BETHLEHEM — The Bethlehem Central School District has taken further steps toward transferring its ownership of the former Clarksville Elementary School to the building’s current tenant, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.
Following a March 8 meeting, at which district officials listened to concerns and issues raised by community members, BCSD and the sheriff’s office have agreed upon a potential deal that would modify the current lease agreement, making it a lease-purchase agreement. On June 7, the district presented that plan to residents and board members.
The contract would extend the lease through 2020, at which point the county would take ownership of the building for, essentially, $18,000 more than it would have paid to continue renting from the district.
An appraisal earlier this year estimated the building’s worth at $410,000. BCSD subtracted $86,766, as that’s how much it would cost to maintain an empty building for 33 months, which, said BCSD Financial Officer Judith Kehoe, is how long they assumed it would be on the market if the district put it up for sale. To get to the $325,000 price tag, the district is accepting five years of in-kind patrol services (worth $127,000) and raising the current rent of $54,000 by $6,000 every year.
Other terms agreed upon include: the removal of a clause requiring the property to be restored to pre-rental condition at the end of the lease; the relinquishment of rooms the district is currently using for storage purposes; and the addition of clause that requires the county to approach BCSD first with the option to buy the building back, should it decide it no longer needs the facility. Sheriff Craig Apple also offered to keep a room available, in perpetuity, for the district to use for alternate programming purposes.
To mollify community members who are concerned about losing the building’s heritage, artwork currently on the walls would be digitally preserved, the peace pole and building sign would remain, as well as the bronze plaque commemorating its history as a school. Apple has also said on more than one occasion that he wants to keep the Clifford the Big Red Dog mural.
BCSD still owes nearly $1.7 million on a bond that financed a capital project at Clarksville in 2003. The debt is scheduled to be paid off in June 2022, said Kehoe, and the $325,000 would be placed in a “mandatory reserve” account to offset those payments. State funding will pay for more than $1.2 million of the remaining debt, while the local share will be approximately $625,500.
“The bottom line to the district’s financial position is neutral,” said Kehoe, noting that there would be a reduction in state funding once the building was sold.
Christine Beck, who was just elected to her second term on the board, raised concerns about the price tag, calling $325,000 “a bit low.” She also asked whether district officials could envision any future uses for the building.
“Not based on current enrollment trends or our current programs,” responded Assistant Superintendent David Hurst.
Board members debated the question of whether the school might be suitable for future district use. Michael Cooper mentioned the cost of renovating to that end; Joanne Cunningham and Cooper both said the uncertainty of future offers — due, in part, to potential restrictions placed on building renovations because of its historic designation — made the sale to the sheriff’s office more desirable; while Jonathan Fishbein said that he felt he was being dragged into the sale “kicking and screaming.”
“I feel very uncomfortable,” Fishbein said. Noting there were only two appraisals done on the property, one by the district and the other by the county, he said, “I just don’t know how accurate the numbers are.” He added he was unsure about the enrollment numbers and said the district has been wrong before.
Kehoe defended the appraisal numbers and added that the county had agreed to keep the
property’s exterior as unchanged as possible, saying that she didn’t think they would be able to reach any such agreement with other potential buyers.
BCSD Superintendent Jody Monroe repeatedly assured Beck and Fishbein that enrollment numbers are likely to stay low and there is plenty of extra space, as well as more up-to-date technologies, in the district’s remaining buildings.
District resident Judy Abbott also questioned the board about enrollment projections, saying those used to justify the building of Eagle Elementary in 2008 were inaccurate. Pointing out that Clarksville sits on 12.5 acres of land, more than any other district school, she also said that, given the district’s budget surpluses in recent years, the cost of maintaining even an empty school seemed “like chump change.”
Harmeet Narang, Abbott’s neighbor, asked the board whether the district had a plan in place for the possibility that enrollment numbers might exceed expectations. Monroe responded that she has that information and agreed to share it.
Narang went on to question how Clarksville, into which the district invested $4 million in 2006, could possibly be appraised at a mere $410,000. “We spent $4 million,” he said. “Where did it go?”
Kehoe and Beck speculated the market value of the building is tied more closely to its desirability to potential buyers, which they said is likely affected by its unique character and limited number of potential uses.
Three other residents, including a former Clarksville student, spoke to the board, characterizing the move as fiscally unwise and repeating concerns about enrollment. All were opposed to the sale of the building.
The current lease expires on July 31 and, unless the county and district are able to strike a deal that would allow the county to make changes to the building to accommodate its needs, Apple has indicated that his department will move out.
If the district doesn’t sell, Kehoe said that she would like to see the building rented out “for as many years as we had a willing tenant.”
After some debate about enrollment and how to effectively gauge trends, board members thanked the residents for their comments and moved on to other business. The next board meeting will take place on Wednesday, June 21 at 7 p.m.
Interested community members can watch the whole conversation on the Bethlehem Board of Education YouTube page or on the district website, where the district appraisal and other relevant information can also be viewed.