Observatory group asks for land, telescope facility


Morgan County Observatory Foundation president Kevin Boles has asked school officials to sell the observatory facility and two acres of land to put in water and sewer to the nonprofit for a nominal fee of $1. His request came at the August 21 Morgan County School Board meeting.

Boles said he’d asked for the land 20 months previously and was told that his request would have to wait until the school board found a buyer for the former Greenwood School. The property includes the Morgan County Observatory which is owned by the school board.

Boles said that former Superintendent David Banks had been on board with his request.

Boles said he was never consulted when the school board voted to approve an agreement of sale for the Greenwood property to the Greenwood United Methodist Church.

Boles said their foundation has been a successful non-profit organization for 19 years with their mission to house the donated U.S. Naval Academy telescope, develop educational programs and foster an interest in science and technology. He said he saw no reason for the observatory foundation to be tied to a non-profit organization that hasn’t even formed yet.

School board president Aaron Close asked if Boles had ever requested the two acres in writing because he had never seen any document that asked for the land. Boles said it was a conversation.

Boles said he received a letter telling him of the board’s July 17 decision to transfer the Greenwood Elementary property to Greenwood United Methodist Church and met with School Superintendent Erich May two days later. Boles said May was unwilling to consider what he wanted.

“No one asked me what our second option was if we didn’t get the land,” Boles said.

Boles maintained that the school board’s all-or-nothing policy toward the purchase of the property was hostile toward the observatory.

Board member Eric Lyda told Boles that there was no intention of any hostility with the observatory in the transfer of the property and said they had a group willing to take the property off their hands.

Lyda said board member Laura Smith had raised concerns before their vote about carving off some land for the observatory.     Superintendent Erich May said then that the observatory would have to work that out with the church.

Lyda said it was regrettable that Boles hadn’t been consulted beforehand and that secret or dishonest maneuvering was not their intent.

Agreement inappropriate

Boles said the current agreement the observatory has with Morgan County Schools that’s going to be transferred to Greenwood United Methodist Church isn’t appropriate or sufficient, has outdated clauses and many punitive measures in it.

“You can lock us out at your whim,” Boles noted.

Boles said that Attorney Richard Gay thought only two clauses pertained to the church and the rest still referred to the Board of Education. Board members Laura Smith and John Rowland asked if they could see copies of the agreement.

Boles said if he’d been contacted earlier they could’ve all sat down and gone over the agreement to ensure everyone was happy.

“I’m not happy,” he emphasized.

   Observatory board member Rick Watson said he couldn’t see any downside to stripping off two acres of land for the observatory to upgrade the plumbing and make it a better facility.   Watson suggested maybe the foundation could buy the whole property for $2 and split off the school for $1.

Superintendent weighs in

Superintendent May said the downside is that the school board has a liability in Greenwood Elementary and it’s a financial risk to taxpayers.

The school has been broken into once by kids, proving the risk owning an abandoned building. May said he’d made it a priority to divest the board of the school building.

May said he’d been approached by potential buyers but only Greenwood United Methodist Church had offered to take the school and the entire property off their hands. The Morgan County Observatory Foundation had never done so. To cut off two acres and potentially lose the deal is not a risk he’s willing to take, he said.

May said the church has insisted that they are willing to work with the observatory with programs, that they’re good people that have kids and he thinks they mean well.

May noted Boles said the observatory’s mission has been wholly successful under the current agreement. If the agreement’s working now, the same agreement or something similar should continue to work.

School board member John Rowland said he’s a Greenwood community member and he was instrumental in helping to recruit the observatory there as former Greenwood Elementary principal. Rowland said the school and community was very grateful for the opportunity to have the observatory there. He doesn’t see any opposition to the school being a community center and continuing the observatory.

“I’d like to see us be able to provide both for our kids,”
he said.

Parent, community member

Russell Mokhiber, a parent and Greenwood community member, said he supported the school system which his two sons had attended. Mokhiber’s boys had enjoyed going to the observatory and rocket camp and he and other parents deeply supported Boles and the observatory.

Mokhiber said the community is upset as it was disrespectful that Boles and the observatory foundation hadn’t been consulted about carving out two acres before the agreement with the church had been made. Under the current agreement the church could kick Boles out and close the observatory down.

Mokhiber said it’s not appropriate to treat a man who has dedicated his life to this observatory that way. He hoped the board and church will reconsider if it’s still legally possible.

Boles said that Attorney Richard Gay advised that the reverter clause would not allow the church to transfer the two acres to the observatory for five years.

Close said that the church is looking for a partnership with the observatory, not a takeover. The school board’s goal was to find someone in the community to take the school building and property, the observatory and the playground and keep them open. Greenwood United Methodist Church is the organization with whom the board authorized him to finalize the deal.

Lyda advised Boles to seek out his own legal opinion, which Boles said he’d done, and pursue conversations with the church.