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Slimantics: Call off the dogs: School Board not at fault

 

Slim Smith

 

In Wednesday's edition, the Dispatch reported about the Columbus Municipal School District's rejection of a $175,000 bid from Point of Grace Church for the Lee Middle School property and, yes, I know precisely what you were thinking: "This bunch could mess up a two-car funeral." 

 

From its ham-handed handling of the search for a new superintendent to the stumbling debut of the person it chose for the post, it's been that sort of month for the CMSD. 

 

In the latest episode of our melodrama, the church's pastor, Shane Cruse, shared his frustrations over the process. He felt the church had made a reasonable offer and was mystified when the Board not only turned it down, but declined to offer an explanation or open the door for negotiation. How do you buy something when the owner won't tell you the price, for crying out loud? Where's the back-and-forth? The haggling? The negotiating? 

 

The Board's apparent stony indifference, especially when juxtaposed against the benign simplicity of a caring pastor, only confirmed what many have come to suspect: If Pavlov had lived in Columbus, he wouldn't have used a bell to set the dogs to salivating; he would have just held up a picture of the Board. 

 

If this is, in fact, your reaction to the story, I offer just two words:  

 

Down, boy! 

 

In this instance, the CMSD should not be faulted. 

 

The board's hands were tied. If there is a culprit, for once look in another direction. Simply put, the rules that govern the sale of school land created a process that almost everyone agrees is a odd way to do business. 

 

To get some grasp of the rules that apply, I talked to an attorney who has had some experience with these types of sales. We talked in general terms about how the process works in the state. 

 

Here's what I learned -- I am putting it in layman's terms, and I not attempting to cover all the nuances of the laws that apply. 

 

Basically, there are two methods a school can use to sell a property. 

 

The first way involves something called a "reverter clause.'' In that plan, the school district can negotiate with a buyer of its choice - it doesn't have to solicit bids. They can negotiate pretty much any aspect of the sale, from price to other stipulations that either party might propose. The only caveat is that "reverter clause," which states that if the buyer decides to use the property for some use other than the one stated in the sale contract, the property would "revert'' to the school. This offers some protection to the community. For example, if a buyer planned to use the land for a church and then at some point later decided to convert it to something clearly objectionable - say, a Democratic Party headquarters or something equally onerous - the school could swoop in and take the property back. 

 

That's the first kind of sale.  

 

In fact, that was the kind of sale the district used when it sold the Hughes Elementary School property to Genesis Church a couple of years ago. 

 

But there is another type of sale that can be used. This one doesn't have a reverter clause. Think of it like a store that has a big sign that says "All Sales Final'' on the window. That's the deal. Once the school sells the property, it's out of their hands for good. 

 

Under this plan, the rules are far more rigid. Bids have to be solicited. There can be no negotiations and no stipulations, conditions or contingencies in the bid. It's a straight-up offer and the Board can only vote up or down on the bid. 

 

For some reason, the Board decided to use the later method to sell Lee. The only conclusion you can draw from that is the Board really, really doesn't want the property back. Ever. In fact, if you were to even mention Lee, the Board would metaphorically clamp its hands over its ears while shouting, "La, la, la, la, la! I can't hear you!" 

 

Under those circumstances, you can easily see why the district bears no blame. In fact, the Board had no choice but to reject the Point of Grace bid. Under the rules, the moment the church added its conditions to its bid, it rendered the bid invalid. Even if the church had offered $1 million for the property, the district could not have legally accepted the offer. 

 

Ultimately, the church failed to read the fine print. If you are inclined to argue that the Board could have politely pointed out that putting in conditions made the bid invalid, you must realize that doing that could have been considered a form of negotiation. That's not allowed, either. 

 

So, really, the Board had no choice. 

 

And deserves no blame. 

 

Slim Smith is the managing editor of the Dispatch. You can contact him at ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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