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Southern Pines Primary School July 8, 2021. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

A pair of Moore County residents are suing to block the pending sale of the old Southern Pines Primary School campus to the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust.

The Moore County Board of Education was scheduled to consider the final step in that sale on Monday night with a vote on the preservation deed tying the trust’s use of the campus to historically relevant purposes.

But around noon on Monday, Landon White, an attorney representing BethAnn Pratte of Southern Pines and Vass resident James Moore, filed a complaint in Moore County Superior Court.

The plaintiffs are petitioning the court to issue an injunction against the sale of the school to the land trust, nullify the approved sales contract, and order that the school board dispose of the 17-acre property via competitive bidding process.

When the board convened in open session on Monday, Superintendent Bob Grimesey recommended that action on the deed be removed from the agenda. He said that he and Chair Libby Carter had received notice of the lawsuit about two hours earlier.

“The superintendent and legal counsel will need time to read and review the lawsuit before I can offer any recommendation for the school board,” said Grimesey.

The board voted in October to sell the entire campus to the land trust for $685,000, the figure identified in the property’s most recent appraisal. That decision came after months of discussing options like subdividing the property and pursuing an open bidding process. Last month the board voted 5-2 to move forward with a sale to the land trust.

The complaint filed on Monday challenges the validity of the proposed sale under the historic property exception outlined in state law. Typically the state doesn’t allow school boards to sell property to non-government entities outside of a competitive bidding process.

But the school board has moved forward with the sale to the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust as a nonprofit seeking to preserve the old school’s cultural and historic value.

A few hours after filing the complaint Monday, White presented a motion for a temporary restraining order in Superior Court to block the school board and land trust from closing on the property.

The school board was not represented; White had notified Neal Ramee, the school board’s Raleigh-based attorney, around 3:15 p.m. Even so, Judge James Webb rejected White’s request for a restraining order.

Tom Van Camp, the attorney representing Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust, filed a motion on Tuesday morning to add the land trust as a defendant in the case. On Tuesday afternoon he was in the process of filing an affidavit responding to claims outlined in the complaint.

Pratte’s and Moore’s complaint requested that the court issue a declaratory judgment evaluating the legality of the sale. While that will proceed, Van Camp said that the land trust is continuing with its due diligence toward a mid-December closing on the West Southern Pines campus.

“We have a contract with the Moore County school board and fully intend to honor our portion of it and close at the designated time consistent with the terms of the contract,” Van Camp said on Tuesday.

“Absent any type of court order prohibiting the sale, that is what we are focused on.”

As proposed, the deed includes a preservation agreement limiting the uses of the property to “advancement of and sharing of cultural and historical information about the African American community, including the African American community of West Southern Pines.”

Those can include a museum, building a replica of the Rosenwald school that began educating Black students there in 1924, advancing Black-owned businesses consistent with what existed in the community’s heyday and pre-kindergarten programs.

That’s designed to tie the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust to the purposes it has set out for the property since it began its efforts to purchase it more than two years ago. The campus was a historic center for the education of Black students before integration, first as a Rosenwald school and then as a segregated high school.

Pratte and Moore are seeking to block the sale on the grounds that the original Rosenwald school building is no longer standing, and that only the four acres at the corner of West New York Avenue and Carlisle Street served as the original campus. The complaint argues that that portion of the site would not qualify the rest of the primary school campus to be sold outside of an upset bid process.

They also object to the board selling to the land trust for $685,000 when at least two other private parties had expressed informal interest in paying more for the full 17 acres.

“The additional $265,000 funds the MCS BOE failed to realize by not accepting the $950,000 offer for SPP could have been used towards MCS facility improvements and other MCS initiatives to benefit MCS children and constituents,” the complaint reads. “MCS BOE breached its fiduciary duty to its constituents when it ignored substantially higher offers and entered into a private, non-competitive sale of SPP.”

Back in August, the board voted to sell only five acres of the campus, including the former Rosenwald school site, to the trust. The plan at that point was to proceed with selling the remaining 12 acres through open bidding. Moore County Schools staff reached out to the two other would-be buyers to gauge their level of interest in submitting a starting bid, but neither had interest in doing so.

The schools also encountered unanticipated complications in subdividing the parcel. Preliminary cost estimates indicated that closing off a system of underground pipes connecting the campus’ heating and cooling systems — components on the corner parcel serve buildings outside of it and vice versa — could cost up to $180,000. That was more than half of the agreed-upon purchase price for the five acres.

During the same period, Southern Pines Mayor Carol Haney reached out on behalf of the Town Council to open negotiations toward a possible sale of the playground area, known as Blanchie Carter Discovery Park, to the town.

At that point, school staff represented a sale of the entire 17 acres to the land trust as the simplest way to divest Moore County Schools of the property, with “the quickest path to closure.”

The complaint also accuses the Moore County NAACP of “manipulating” the property’s value with a letter to the school board’s attorney in July indicating that the organization would pursue litigation enforcing the 1924 restrictive deed limiting the former Rosenwald campus to “the use of negro education.” It characterizes potential partnerships between the land trust and local nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity toward offering affordable housing on the site as outside the bounds of appropriate restrictive covenants.

“The subsequent sale by SPLHT to any buyer is a strawman purchase wherein SPLHT attempts to purchase property through a statutory provision not available to other entities and turn around and subdivide SPP to other buyers who may not have qualified for the purchase made by SPLHT,” the complaint reads.

Board members David Hensley and Robert Levy opposed the contract approval in a 5-2 vote last month, but before that vote successfully moved to add an additional step to the process. That step, a separate approval of the deed, was originally scheduled for a vote during the board’s special meeting on Nov. 1.

After discussing the issue in closed session last week, the board tabled it until Monday.

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(3) comments

Kent Misegades

The MCS school board majority has been playing fast and loose on these sales. They deserve the lawsuit. Where are the County Commissioners? Don’t they have a fiduciary responsibility to achieve the highest return to taxpayers on sales of government property? Not mentioned here was the questionable allowance by the MCS Board of a second bid from Montessori charter on the old Southern Pines Elementary school property. They matched the much higher previous bid from Thales Academy. Good for taxpayers but highly questionable. I suspect they were mostly concerned about the effect a Thales Academy would have on our area, being a magnet to the best students and teachers and at a highly affordable cost.

Jim Tomashoff

Or maybe they didn't favor your Thales Academy because they did not think it proper to facilitate a school with the quite obvious, though unstated, objective of indoctrinating children with your stated political, social, and religious objective of anacrochristianity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_anarchism

Rebecca Townsend

Bingo! Investing in public school education is a bedrock investment in the future through our children that yields strong communities and solid property values. It's an investment in the collective good of WE...not 'us vs them/the haves vs have nots'. Whether one chooses home schooling, private, or public education should be a personal family choice that serves a child's style of learning and ought not be used to deride any student's ability or mode of education.

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