If at first….
The Gulf County School Board decided Monday to put the old Highland View Elementary School site on the market as district officials try to shore up a seeping budget with an asset no longer part of the district’s inventory.
Last summer school board members formally declared the land surplus with an eye toward selling the property, which is zoned for mixed-use residential/commercial.
However, after garnering no interest from potential buyers, the district backed up, went out for a new appraisal of the property and, Monday, adopted a formal process for divesture.
Most importantly, said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton, the school board provided some fuel and buy-in to selling the property to bring much-needed, though non-recurring or one-time, dollars into the general fund.
“The importance of selling that property is to have a little bit of safe-footing going into the budget for next year,” Norton said. “It is a safety issue for a lot of issues we are going to face.”
Norton said the district budget has steadily eroded over the past seven years and the district had reduced its unrestricted fund balance to the minimum allowed by law, 3 percent.
Having cut staff and dollars from the budget for seven consecutive years there was little room to wiggle.
And in two years the school board must decide whether or not to ask voters for a third time to fund a one mill additional operating levy which essentially foots the bill for teacher salaries, Norton said.
“The sake of this district is contingent on selling this property,” Norton said. “We’ve got to have it sold.
“If we weren’t as tight on our margins as we are, maybe we could wait for a better price, but the price is where we are.”
The first step outlined by attorney Charles Costin was to set a fair market value for the property, effectively a benchmark to frame bidding and negotiations.
The district will advertise for sealed bids and open those bids. If the bids meet or exceed the market value set by the school board, Costin said, go with the high bidder.
If the bids are below the value set by the board, negotiate with bidders for a price within a stated range.
Arriving at those numbers proved the tough nut.
The school board had the chance to unload the property, estimated to be worth several million dollars at the time, in a bull real estate market more than a decade ago.
However, as board chair Linda Wood noted Monday, at the time North Florida Child Development, Inc. and its Head Start programs occupied the building and the board did not want to displace children in that program.
“What were we going to do the children?” Wood said. “We decided not to sell because of those children.”
In addition, that appraisal was rendered all but meaningless with the decline in property values over the past seven to eight years.
After NFCD left for its new school three years ago the property was subsequently re-appraised for $900,000 to $1 million.
Matt Terry appraised the property again in February and reached a price of $710,000 based on like sales – of which there were few in the county since 2006 – and $500,000 for a short-sale or liquidation-type of sale.
“Somewhere in between is where the sale price will occur I think,” Norton said.
Norton also noted the district lacks the funds to improve the property or building, which has a roof that is falling in. He said the cost of demolition has been estimated at $100,000, again the money the district does not have.
Would it bring a better price in the future? Maybe.
The district, Norton said, could not afford to wait.
And board member Billy Quinn, Jr. said he was “stuck” on a price of $1 million and moved the board set that, instead of $710,000, as the fair market value and use that figure as the start point in advertising for proposals and negotiations.
Wood dissented on the motion, which passed 3-1 (board member John Wright was not present).