Greenwood Church signs contract to take over former school and property, including Observatory

by Kate Evans

Greenwood United Methodist Church signed a contract of sale for Greenwood Elementary and its 5.74 acres and property with the Morgan County School Board before the July 31 school board meeting. The closing date for the property will occur at a later date. School officials said the agreement is a win-win situation for the school and its property to remain in the hands of the community.

The contract of sale signed by church trustees and school board president Aaron Close will convey ownership to the Greenwood United Methodist Church of the property’s buildings and contents for $1. Those include the school buildings and also the Morgan County Observatory and its telescope which are both currently owned by Morgan County Schools, according to the July 2003 use and maintenance agreement between the school system and the observatory foundation.

Same lease arrangements

“The contract also makes it clear that ‘the Premises will be transferred to the Purchaser subject to the lease’ that is currently in place with the observatory foundation. Church trustees have repeatedly expressed their commitment to maintaining the existing lease and arrangements,” Morgan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Erich May said in an e-mail last Thursday.

May believed that “we are fortunate to have found a local group with a community connection and a commitment to kids. This is the best case scenario for the building and grounds, and that needs to be our first priority.”

At their July 17 meeting, school board president Aaron Close asked Superintendent May to draft a letter to Morgan County Observatory Foundation chairman Kevin Boles to let him know of the school board’s decision to transfer ownership of Greenwood Elementary and its property to the church.

At the meeting Board member Laura Smith asked about division of the property for the observatory, but Superintendent May said that the observatory would have to work that out with the church.

Observatory comments

At the July 31 school board meeting, Boles expressed his unhappiness at being left in the dark about the sale of Greenwood Elementary and its property during the meeting’s public comment session.

Boles said he’d just learned that the use and maintenance agreement that the observatory had with Morgan County Schools was going to be transferred to Greenwood United Methodist Church.

Boles said he’d requested two acres of land around the observatory to put a well and septic system for the observatory and additional parking in October 2016 and had been waiting to learn the school board’s response and what was happening with the property.

In 2016 he’d also expressed concerns about parking lot lights obscuring the night sky and use of the telescope.

The foundation wanted to continue their work unimpeded and was potentially interested in observatory ownership. Boles said he felt left out of the discussion and disappointed and asked for a copy of the deed before the signing, if possible.

Close told Boles that it was the school board’s intention to protect the observatory. The church was willing to continue the same arrangements with the observatory and the observatory could still use the school’s rest rooms. Boles said using the restrooms didn’t work because there was no extra staff person to take people to the school and unlock it so they could use the rest rooms. The foundation rents a port-a-potty instead.

All or nothing

May said in his e-mail that the church is willing to take the entire property off the school system’s hands and that the observatory has never expressed a willingness to do so. Close also acknowledged that the board had been looking at an all-or-nothing transfer of ownership for the school property.

“And at this point, it appears that dividing the land would adversely impact our ability to find a community organization to take the school. And again, the church poses no threat to the observatory.” May noted.

Church grateful

Greenwood United Church representative Brad Michael said they were thrilled at the opportunity to expand their programs to the community though establishing the former Greenwood Elementary as a community center.

Michael said they value the observatory and a number of other community organizations and that they look forward to working with them and partnering with the schools to offer programs for youth, seniors and the community.

Telescope, observatory history

The Morgan County Observatory’s 16-inch dual Cassegrain/Newtonian   telescope was decommissioned by the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993 and was donated to Morgan County Schools. The former U.S. Naval telescope is one-third the size of the Hubble Space Telescope and is capable of deep space and planetary exploration.

The Morgan County Observatory Foundation raised funds to refurbish, repair and upgrade the research-grade telescope and it was placed in operation at the Morgan County Observatory in December 2001 after the observatory’s exterior was completed. Interior work on the observatory continued for several more years.

Observatory funding sources included $60,000 in Budget Digest funds secured by then-Delegate Charles Trump, $20,000 from the Morgan County Commission, a $5,000 State Farm Insurance grant, $4,500 from United Way and $500 from the Town of Bath. Observatory foundation membership drives and star party fundraisers and individual donor donations raised many thousands of additional dollars toward construction.

Morgan County Schools also received a $10,000 grant for teaching training and curriculum from the West Virginia Department of Education.