Why I Voted To Sell The Old Gettys
By Alex Saitta
January 10, 2014
Update: In the end the old Gettys Middle was sold to a private investor for $300,000 less 4 acres (bus loop and bus depot). I voted for thta sale.
In mid-October of 2013, Legacy Charter School bid $250,000 for the old Gettys Middle School. At the October meeting, the board declared Gettys a surplus property. In November I made a motion to sell it for $250,000 and that was tabled by the board. In December, I made a motion to give Legacy a counter offer of $300,000; I think Legacy would have bought it there. That was voted down by Judy Edwards, Herb Cooper, Jim Shelton, and Ben Trotter. Jimmy Gillespie and I voted to sell the school.
I had many reasons for voting to sell the school.
Given the size and location of Gettys, $250,000 to $300,000 was a good price for Gettys given the district/ board sold the old Liberty Middle for $160,000, Simpson for $125,000, and Dacusville Elementary for $150,000.
District Needs The Cash:
No matter who the buyer is, from the school districtís point of view, Gettys should have been sold. The school district needs the cash.
The district incurred three costs when it approved the building program and it underestimated the actual cost in all three areas: a) the cost to renovate and build the buildings was $377.8 million, and that was underestimated by tens of millions, b) the annual cost to clean, run and repair the buildings was also underestimated. Electricity costs are up $1.5 million since the start of the building program, which has added about 800,000 sqf of space. Right now the cost to clean, run and repair the buildings is running a $2.5 million more a year since the expansion, and c) the capital cost of repairing more roofs, more HVACís and more parking lots is overwhelming the district. That final cost is going to run in the tens of millions and no one thought it through when the plan was first passed.
Here is part of what happened with the capital costs. In 2008 Ambler Elementary was renovated. At that point, the roof was 11 years old and had a few years of life left in it, so the roof was not replaced. Today that roof is 18 years old and due for a replacement and Amblerís roof needs is showing up on the capital replacement list. A lot of schools that were renovated not too long ago, our showing up with roof, HVAC or parking lot needs.
Additionally, millions were wasted at the start of building program, so the program ran short on funds toward the end. As a result, some things were cut out projects to stretch the remaining funds. For instance, McKissick Elemenary was renovated in 2012. The roof was value-engineered out of the renovation, to free up money to make sure the new Gettys Middle School had enough for its budget. In 2013, the board had to come up with about $600,000 in new money for the McKissick roof. Ditto for Edwards Middle, which the board recently forked over new money to replace its roof.
By selling vacant property and abandoned buildings, the district will get some of the cash it needs to meet its capital needs for roofs, HVACís and crumbling parking lots. So far the district has sold $1 million worth of surplus buildings and land and will probably reach $2 million in sales.
Easley Enrollment Not Growing:
The third reason I voted to sell the old Gettys building was it is no longer needed. Enrollment at Gettys is about 1,360. While the population of Easley may be growing, middle school enrollment in Easley has risen only 50 students the past 10 years. The district/ board is spending an extra $8 million on the new Gettys to add all the capacity that school needs. The new wing will be complete this summer.
Cost To Warehouse Gettys:
The next reason I voted to sell the old Gettys is the cost to warehouse the vacant building. The estimate the district office gave the board was a $150,000 a year in electricity, plus the vacant building must be insured and the grass cut. So not only did the district/ board give up the $300,000 from the sale, but has to pay $200,000 a year just to warehouse the vacant building. It is financial decisions like this that illustrate why the district is always short on money.
Trustee Judy Edwards has recommended the district knock the school down and keep the land. It will cost about $500,000 to knock down the 150,000 sqf building and its asbestos filled walls, bricks and ceilings away. The 19 acres are worth less than that. It is not a commercial lot. There are no businesses on Stewart Drive.
Appraisal A Frivolous Reason:
There isnít much of a market for broken down schools full of asbestos. There has been very little private interest in these schools. When the sale was tabled in November, trustees said they wanted to see the appraisal on the building.
Normally it takes two or three weeks to do an appraisal, but after three months the district administration still hadnít produced one. Their request for an appraisal was a stall tactic. Plus, every other building we sold had an appraisal of $1 million or more and that didnít stop the board/ district for selling those buildings at 1/10th the appraised value. Finally, the buildings were not worth anything close to their ďappraisedĒ values why insist on an appraisal?
We put the old Liberty Middle up for sale in 2011. CVS initially approached us about buying the building and we were initially talking $750,000. After CVS inspected the building, their price dropped to $400,000. When they realized how much asbestos it contained and the cost to demolish the building and cart it away, CVS backed out. In the end, we sold Liberty Middle to the only party that offered us a purchase contract, for $160,000. So much for $1 million appraisals.
Gettys A Wasting Asset:
Vacant buildings get run down very quickly. The old Gettys will be powered, insured and the grass will be cut. Thatís about it. If the roof starts to leak, it will leak, because it is unlikely weíll put a new roof on it, because we have buildings with students in them that actually need their roofs replaced. Criminals are already breaking in and taking things from the old Gettys. It is a wasting asset that will soon turn into a liability. Add it to the list of buildings we had sold like Pickens Middle, but the board voted it down and now that school sits, abandoned, decaying.
Gettys Renovations No Cost To Taxpayers:
As you can see, initially, I zeroed in on the financial angle of the issue, but when a couple of school board members said they opposed the sale because the buyer was a charter school, I put a lot of thought into that aspect of the sale too.
Charter schools are public schools. Those who support the public education of children should have no issues with charter schools. Legacy is chartered under the state of South Carolina, and is backed by a non-profit or 501(c)(3). Legacy started a public K-12 charter school in Greenville. Using millions in donations, Legacy bought and renovated Parker High School and the elementary school next door, costing Greenville County taxpayers nothing in renovation costs. Legacy planned to do the same with the old Gettys Middle, giving Easley that additional school so many there seem to want, at no cost to Pickens County taxpayers.
Judy Edwards and Superintendent, Dr. Pew opposed the sale because they felt Easley would need the school at some point. If having another school for the students in Easley was the ultimate aim, Legacy fit that bill, because Legacy was committed to renovating the old Gettys for students in Easley, at no cost to taxpayers. Actions speak louder than words, and it is obvious to me it wasnít only about getting another school in Easley for the students, it was also about the school district/ board keeping control of the students, and the annual per pupil revenue that follows those students. In the end, it was a turf battle where the students and taxpayers lost.
Looking at the bigger picture, I believe the ultimate aim of some is to wait until they get a more favorable school board, hopefully getting that 7th seat added in Easley and then getting the board to pass and fund a second middle school in Easley. The problem with that approach is, after the school is vacant a year, the entire school will have to be brought up to code, and the renovation cost will climb to the $20 to $25 million range, sticking it to the taxpayers of Pickens County.
Board Lost Sight:
With this decision, I believe the school board lost sight of who it is working to benefit. Judy Edwards said she didnít want to sell to Legacy because it was a charter school that could take students from school district. Ben Trotter said the board should focus on doing things that benefit the school district, not charter schools.
I see the school boardís purpose more broadly. First of all, it is not the School Board of The School District of Pickens County. It is the School Board Of Pickens County. Of course the focus is the students in the Pickens County School District, but the overall purpose of the district is to benefit all citizens of our county, beit all students, all parents, all taxpayers, and all business owners. It is not only about the students. If it was, taxes would be raised to an infinite amount for the benefit of the students. Nor is it only about the students attending the school district; it is about all students in the county seeking an education. Surely, the board doesnít want to do things that harm students outside the district and the board should try to help those students when they can. Such an opportunity was missed here.
Selling the old Gettys building to Legacy did no harm to any students in the school district of Pickens County, because district has a middle school in Easley that has more than enough capacity and is far and away the best middle school in the county. Actually, the sale would have benefited the district, because it could have used the $300,000 sales revenue for the students and saved the $200,000 year warehousing the school.
If Legacy bought the school, and renovated and opened it, either: a) students would have gone there and been better educated or b) Legacy wouldnít better educated the students, and those students would have left Legacy and gone back to their schools or never left them in the first place. Either way the students of the county would have benefited from the competition.
Fear Played A Role:
Often I heard, if Legacy comes to Easley, the district will lose students and the per pupil funding. Although it was never characterized this way, some on the board and in the district leadership were fearful our district would have come up on the losing end of such a competitive battle.
The best are never afraid to compete. The best embrace competition. I recently read an interview with Hall of Fame football player Lawrence Taylor, middle linebacker of the New York Giants. When his team was on offense, he couldnít wait to get back on the field to compete with the opposing players, because he was so confident in his ability to win. He wanted to show everyone just how superior he was, as well as his defensive team, which he was the captain of.
In our district 25% of students donít graduate on time. About 20% are below grade level. While those stats have improved a bit the past few years, the gains have been limited. Legacy focuses on and specializes in teaching those bottom 25% of students. Likely, they would have attracted and retained those students, costing the district a lot of state funding annually. I believe this, and I think the district leadership and many on the board realized this too. For this reason, some opposed the sale, trying to keep Legacy out of the Easley market.