 square feet. The Montessori school will occupy an additional 2,500 square feet.

Drawings have been completed for six classrooms: one for toddlers and infants, two for pre-school and kindergarten; two for grades 1,2 and three and one for grades 4, 5 and 6.

The purchase, plus renovations, ups the cost of the project at $1.1 million.

The school group raised about $60,000 in its “putting down roots” capital campaign last fall. However, half that money was spent on things related to the application process.

The $22,500 raised earlier this month put the academy over the down payment amount which means the school, staff and families will eventually have their own place to call home.

That home will integrate the Montessori Method, which was developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori to provide children with the freedom to move around, learn at their own pace and communicate within a classroom structure.

Multi-age groupings are also an integral part of the Montessori philosophy. But the current arrangement at Suttons Bay has the students between two buildings.

The new facility will bring all age groups together under one roof.

“To have all of us together from the beginning of the evolution to the elementary students working together is exciting,” said Arden Wilson, who has been a teacher with the Leelanau Montessori community since 1995.

Several months will be needed to complete renovations to the building to house the Montessori program.

Meanwhile, the Suttons Bay Board of Education has agreed to a month-tomonth lease extension for Montessori, pending completion of planned renovations to the Binsfeld Center.

Terms of the agreement authorized this week by the Suttons Bay board Monday are $4,269 per month with Montessori covering 8.3 percent of utilities.

A formal agreement will be considered for adoption at a later date.

“We owe Suttons Bay a big ‘thank you’ for giving us additional time when they really didn’t need to,” Royston said.

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