Clarksville Elementary inches closer to sale

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

School’s out: A new agreement is needed between the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and the Bethlehem Central School District over the sale of the old Clarksville Elementary School, after the county attorney had a new interpretation of the lease-to-purchase agreement.

ALBANY COUNTY — School may soon be in session for the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, if everybody can just agree on the arithmetic.

The Bethlehem Central School District’s Board of Education was again discussing the sale of the old Clarksville Elementary School in New Scotland to the sheriff at its Jan. 3 meeting.

“It seems that we have been talking about this for close to a year,” said Judith Kehoe, the chief business and financial officer of BCSD. “In fact, it was about a year ago, that we had begun a series of community meetings and conversations.”

In June 2017, the district and the sheriff’s office had negotiated a lease-to-purchase agreement where, after leasing Clarksville Elementary for a three-year period, the sheriff would buy the building for $325,000: $198,000 in actual money and $127,000 in in-kind patrol services, which was to be two sheriff’s deputies, in separate vehicles, patrolling the perimeter of the high school in Bethlehem from Memorial Day in May through graduation at the end of June from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. With exact days and times of coverage to be determined.

The in-kind provision stated the sheriff’s office would provide patrols for the district for five years during the time period of the three-year lease as well as the subsequent two years, which ends in 2022.

To date, the sheriff has paid the district $210,000 in rent, plus in-kind patrols valued at another $70,000.

“We have had a number of concerns raised by the county attorney’s office,” Kehoe said at the Jan. 3 meeting. She added later, “They indicated that they would, in fact, vacate the property, if the board was not willing to reconsider an outright purchase.”

She said that the county attorney, Daniel Lynch, “had been viewing the agreement that [BCSD] had negotiated with the sheriff, and essentially they wanted to purchase the building up front. They were not comfortable with the three years of lease-to-purchase payments, fearing that we might change our mind and pull out of the deal with them.”

Having served as the center of the eponymous rural hamlet since 1948, Clarksville Elementary was closed by the Bethlehem Central School District in 2011, amid declining enrollment. Enrollment was actually increasing in the area served by the Clarksville school but declining elsewhere in the district.

School board members at the time cited a $1 million budget gap, and said closing the school would save the district $900,000.

At the time of its closing, Clarksville Elementary was the lone elementary school of six in Bethlehem school district that was in the town of New Scotland; the other five were in the town of Bethlehem.

After Clarksville Elementary closed, its students were assigned to either Eagle Elementary School or Slingerlands Elementary School; some of them had very long bus trips.

The New Scotland assessment rolls list the school building and the 12.21 acres it sits on as having a combined full-market value of  $1,737,000.

But the latest appraised value of Clarksville Elementary is $411,766. “There’s a relatively limited buyer’s market,” Kehoe said of vacant school buildings in March 2017.

In 2012, the sheriff moved into the building. It now houses the county’s emergency management center, which becomes the headquarters for both manmade and natural disasters, while serving as a home base for deputies on patrol.

At a Bethlehem community meeting in March 2017, Sheriff Craig Apple laid out his plan to purchase the school and bring a few support services closer to the rural Hilltowns.

By June 2017, an agreement between the district and the sheriff’s office was in place.

The agreement then had to be reviewed by the Albany County attorney.

The county attorney was not comfortable with the deal as it was presented.

Chief Deputy William Rice, who has taken over the sheriff’s side of the project, told The Enterprise that the Albany County attorney was interpreting some of the wording differently in the lease agreement.

The lease said, “That the Landlord may terminate this Agreement at any time if directed by the New York State Department of Education or any applicable law, rule or regulation to do so.”

The county attorney interpreted these words as: The sheriff, after paying $60,000 for rent in the first lease year; $66,000 in year two; and $72,000 in the third year (which in total is $198,000, and would be the cash side of the $325,000 proposed purchase price), at two years and 11 months into the lease, could be thrown out by the district.

While highly unlikely, Rice said, “It makes it easier and cleaner to go to them and give them the money up front and just take ownership of the property.”

If the district were to consider the outright sale, it would require that a new agreement be approved by the board, and a resolution would need to be adopted that said there is no anticipated need to use the building for district purposes.

Following an updated appraisal affirming the building’s value, a 60-day period would follow. If, in that time, there were a request for a referendum and sufficient signatures were presented to the board, then a referendum would be required at that point.

Although the county attorney’s office said that it would approve an outright purchase, procedurally, the approval would need to go next to the Albany County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee and, following that, the entire legislature’s approval.

“There is no financial downside changing from a lease-to-purchase agreement to an outright purchase agreement,” Kehoe said.

A willing occupant

The benefits that BCSD would reap is, potentially, millions.

First opened in 1948, the Clarksville school was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

A five-year facility plan found that the school needed $2,100,000 in improvements, which could be a lot more if high-priority needs like replacing the roof and swapping out deteriorated windows for new ones, aren’t taken care of.

“And certainly, to maintain a vacant building, we would need to pay money to keep the heat at certain levels so that we did not have any damage from burst pipes or things like that,” Kehoe said.

The estimate for the district to just maintain the empty building could reach as much as $40,000 annually; $26,000 per year for heating oil, propane, alarm-system maintenance, pest control, and minor roof repairs; $5,000 annually for insurance; and $5,000 to $10,000 a year for possible vandalism.

Removing the future cost to maintain the building would be a certainty, Keogh said, if the sale were completed.

“The benefits of the transfer that we had talked about when the board had approved this in June of 2017, essentially was that we would have the certainty of a willing occupant and willing buyer for that property,” said Kehoe. “The community was certainly concerned about having a vacant building there — about vandalism, potentially. Certainly it isn’t an attractive neighbor if you have a vacant building in your community.”

And the sheriff’s office is a willing occupant and buyer.

Rice said that the county has already set aside $2 million in bonding to renovate the building, which is sorely needed. “The building has been blowing fuses, the roof needs to be addressed. It’s old and tired; we want to make it fresh,” he said. “For the school to keep it, it’s going to be a lot more money for them.”

The sheriff’s office is already offsetting some its cost by renting out space to the New Scotland Town Justice Court.

“I know the sheriff is willing to open it up to other departments,” Rice said about renting out more space to offset costs.

Since the sheriff’s office outgrown its previous outpost in Voorheesville, Rice said, having one in Clarksville is great because the area sits in the center of sheriff’s patrol zones on the Hill.

Rice also points out the benefits to the local community, highlighting the Hilltown Christmas and activities housed in the old gym, like karate.

 

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