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The Grand Forks Herald building is being sold to a group of investors. The Herald will continue to occupy part of the building, with Grand Forks Public Schools also a potential tenant. Jenna Watson / Forum News Service

Group says GF schools would violate rights of students with disabilities by using Herald building

GRAND FORKS — An advocacy group contends Grand Forks Public Schools will violate the rights of students with disabilities if it uses space at the Grand Forks Herald building to educate children, a claim school leaders say has little validity.

The Protection and Advocacy Project, an organization designated by the North Dakota governor to advocate for the rights of residents with disabilities, sent a letter Monday, Dec. 10, to members of the Grand Forks School Board, just before they met for a regular meeting. The letter asked the School Board to reconsider renting space in the Herald building for the district’s student transitional education program.

“P&A contends that the … program violates the rights of students with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive environment alongside their peers, more specifically, with students who do not have disabilities,” the letter authored by Grand Forks-based Disabilities Advocate Carol Weiler said. “This ‘space’ would effectively segregate students based on disabilities, which is a violation of their civil rights.”

In a written statement to the Herald, the district said Tuesday, Dec. 11, the program does not violate student rights, adding “general education is the first setting considered.”

“If students are not ready or able to participate in a general education setting with these aids and services, a combination of settings within the home school may be considered,” the statement said.

The district is reviewing a two-year lease agreement to rent space in the Herald building from Communication Central Building to educate students with specials needs who are slated to transition back into school buildings, said Tricia Lee, executive director of special education.

Communication Central Building, a group of investors that is in the process of purchasing the Herald building from Forum Communications Co. The group plans to turn the building, which houses newspaper staff, into the Herald Communications Center.

The board was slated to act on a proposal that would allow the district to rent 2,163 square feet in the second floor in the newspaper building for about $30,000 a year, plus fees, taxes and utilities.

But the district did not receive the lease agreement for the deal until Monday. Administration recommended not passing the agreement as it stands because staff have found problems and typos in the documents, said Chris Arnold, director of buildings and grounds for the district.

Grand Forks businessmen Craig Tweten of Communication Central Building has previously said the city would rent out most, if not all, of the first floor for a downtown library branch and city offices. He declined to comment on Weiler’s letter.

Weiler said Tuesday she was unable to comment on the letter.

Board member Shannon Mikula noted the email, but little was said about it beyond that during Monday’s meeting. She said Tuesday the letter appears to be without merit, citing the transitional nature of the program and the fact students are taught at the LaGrave Learning Center, a building separate from other schools.

Having the students in a transitional setting helps them build skills in a secure environment so they can eventually return to classrooms and learn with students who do not have disabilities, Lee said Monday.

“Our goal is always to get them back to neighborhood schools,” Lee said.