What to do with closed schools?
By Dan Hust
JEFFERSONVILLE The Sullivan West school district will soon undertake environmental assessment studies of the closed Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley campuses.
Beyond that, both properties’ futures are uncertain.
“Clearly it’s a question laden with all kinds of emotions and anger,” observed SW Superintendent Ken Hilton at a Facilities Needs and Assessment Committee meeting last week at the Jeffersonville campus.
The two schools were closed barely five years after the merger that created SW, victims of falling enrollment and finances.
“We know the closing of those schools split the community,” acknowledged Hilton, who was not living or working in the district at the time.
Thus, the public was welcomed at last week’s committee meeting, where Hilton and his management team were making a presentation about what to do with those two structures.
Current utilities at the empty, unused, minimally heated DV and Narrowsburg buildings drain about $150,000 from the district’s coffers annually, and needed maintenance and repairs will swallow an additional $1 million over the next few years.
With 1,337 students this year, Sullivan West’s two open campuses in Jeffersonville and Lake Huntington more than meet current demand, with a combined capacity of 1,853 students.
Narrowsburg’s 81-year-old, 30,061-square-foot building sits on two acres in the center of town, with another 14 acres of sports fields down the hill. Its student capacity totals 350.
DV’s 57-year-old, 102,592-square-foot building sits on 68 acres along a lonely stretch of Route 97 between Callicoon and Hankins. It can hold 1,041 students.
Both structures have undergone major renovations in the post-merger years, DV’s totalling $7.7 million, Narrowsburg’s $4.8 million.
However, the district just got both campuses appraised, and their value $2.7 million for DV, $700,000 for Narrowsburg came in far below the cost of those renovations and the nearly $10 million debt remaining. The state is covering 70 percent of that debt total, but if the district were to sell either or both campuses, the proceeds would have to be used to pay down that debt.
Interestingly, the district’s insurer estimates replacement value of DV at $25 million and Narrowsburg at $6 million, but everyone at last week’s meeting seemed to agree selling them outright in such a downtrodden economy and real estate market is a long shot.
So what to do?
Board and committee member Noel van Swol, who heads a private property owners’ group interested in obtaining leases for gas drilling, said the coming natural gas industry could make both properties attractive for leasing.
Indeed, Chesapeake one of the largest gas companies in the world had offered to lease DV’s land two years ago, officials confirmed, and an unidentified gas company is unofficially negotiating with the district for use of DV as a local operations headquarters.
Van Swol was against selling either building, postulating that enrollment might grow once drilling arrives.
However, Hilton had contacted a fellow superintendent in Dimock, Pa., which has recently been dealing with the highs and lows of drilling. Hilton said his counterpart had not observed a student population increase, possibly due to the drilling companies bringing in their own out-of-state workers.
The idea of leasing versus selling also engendered some debate, with board and committee member Ken Cohen worrying that companies wouldn’t want a short-term lease. Lawrence added that maintenance costs would still be borne by the district in a rental/lease arrangement, so leasing anything less than an entire building would likely be unfeasible.
Shuttering the buildings completely (i.e., turning off the heat, draining the pipes and covering the windows) was ruled out for fear of hastening ongoing deterioration.
BOCES and Sullivan County Community College are not interested in either building, though other agencies, like the Center for Discovery, will be contacted to asses their interest.
Board and committee member Rose Crotty wondered if either building could be turned into senior housing, and Hilton said the Partnership for Economic Development is seeking out potential buyers for the campuses.
Dozens of Narrowsburg residents were in attendance that evening to push for a use of the Narrowsburg school that would be compatible with its downtown location.
That morphed into an agreement to create a community committee to help advise the board on what uses would be acceptable.
What emerged as a fairly viable option for Narrowsburg was giving or selling it to the Town of Tusten as a replacement for its current offices above the nearby Tusten Theatre.
That would require a public vote, though Hilton expressed confidence the public would approve such an option. (Others weren’t so sure if that would be popular in parts of the district outside Narrowsburg.)
DV’s future seemed more tied to leasing for drilling, with general agreement that the sparsely settled Town of Fremont wouldn’t be interested in such a huge building.
The committee informally agreed to give itself a year to decide upon an option, with the first step being a state-required environmental assessment of both campuses.
“Our foremost thought,” concluded Board President Anna Niemann, “must be, ‘What is the best thing for our kids?’”