Eureka Springs School Board votes to donate old high school to ESCC

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Thanks to the Eureka Springs School Board, the Eureka Springs Community Center Foundation is taking a major step forward.

Debbie Davis

On Monday night, the school board voted to donate the old high school facility to the foundation. Foundation chairwoman Debbie Davis explained Tuesday that the foundation has paid $100,000 through a lease-to-own agreement, established in 2015. Davis and other board members asked the board to donate the facility at its July 12 meeting.

School board member Al Larson kicked off discussion on Monday night with a motion to cancel the district’s current contract with the community center foundation and grant the foundation the title of the property subject to details provided by legal counsel. Board member Joe Hill said he had planned to recuse himself but decided it was all right to vote after he resigned from the community center foundation board three weeks ago.

Larson said the district has had an excellent relationship with the community center and the lease was a good idea six years ago.

“It gave the community center the opportunity to get a lot of stuff done that they couldn’t have otherwise, but here we are that many years later and what would be best for the community center now … is to have a clear title to the property,” Larson said.

Board member Gayla Wolfinbarger disagreed, saying she’s received calls from citizens who voted to fund construction of the new high school in 2013. Back then, Wolfinbarger said, the idea was that the old high school would be sold to offset costs of construction.

“They are not against the community center,” Wolfinbarger said. “They think they should pay for it.”

Hill said he received one phone call from a citizen who doesn’t support donating the facility. The rest of the phone calls and emails he’s received, Hill said, have been supportive of the donation. Board member Jason Morris said he received many calls and emails, too.

“They said they were under the presumption that when they voted for the new school … that we would sell the old high school building and that money would be put into the new high school,” Morris said.

Larson asked how much the district owes on the new high school building and superintendent Bryan Pruitt said the district paid $1.5 million last year to bring the total under $10 million. Pruitt said he contacted the school’s attorney and learned that the district can give the facility away now that a law has passed allowing charter schools to operate in unused school properties.

“Here, we had already started the work for the community center and, also, no charter schools ever approached us about taking over that facility,” Pruitt said.

The board can donate the facility so long as the community center prioritizes education through after-school programming and school-sponsored events, Pruitt said. He added that the community center cannot host any establishment restricted to adults over 18. The district negotiated the lease-to-own agreement for $400,000 in 2015, Pruitt said, and the community center foundation has paid a quarter of that so far.

Morris asked about the original asking price for the facility, saying he remembered it being somewhere around $1.2 million when the new high school was being constructed. Wolfinbarger said Best Western Inn of the Ozarks was offered the site for that exact figure but chose not to purchase it.

“At some point, that was the going rate for the property,” Wolfinbarger said.

McClung then read the first right of refusal clause in the document created by the district’s attorney. According to the clause, the board has the right to purchase the facility if the community center foundation cannot maintain it. In that instance, the clause reads, the purchase price would not exceed what the community center foundation paid for it.

“Right now, it’s $100,000,” McClung said.

Larson said precedent has been set for donating facilities that become community centers, saying something similar happened recently in Harrison. Morris said the city of Harrison passed a sales tax to fund the community center, and Wolfinbarger said the school in Harrison donated a facility to the city.

“It’s totally different,” Wolfinbarger said.

Wolfinbarger remembered when the district had financial problems a few years ago and had to cut teacher salaries.

“If, by chance, in three years we have cutbacks, I mean, is that really a good steward of our money if we give away something that does have value?” Wolfinbarger said.

The board then voted 4-3 to donate the facility to the community center foundation, with McClung, Larson, Hill and Candace Spaulding voting yes and Wolfinbarger, Morris and Jayme Wildeman voting no.

Davis said the community center foundation is thankful for the donation.

“We are just thrilled with the support the school board has shown us and look forward to even bigger and better things,” Davis said. “I think everybody can see the benefit of not leaving a building empty and using it for the good of the community.”

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