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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 18, 2010

BKW board unanimous: Westerlo School sold to town for $145K

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board voted unanimously last Thursday to sell the Westerlo School to the town of Westerlo for $145,000. Current plans are to convert the 60-year-old building into Westerlo’s new town hall, which will double as a center for community activities.

The Helderberg Christian School, which has leased the Westerlo School from BKW since the district stopped using the school five years ago, will have to look elsewhere once a deal is formalized between BKW and the town.

“There weren’t any real surprises at the meeting,” said James DeForest, vice president of the Helderberg Christian School Board, this week. “I think the basis for their decision was strictly financial. If we and the town of Westerlo had offered comparable amounts, I think there would have been less exuberance and grabbing the deal before it got pulled off the table.” HCS had offered $60,000 less than the town.

After a 30-minute public discussion, BKW School Board President Maureen Sikule read aloud a pre-drafted resolution, members of the board expressed their difficulty in making their decision, and all five board members voted to accept the $145,000 offer made earlier this month by the Westerlo Town Board.

Among those present for the discussion were all five members of the Westerlo Town Board, Westerlo’s code enforcement officer, and a former Westerlo Town Board candidate.

The traditional brick Westerlo School had housed BKW students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade since it merged with the Berne-Knox Central School District. With falling enrollment, BKW stopped using the Westerlo School in 2005.

Westerlo’s town board had repeatedly expressed interest in purchasing the school from BKW because space is tight at the current town hall, which needs repairs. The Helderberg Christian School offered last October to buy the building from BKW for $85,000, shortly after the building was appraised at $80,000. The Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company had expressed interest in purchasing the building as well.

(For full coverage on the Westerlo School’s history and recent offers to purchase the building, go to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under archives for Feb. 4, 2010.)

Asked after the meeting why the school board decided to accept Westerlo’s offer, Sikule deferred to the typewritten message she had just delivered to the audience:

“We attempted to negotiate lease payments that would cover the cost of repairs to and maintenance of the building, but were unable to do so,” she read. “When this is considered, along with the financial challenges the school district is facing, it necessitated a decision which began with the lease ending June 30 of this school year. The board then decided on a course of action which would yield a fair price to the school district and allow the building to benefit the entire Westerlo community.”

While HCS had made offers last fall to purchase the school, DeForest told onlookers at the Feb. 11 meeting that HCS had not received any response from BKW until February, and told The Enterprise that he felt “stonewalled” by BKW.

“I would say that I anticipated a more open process than we experienced,” said DeForest. “The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District is a public entity, and they were disposing of a public property, and I would think that, if they were going to sell a school bus, they would publish it and put it up for bid in the normal manner.”

DeForest raised this point at the Feb. 11 meeting; BKW’s attorney, Robert Schofield, said later that a public bidding process was not required by law.

HCS had shelved plans to build its own school when the Westerlo School became available.

“We have at least two options we’re exploring for residence next year,” DeForest said this week, but would not elaborate. “We’ve just been going through the application processes and review with architects, and the Department of Health, and the Department of Transportation, and there is no guarantee that we’ll receive everything we need to start construction this year.”

Public and players

weighs in

DeForest spoke to the board on behalf of HCS, providing the audience of a few dozen with background and setting the stage for the public discussion that would follow.

Roger Hannay, owner of Hannay Reels in Westerlo, the town’s biggest employer, addressed the board at the top of the discussion.

“I am a product of this school system,” Hannay told the audience. “I’m a senior citizen, but I still care about the young people of the district, including my five grandchildren who attend this school, and, at one time, I had five attending Helderberg Christian School.”

He told the board that his father helped build the Westerlo School.

“He and Harry Briggs, the district superintendent, took the initiative to approach both the Berne district and the Greenville district that — if they built a school in Westerlo, which one of you would support it? And Berne-Knox stepped up to the plate, and, so, it became part of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo District,” Hannay said. “Over the years, I’ve been involved in a committee with some of you in this room to see if there was creative alternatives about the use of that building within the scope of the school district, and, as a business person, I have to support your decision to sell it. The question is, how will you sell it, and to whom will you sell it?”

He then presented the board with a section of New York State Education Law, which addresses the sale of property.

“The board of education is hereby empowered to sell, and convey the same, except that the purchase, acquisition, and sale of real property shall be subject to the approval of the voters,” Hannay read.

He went on to say that the town of Westerlo already has “a nice town building,” and that he is concerned as a taxpayer, “but I do recognize business realities,” he said.

Jack Milner, the Westerlo Town Board’s lone Republican councilman, took the floor next, telling the audience that he attended the Westerlo School as a child, and thought the building should remain a school.

Milner had abstained when the other four Democratic board members voted to buy the school for $145,000.

At the Feb. 11 meeting, Milner read aloud the dictionary definition of “deprived,” as the sale of the Westerlo School to the town of Westerlo would be depriving the community of the service that having a school there provides, he said.

Mary Jane Araldi, a Westerlo resident who has been active in running youth programs in town, spoke next.

“I, like Roger, am a product of this school system,” Araldi said. She told the crowd that she served on the committee that initially decided on the feasibility of keeping the school open, and was the chairperson on another committee that eventually decided the district’s best course of action would be to sell the school.

“I find it interesting that this deliberation has essentially been going on for five years, and this is the first time I’ve seen some of these people at a board meeting or a committee meeting,” Araldi said. “If the school is to be sold, I support the sale of the school to the town, as I feel this would best serve the community of Westerlo. It may even take the burden of facility use off of the school district. Many times, we ask to use the gyms, and different things for meetings, and…if the Westerlo School was sold, we would be able to use that building instead.”

Anderson Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for town board in November on the Republican line, told the school board that the Westerlo School has been a good neighbor, and said that keeping the Westerlo School as an educational building is an appropriate use.

“I see no evidence of any disruption by their presence,” Smith said. “I think they’ve gone about their business of teaching kids in a quiet professional way, and I urge the board to consider maintaining that continuity.”

When R. Gregory Zeh, one of Westerlo’s four Democratic town board members, took the floor, he addressed the earlier mention of the need for an open process.

“That concern wasn’t there in October, when offers were made to the school board, so, I’m kind of questioning why we’re concerned about the openness today,” Zeh said. “I think the school itself should remain a product of the residents of the town of Westerlo, and I think, if there’s a sale to a private organization, there’s no way to ensure that building is available and open to the residents and the taxpayers that have paid, and supported, and built that property over the years. So, I guess I would encourage the board to take that into consideration.”

Joseph Amedio, a member of the Helderberg Christian School Board and chairman of its building committee, has two sons at HCS and a daughter at BKW. Amedio told the school board that, when he had a son that needed special attention, the Helderberg Christian School was there to fill that need, and he said that he hoped the Christian school would remain a school to continue to fill similar needs in other children.

“We’re not here to compete, we’re just here to have an alternative for parents in the area,” he said of HCS.

DeForest then stood again to address Zeh’s questioning of why an open process is important months after HCS made its offers to BKW, reminding the audience that HCS had not heard back from BKW until months after its original proposal. He added that, while HCS has been considering two courses of action — purchasing the Westerlo School as its permanent residence, or building a new one — it could not make that decision until BKW had chosen a buyer.

“If you’re put in a box, you just have no recourse,” DeForest told the board.

Former BKW School Board member Joan Adriance, a Knox resident, was on the school board when it voted to close the Westerlo School in 2005.

“It was a painful decision,” Adriance said. “These meetings happened times 50. And it was a very difficult decision for the board to make at the time; this is also a difficult decision for the board to make. I commend the board for the decision that they’ve made to sell the school.”

She went on to say, “That money is money in our pockets if we sell the school,” and spoke to the difficulty of the current economic climate.

Westerlo Councilman Edward Rash told the audience that he was unaware that HCS had even made an offer to purchase the school, and was happy to be learning more about the backdrop to the ongoing debate.

Both Rash and Zeh told The Enterprise earlier that, when they voted for Westerlo to buy the school at $145,000, they were unaware it had been appraised at $80,000 last year; in 2004, the building was appraised at $185,000.

Once the discussion was closed, Sikule read aloud the board’s resolution, and it passed unanimously.

“This is a heart-wrenching decision, I think, for everyone in this room,” said school board member Helen Lounsbury.

“There’s a tremendous amount of thought that goes into this,” added board member Carolyn Anderson. “We try to make it look easy, but it’s not.”

Following the meeting, Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp said he was satisfied with the board’s decision.

“It’s a good building, and it’ll be put to good use,” Rapp said.

DeForest concluded this week that, while he hoped for a different outcome, he understood the board’s decision.

“All things being equal, public use trumps private use when it comes to something being disposed of, and that’s an argument that could be used against us, but I think that’s something we anticipated,” said DeForest. “But the bids weren’t equal. If our bids had been close, and it tipped in their favor, I’d attribute it to that factor, but, given the disparity between the bids, I’d say that it was a purely financial decision on the part of BKW.”

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