School board moves ahead on Briscoe sale

    George A. Briscoe School on North Main Street in Ashland on Thursday morning. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]

    Jordan Ely is a numbers guy who spends most of his days crunching digits, but even the Ashland School District’s business services director has a hard time attaching hard figures to the question on everybody’s mind these days: What are the chances the park at Briscoe Elementary remains accessible to the general public after the district sells the property?

    In other words, what are the chances the property, which hasn’t been used as an elementary school since it was closed in 2004, will remain, in the words of the school board, “in the public trust?”

    The good news for the large faction of Ashlanders who want the 3.74-acre lot at 265 N. Main St. to remain public is, Ely likes the odds that that will happen. The bad news is Ely’s best guess comes with one massive caveat.

    “I actually am really confident,” Ely said Wednesday, two days after the school board unanimously passed Resolution 2017-18 1B, agreeing to divest the property. “And if I was going to put a percentage on it — I feel like you’re backing me in a corner here — I would say the percentages I’d throw on it are 80 or 90. I think the chances are better that it will happen than it won’t, and that has to do with the really great efforts that a lot of community members have put together to let the elected officials involved in each of these entities know that this is a desire of our community that this be kept in the public trust.

    “The reason that I don’t say that we have a 100 percent chance of this working out is because I do think we all need to be sensitive to the fact that the constraints that have put the school district in a position where they needed to make a decision about what to do with Briscoe are the same constraints that the city and the parks department have, which are bloating PERS liabilities and health care costs," he said.

    Ely singled out the city of Ashland and the Ashland Parks and Recreation department because those two entities have emerged as the most likely buyers whose participation in a deal would result in the property remaining public. How long it will take to unload the property is difficult to predict — Ely and school board member Jim Westrick, both of whom have been authorized to negotiate on behalf of the district, say no hard deadline is in place — but roughly 19 months after a facilities committee reviewed Briscoe, the board got the ball rolling Monday by voting, according to 2017-18 1B, to “accept the recommendation of the Facilities Committee that the District no longer invest resources in Briscoe beyond maintaining the facility as necessary for the needs of the current tenants; two, the District move towards responsibly divesting the property; three, in so doing, the Board will continue to pursue opportunities for the property to remain in the public trust.”

    The 5-0 vote came moments after the public comments portion of the board meeting, during which Melissa Mitchell-Hooge of Ashland Save Our Schools & Playgrounds! asked the board to consider adding a fourth point to the resolution. She said she had collected 279 digital signatures in support of the addition and later, in a public Facebook post, expressed her frustration in the result.

    “They did not add our suggested edit to the resolution,” Mitchell-Hooge wrote. “They did not acknowledge or discuss the fact that 279 of us had suggested adding a 4th point to the ‘Be It Resolved’ section of the resolution that would have protected the park ... there was no discussion of the merits of the suggestion or otherwise ... it was just completely ignored. I think it's puzzling and a bit concerning. Why couldn't they back up their words with action, exactly?”

    In a phone interview Wednesday, Westrick acknowledged the possibility that Briscoe will be sold to a private entity, but he said the board has made it clear from the beginning that it will explore public options first.

    “No one can give guarantees, and it would be nice if we could guarantee something,” he said, “but (the resolution) is probably the closest we can come. We’re telling everybody that this is our ideal outcome, and we’re going to pursue these opportunities first.”

    The board, Ely and superintendent Kelly Raymond met in executive session Tuesday. The purpose of the meeting, Westrick said, was for the board to provide guidance, particularly to Ely, regarding the parameters of any possible deal.

    Ely said numbers weren’t discussed in the two-hour meeting, but priorities were. To that end, he said, the district’s approach to selling the property, which includes a 34,000-square foot building requiring more than $6.5 million in deferred maintenance, will differ from standard real estate transactions in some important ways.

    “There’s been kind of murmurs around town from a very small group — at least that’s gotten back to me — that says you should just give it to the city. Well, I’ve spoken with people at the city, I’ve spoken with people at parks; I think we’re all on the same page that that’s not really an appropriate way to go about this. But at the same time, at least from my perspective, we’re not trying to make the city pay max development potential value for it or something like that.

    “I do think there’s a middle ground somewhere that makes sense, where we’re honoring the intended use of the tax revenues that were collected to acquire the facility and maintain it for all these years and all that stuff, but also recognize that its future benefit to the community probably isn’t as a school. So I do think that there are some nuances to the situation that we’ll need to keep in mind," Ely said.

    — Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.

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