Grand Forks Public Schools will use space in the Herald building for its student transitional education program, despite concerns from a state agency that move could violate the rights of children with disabilities.

The School Board voted 8-1 on Monday to approve a two-year lease agreement to use 2,163 square feet in the second floor of the newspaper’s building at 375 Second Ave. N. With a yearly rental rate of $30,282, the lease runs Feb. 1, 2018, through Jan. 31, 2021, with the option of renewing the lease at two-year increments.

However, the school could move staff in as early as Jan. 17, according to the lease.

The space will be used for the district’s student transitional education program (STEP), which is meant to help students who have special needs transition into traditional classrooms. The program has grown since first being implemented in 2014.

The decision comes after Carol Weiler of the North Dakota Protection and Advocacy Project sent a letter in December to board members claiming the program “violates the rights of students with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive environment alongside their peers" because it would segregate students. School leaders denied those claims, adding Weiler’s letter was first time the district received such correspondence from the program.

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“We weren’t surprised by the decision, but there are some aspects we are looking into,” Denise Harvey, director of program services for the Protection and Advocacy Project, said Tuesday.

Grand Forks Schools has worked with the local Housing Authority to use space for free at the LaGrave Learning Center at 832 Fourth Ave. S., but the program has outgrown that space, said Tricia Lee, executive director of special education with the district.

That space also is separate from school buildings.

The program is meant to help students build their skills in a secure environment so they can return to classrooms and learn with students who do not have disabilities, Lee previously told the board.

The advocacy group is gathering more information on the program, including how students are placed into STEP and the length of time they spend in it, Harvey said.

“We don’t want it to be an endless placement,” she said, adding her agency will follow the issue closely.

The school district is the first to commit to a lease agreement since developers Mike Kuntz and Craig Tweten announced plans to turn the newspaper building into the Herald Communications Center. They are part of a group called Communication Central Building, which is seeking to fill the building with other tenants, including the city of Grand Forks and UND.

The city is expected to review a proposal that would allow it to move its planning department and the Metropolitan Planning Organization staff into the first floor of the building.

Developers also have proposed using the building’s first-floor community room for an e-library, which would function as a downtown branch of the Grand Forks Library and be connected to UND's library. The e-library would be open to the public.

Kuntz previously told the Herald the plans hinge on the city moving into the space. He did not respond to a message left Tuesday by the Herald.

City leaders like the idea and concept of having staff in the Herald building, but they want to explore all of the details before making a decision, City Administrator Todd Feland said. It’s possible City Council could act on a proposal to move into the building as early as March, he added.

“That would give us some time to do some due diligence,” he said.

Feland has met with developers, UND and the district to discuss the concept of moving government entities into the building. He emphasized a collaborative effort in the venture.

The Herald would continue to lease space in the building.

The Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corp. already rents space on the first floor of the Herald and signed a five-year lease last year.

School Board member Shannon Mikula was the lone dissenting vote because she said she didn’t understand some of the lease language. She said she was worried one clause she felt was unclear suggested the district could default if it opens the program in the building.

“I don’t think that’s what we mean,” she said, though she noted probably no one is going to accuse the district of defaulting if it moves into the Herald building.

The lease presented to the district had a number of errors, Mikula said, adding she found some typos in the current form. The district doesn’t plan to make any other changes to the lease, save fixing the typos, Grand Forks Schools spokeswoman Tracy Jentz said via email.

District Business Manager Scott Berge said the district’s attorney was comfortable with the lease as it stands. Mikula, who is an attorney for Minnkota Power Cooperative, said she still felt uncomfortable approving a lease she didn’t understand fully.

The district did not request that counsel be present for Monday’s meeting to explain the language in the lease, though Vice President Amber Flynn suggested an attorney be present at meetings when the board must deal with these types of issues.

The price for the district’s rent does not include common area maintenance and utility fees, which come in at $8,652 and $3,785, respectively, on an annual basis.