Interest in school buildings heating up

Published 10:14 am Wednesday, June 10, 2009

IRONTON — Heading into the upcoming July 6 auction for the four to-be-vacant Ironton City School buildings and its board of education headquarters, a few things are starting to take shape including growing concern by a group of citizens about the district’s plans.

Some buildings have little interest; one has multiple interest and the district’s most valuable property, Central School, has garnered lots of interest — albeit more from concerned citizens than prospective bidders.

The ascending-price auction will place Whitwell Elementary, Central School, Lawrence Street School and West Ironton School along with the district’s board of education headquarters on the open market. All together, the buildings are valued at more than $2 million and total more than 72,000 square feet on 3.98 acres of land.

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The buildings are being sold because they won’t be needed following the consolidation of students at the new elementary and middle school scheduled to open this fall on the city’s north side.

And with just 27 days to go until the much-anticipated auction, news surrounding the fate of a pair of properties has grabbed the attention of two parties — a group of concerned citizens along with a group of prospective bidders.

Worries surrounding Central School have grown within the community. Currently home to the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization’s Head Start program, the building will be entered into the auction with a $550,000 building value and $200,000 land value.

However, the possible future of the building, should no bidders come to the table, is what has residents surrounding the property up in arms.

The group points to a June 2 correspondence from Superintendent Dean Nance to Mayor Rich Blankenship where Nance informs the city that should Central School not sell at the auction he would get estimates on tearing the building down or remodeling it into the board office and school bus garage.

The thought of having the school system’s bus and transportation garage in the middle of a residential neighborhood has long-time homeowners like John Lutz upset.

So upset that Lutz, along with other residents in the 1500 block of both South Fifth and South Sixth streets, have started circulating flyers and a petition to voice their dissatisfaction of the district’s idea.

“We’ve gotten a fine response to the flyers,” Lutz said. “Most that we have talked to are dead set against the garage being built here.”

Lutz, who has lived on South Fifth Street for more than 40 years, said the neighborhood is not the place for a bus garage. He also cites the possible loss of a popular playground should the school system decide to go the garage route.

“It’s just a great neighborhood, that’s why we have never left it,” Lutz added while also citing the current condition of the district’s temporary bus garage on South Ninth Street as evidence that this type of facility would be a detriment to the neighborhood.

Lutz said he plans on taking the flyer, petition and his objections to Thursday’s city council meeting to address the city’s legislative body about whether or not the residential zoning would allow this to happen. He will have a least one ear listening to his case. Lutz’s son, Mike, is a current city council member.

The battle for Whitwell

Steve Harvey has reasons of his own to be concerned about the future of this building. Harvey lives right next door to Lutz and is backing the petition drive against the city’s bus garage at Central School.

But the Central School building is not the only structure the pastor of Sharon Baptist Church is concerned about in the upcoming auction. Harvey and his more than 800 church members have a strong interest in placing a bid on Whitwell Elementary to support the actively growing congregation.

“We are totally out of space,” explained Harvey while detailing the church’s expansion needs. “Having a building like Whitwell would be vital to the growth of our church.”

Harvey wanted Whitwell for Sharon Baptist so badly that the church’s treasurer sent a certified “Act to Consider” letter to Nance and the Ironton Board of Education in May 2007 asking the district to strongly consider the church should Whitwell ever become available.

Board of Education President Tim Johnson confirmed the district had received Harvey’s letter but said state laws handcuffed what the district could do with the building.

Ohio law mandates that vacated public schools buildings go on the open auction market should a district look to sell them. They can be leased, but not sold privately.

Fast-forward two years to the month and that is where Harvey says he and his congregation are not the only ones looking to secure Whitwell. The church now finds itself in competition with Central School’s current tenants, the CAO.

With Central School as the most valuable property in the auction, the enticement of Whitwell for its modest $350,000 appraisal price tag has caught the attention of the CAO and its Head Start program, executive director D.R. Gossett said.

Further, with Central as potentially cost prohibitive due to upkeep and maintenance costs, the CAO has focused their attention on Whitwell, Gossett added.

“We’ve known for a long time that we were going to lose Central School,” Gossett said while explaining the importance that securing Whitwell would have for the Head Start program, its 100 students, families and employees.

Currently leasing Central School from the district, and with bids on each property starting at half the appraised value, the CAO could place a minimum bid on Central for $375,000 or on the much cheaper Whitwell for $175,000.

And that possible $200,000 savings is what has the CAO in the mix for Whitwell.

Gossett said that last year the CAO initiated discussions with ICS administration about the Whitwell building and even took tours of the school three months before the auction was publicly announced.

Calls and e-mails to Nance about the CAO’s potential interest in Whitwell and plans for the bus garage were not returned as of press time.

But despite the possible interest by the CAO, Harvey says his church is still determined to potentially get in the Whitwell bidding mix. A committee of Sharon Baptist Church members will meet on June 14 to discuss whether to place a bid or look elsewhere for expansion.

However, even if Sharon Baptist Church is the highest bidder on Whitwell, Harvey and his flock could still be shut out based on a provision written into the district’s auction rules that does allow the board to reject a bid even if it meets their minimum threshold.

Following the auction, the board will gather in executive session at its regularly scheduled meeting to decide whether or not to accept the bid. If accepted, the board will be required to pass a resolution as to the acceptance and notify the winning bidder by written notification. The winning bidder must present cash or a cashier’s check to the district for 10 percent of the winning amount as “faithful performance” with the remaining 90 percent due in 30 days.

If the board decides to not accept a winning bid, they have the option to offer the property to another bid on the building they deem acceptable, re-auction the property back on the market or in the case of West Ironton and Whitwell, demolish the building and resell the land only.

Gossett did confirm the CAO has asked for consideration from the district when Whitwell became available saying the Head Start program “has to have that building.”

“This is a very serious issue,” Gossett said.

He added though that the district has not given him “any assurances on what is going to happen.” Gossett did state that should Head Start not end up with the Whitwell property, the program would be forced to possibly relocate out of the city to Hanging Rock.

However, a high-ranking county official who wishes to remain anonymous told The Tribune on Monday that the CAO/Whitwell purchase and move was “a done deal” and that both the poverty agency and the school district, “had a transition plan for the purchase and move to Whitwell completed weeks ago.”

Johnson confirmed that the CAO was interested but emphasized that no agreement was in place.

As for Harvey, Sunday’s meeting will set the tone on if the church moved forward towards the July 6 date.

“This is a major decision for our church if we are going to place a bid,” Harvey said.

A contingency plan

With the basic goal to sell each of the five buildings, what plans does the district have should one or all of the buildings not sell? Further, what will the district do with the revenue it generates from the auction?

Johnson said Tuesday that the district has three options with each of the five buildings up in the auction. Further, he understands the concerns on many of the “possible uses” floating around on the fate of each of the buildings.

“We can sell the buildings, we can tear them down with some at a cost to the district or we can abandon them, which no wants,” Johnson said. “Except for Central, the contingency plan should they not sell is to tear them down.”

The Ohio facilities commission does offer a program where monies are available to demolish school buildings which housed ICS students. The state picks up 73 percent of the costs with the school district picking up the remaining 27 percent of the costs.

In a May 29, interview Nance said the district does have money “set aside” should the district elect to go the demolition route with West Ironton and Whitwell.

The board president stood behind the district’s independent appraisal values of each of the five buildings including both Central and West Ironton which differed vastly from the county’s 2004 appraisal values. Sandy Sinclair Realty of Portsmouth conducted the district’s independent appraisals in the fall of 2007.

As for the revenue that comes from the auction, Johnson said that will go towards retiring the debt on the bond levy along with possible improvements to Tanks Memorial Stadium and the Conley Center.

Kingsbury School is not part of the auction package. The South Sixth Street school building will become the new home for St. Lawrence Catholic School in the fall under a standing lease agreement the district has with the catholic parish.