2010 in review Westerlo

Controversy ends in public vote as old school becomes new town hall

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — In a business deal that spanned a third of the year and caused a town election, the Westerlo purchased an old school, cherished in the community, that it plans to turn into a bigger and better town hall, which may be topped with free solar panels from the state.

On May 26, the majority of town voters gave the nod for Supervisor Richard Rapp to sign an agreement with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District, purchasing the Westerlo School for $145,000 to be used as the next town hall.

In a front yard at the corner of Newry Road and Route 32, a digital sign read “Please vote yes!” on election day. The town listened, and the proposition passed by an 18-percent margin.

BKW’s former business administrator, Timothy Holmes, said in late 2008 that the building would need $108,500 worth of repairs before it could be re-occupied.

“We did some of them, but not many,” Supervisor Richard Rapp told The Enterprise this week of the needed repairs. “We fixed two steam lines, the pipe that goes from the boiler to the radiator; they were leaking. We made a correction on a fuel-oil tank; the one tank wouldn’t pump right…

“We did some small electrical work, and stuff like that. And we talked to the phone company, and we’re going to get them to start running some wire so our phones can be used there. And we got heat in there, so we’re all set.”

Rapp added that the town has not yet appointed a clerk of the works to oversee the ongoing work on the building.

A board’s resolve

Said Councilman R. Gregory Zeh after the vote in May, “I think the townspeople really recognized the value of the building as a proposition before the town…They recognized that we have grant funding, and they realized that, although there were going to be costs involved, they really trust the town leaders they’ve elected.”

Zeh was referring to the total $225,000 in state grants that came through from Senator Neil Breslin and Assemblyman John McEneny for the purchase and renovation of the building, though the town is not currently in possession of that funding, as it will be obtained on a reimbursement schedule.

In recent years, the town had repeatedly expressed interest in purchasing the 60-year-old school from BKW because space is tight at the current town hall, located in a building that is also used by the highway department, which is also in need of repairs. After enrollment at BKW dropped, it stopped using the Westerlo School and had, since 2005, leased it to the Helderberg Christian School, but BKW decided not to renew its lease.

The Christian school has since found a new home in a church in Berne.

Last year, the BKW School Board unanimously approved a title search on the Westerlo School after Helen Lounsbury, then president of the school board, recalled hearing of a promise made, back when Westerlo merged with Berne-Knox to form BKW, that the building would always remain a school, even if it were to eventually change hands. The title search, however, turned up no such promise.

In February of this year, the town board offered to purchase the school from BKW so it could be converted into a new town hall. Not two weeks later, the BKW School Board voted unanimously to sell the building to the town.

Both BKW and the Helderberg Christian School had the building appraised in 2009, and both found that the building was worth $80,000, according to Timothy Tryon, then president of the Helderberg Christian School Board. In October of 2004 — just five years before the latest appraisal — the building was appraised at $185,000.

Supervisor Rapp declined to comment in February on why the town offered BKW more than 180 percent of the building’s latest appraised value.

Councilman Zeh said then that he did not know until after the board agreed to make the $145,000 offer that the Westerlo School’s appraisal had dropped by more than $100,000 since 2004.

“If I knew that, I might not have made the decisions I made,” Zeh said then. “There are houses in the village a quarter that size that are worth more than $80,000, so that just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Councilman Edward Rash said then that, while he had not heard the results from last year’s appraisals, the building’s $80,000 value is irrelevant, as it is of far greater value to the town.

“If there was an $80,000 appraisal done on it, I certainly wouldn’t want that appraiser doing my house,” Rash said then. “We were figuring costs of repairs and costs of expanding the current town hall, and we came up with a price of what we thought that building would be worth to the town…The town has a lot of feelings for that building; there’s been a lot of donated time, property, tree-planting done for that building… It has a lot of meaning for the townspeople…And the multi-use factor in the building is terrific, too. It’s got a small cafeteria, it’s got an auditorium, it’s got office space.”

The public speaks out

Since the town board voted to purchase the school in February, residents were divided over support of the purchase. Some feared that the costs associated with renovating the building would be too much of a financial burden on taxpayers, and that more information should be made public about the town’s plans for the building.

Residents of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District were divided as well, so the school board held a public hearing on the school sale. 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.

Asked after the meeting why the school board decided to accept Westerlo’s offer, the board’s president, Maureen 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, James DeForest, who was then vice president of the Helderberg Christian School Board, 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.”

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.

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

“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 last year 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.”

Joseph Amedio, now president 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.

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.

“This is a heart-wrenching decision, I think, for everyone in this room,” said Lounsbury after the 30-minute public discussion.

“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.”

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.

In March, a petition with 98 signatures was presented to the town board, calling for a public vote on the purchase of the building. After a revelation of legal complications over publishing the resolution to purchase the school, it was rescinded, nullifying the petition, and the board presented a new resolution to purchase the school, and then agreed to hold the special election.

Grant flexibility

Questions had been raised at board meetings about whether or not the expected grant money could be put towards other uses, and whether the town would still get that grant funding if the purchase was voted down.

“No, that was specific,” Senator Breslin said when asked if the $100,000 grant from his office could be put towards anything other than the purchase and renovation of the Westerlo School. “The grant is for that specific building. So, it would seem to me that any alteration of the specifications in the grant would rule it null and void.”

Further, if the purchase of the school is voted down, Breslin said, “There’s a distinct possibility they would lose that, and it would be redirected for another positive government project elsewhere.”

McEneny concurred.

“Westerlo would lose it,” he said. “They could re-apply, if and when we ever have it, but the way the economy is going now, we may never have these capital grants again.”

Letting Westerlo use that money for anything other than purchasing and renovating the Westerlo School would be “unfair to other people who’ve applied,” said McEneny. “This was their best shot.”

However, while this grant money might not be as flexible as some townsfolk had hoped, both Breslin and McEneny said that the town could, indeed, count on that funding.

Free solar

The town board voted this December to have Attorney Aline Galgay investigate an opportunity for free solar energy from the state.

At its regular meeting on Dec. 6, the town board heard from Galgay that the New York Power Authority is offering free photovoltaic solar panels to schools and government buildings with distinct criteria for each: for public and private schools, the facility must have at least 40,000 square feet of roof space or one acre of open land; for government buildings, there must be at least 100,000 feet of roof space, or two acres of land.

Galgay said the property encompassing the Westerlo School may fit the bill. But, since it is being converted from a school to a government facility, the town will be subject to the latter criteria.

“We have that land,” Galgay told the board. “Why not use it to the town’s benefit?”

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