2017-12-13 / Front Page

School board to County Commission: We don’t want the old grade school back

by Kate Shunney

Ownership of the Community Services building, used by Morgan County agencies since 1977, may return to the Board of Education despite the board’s desire not to take it back. Ownership of the Community Services building, used by Morgan County agencies since 1977, may return to the Board of Education despite the board’s desire not to take it back. County officials have said they will seek legal advice about how to return the former Berkeley Springs Grade School to the Morgan County Board of Education now that the building is no longer used by county agencies.

In August, the Morgan County Health Department moved out of what is known as the Community Services building on Green Street in Berkeley Springs. It was the last county agency to have an office in the three-story brick school building. The building also used to house the local Senior Center and the offices of the American Red Cross.

The Boys & Girls Club and Starting Points Family Resource Center -- both nonprofit groups -- still occupy the building. A local youth robotics league also uses space in the old school.

County officials decided last year that once the Health Department moved, the building would revert to the school board. School officials gave the building to the Morgan County Commission in 1977. The deed to the property contains a “reverter” clause – that the building and land will go back to the school board when the county stops using it for county purposes.

Last Wednesday, county commissioners wrangled over the fate of the building and its tenants.

A letter from Morgan County Schools Superintendent Erich May to the County Commission, dated November 9, says the school board doesn’t want or need the property back.

“Please be advised that the Board cannot use the property for school purposes and therefore cannot accept any conveyance of that property back to the Board. In addition, the Board is not in a position to maintain or repair the property as may be necessary. As such, please be advised that while the Board appreciates the opportunity to use this property, the Board must reject it if the Commission should choose to convey it to the Board,” the letter said.

Commission President Joel Tuttle said he had received an “informal opinion” from an attorney that the county can’t give the property back to the school board if they don’t agree to take it.

Prosecuting Attorney Dan James advised county officials that’s not really the case.

“It’s not structured as an option. The deed says it ‘shall revert back’,” he said.

Commissioner Bob Ford said the property has to return to the school board.

“This is a bona fide agreement – we’re obligated to give it back,” he said. “My position is you put the keys in the envelope and hand it over and say, ‘Merry Christmas’.”

Ford said the county doesn’t have the money to do repairs, replace the roof and pay utilities on the centuryold structure.

County facilities director Vince Cichocki said it would fair to estimate a new roof on the building would cost several hundred thousand dollars.

EDA Director Daryl Cowles said he has an interest in seeing the property opened up to be developed privately. That would require either the school board or commission to put it up for public sale.

“There is economic value to the property and lot in the private sector,” said Cowles.

Tuttle said there is an “entity” interested in developing the property for senior citizens’ housing. The party would have to work with whoever owns the property in order to seek HUD grants and tax credits for a building project. Tuttle pointed out that $300,000 worth of grantfunded sidewalk and lighting upgrades were done to the building last year.

“This is a board of education decision to sell it or not,” said Commissioner Ken Reed.

“The EDA would have an interest in the economic development of that corner,” Cowles said.

“Why would we want it?” Ford asked.

“So that it’s developed for economic purposes,” Cowles said.

James said one possibility would be for the county and school board to sit down and decide on a method of changing ownership that would let the nonprofit groups continue to serve kids and families in the building.

Ford said the county could specify the deed revert to the school board six months from now, so the groups would have a chance to find a new home.

“The last thing I want to do is kick out the Boys & Girls Club and Starting Points in the middle of winter,” said Ford.

Tuttle said it isn’t fair to the groups to keep them “in limbo.”

Audrey Morris, Executive Director of Starting Points, said the developers eyeing the property for senior housing are very interested, but need a CHDO – a community housing development organization – to proceed. First, the ownership of the property has to be sorted out.

County officials decided to seek legal advice about the deed and ownership before proceeding further.

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It’s going to be interesting

It’s going to be interesting to watch this play out. As the commissioners move forward on developing a dilapidated, and deteriorating property ordnance. An ordinance that is designed to hold property owners responsible for the upkeep of their property. An ordinance that this property will probably be directly affected by, once vacated. The question is, who will be the legal owner, then? Who will foot the bill? The tax payers are going to foot the bill, regardless…. The county school board, or the county government. Aren’t both funded by county taxpayers? The only difference, is on which line of a spreadsheet it falls. Which line item will declare they need more tax dollars for repairs, and upkeep, that should have been done on a regular basis. I don’t hold the current county officials responsible, as most were barely walking at the time this deal was made. I do think this is a problem within the county, and has been for some time. People, organizations, and government acquire properties, when they have a need, or there’s a potential for profit. They do minimum, to no upkeep. Then when they get to the point that they may be considered dilapidated, and deteriorating they unload them. These types of transactions usually only effect the private buyer, and seller of properties. When it effects two government agencies, every taxpayer is left to pick up the tab for the government’s bad decisions, and neglect… They have to do better, and we should expect better of our government… As the current county government works on an ordinance to prevent slum lords, and eye sores throughout the county, aren’t they contributing to the problem with transactions like this??? The only difference here is, we “the taxpayers” are going to be the one’s paying the bill…

Is this building on any

Is this building on any historic preservation list?