A pair of contentious votes on Tuesday have put the Moore County Board of Education on track to wrap up its two-year effort to sell off the four retired elementary school campuses in Aberdeen and Southern Pines.
The school board approved a contract to sell the old West Southern Pines campus most recently used as a primary school to the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust for $685,000, and another contract to sell the old Aberdeen Elementary campus on U.S. 1 to the town of Aberdeen for $900,000.
The school board declared those campuses surplus, along with the old Aberdeen Primary on Keyser Street and Southern Pines Elementary on May Street, in late 2019. At that point, the land trust’s pursuit of the old Southern Pines Primary campus had already begun.
Negotiations over the two years since have nearly been sidelined on several occasions by disputes between the trust and the school board over the property’s real value, new board members categorically opposed to the sale, and informal competing offers.
Over the last year scores of Moore County residents, especially those from West Southern Pines, have addressed the board in support of the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust’s effort to buy the campus. The property was a historic center for the education of Black students before integration, first as a Rosenwald school and then as a segregated high school.
West Southern Pines resident Donald Rich called the campus “hallowed ground” for the generations who have attended school there.
“Every person that learns how to cut a head and open a barber shop will have to thank you for your vote. Every restaurant entrepreneur that learns how to make a dish will have to thank you for giving them an opportunity,” he said.
“That person who may be downtrodden, who may not know what direction they’re going in, will have to come back to this school board if you vote and thank you for a chance. That’s all we’re asking for is a chance.”
The trust plans to keep the campus in use as a community and cultural heritage center, using some of the existing facilities and repurposing others to tie in everything from preschool to vocational training.
“Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust is offering a way to train its community, as well as surrounding communities, to be a better community,” said Nora Bowman.
Back in August, though, the school board voted to sell only five of the campus’ 17 acres — including the former Rosenwald location tied to perpetual educational use by a restrictive deed — to the land trust and divest itself of the rest through competitive bids. At the time some board members held that private verbal offers of more than $900,000 for the full campus indicated that the rest of the property could be sold for much more in a competitive bidding process.
Subsequent to that vote, those bidders lost interest in the property. Around the same time, school staff investigated the logistics of selling the corner parcel at West New York Avenue and Carlisle Street to the land trust, only to find that isolating the utility lines interconnecting buildings on the campus would be cost-prohibitive relative to the proposed sales price.
So on Tuesday the board voted 5-2 to sell the entire 17 acres to the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust outright.
Board members David Hensley and Robert Levy successfully moved to tie the eventual sale to one more school board vote once they've reviewed the deed. But they both proceeded to vote against approving the sales contract.
“I’m not going to rehash a lot of my objections to this. I would remind the board of our fiduciary responsibility, which I just did, and there are many legal issues surrounding this that I don’t feel have been properly resolved,” said Hensley.
“I don’t think that the contract is where it needs to be.”
Hensley has been a longstanding critic of the trust and its plans for the campus, but most of his objections on Tuesday night stemmed from the legal basis for the school board’s direct sale to the land trust. Typically school boards can’t sell property to non-government entities outside of a competitive bidding process. As a nonprofit seeking to preserve the old school’s cultural and historic value, the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust also qualifies as a direct buyer.
He also questioned provisions in the contract providing for Moore County Schools to receive a portion of profit from any eventual sale of the old school property, given the nature of the trust’s interest in the campus as a long-term generator for community revitalization. He also said that he wants to see a conservation easement and deed restriction oriented toward historic preservation before closing.
“Preserve what? What are we preserving? Does that mean it has to be a school?” Levy said.
“I think if I was a person who was going to sue us over this, I would probably get a recording of my own confusion and say it’s just not clear, if we have to have a preservation easement, it’s definitely not clear to me what has to be preserved.”
Weighing in by teleconference, board attorney Neal Ramee said that the easement will be added to the deed, and that fulfilling the requirements for historic preservation will ultimately fall to the land trust. He also added that state statutes don’t establish any definition of “historic value” or standards for preserving it.
“It’s up to the board however you want to deal with this, but I’d offer you assurances that if you just approve the contract, we’re going to do it right,” said Ramee.
Slightly earlier on Tuesday night, the school board completed negotiations with the town of Aberdeen over the sale of the old Aberdeen Elementary campus. That vote passed 6-1, with only Hensley in opposition.
Aberdeen’s town commissioners then moved to approve the sale themselves in a special meeting on Wednesday evening.
That sale has also been a long time in coming. Moore County Schools nearly sold the Aberdeen Elementary property for $1.5 million last year, but that buyer terminated the sale citing unexpected costs in developing the site as well as roadblocks in the approval process for its proposed mixed-use development.
Earlier this year, the town expressed interest and asked for time to investigate the site. Aberdeen followed up last month by offering to buy the old school for $853,000. The town’s plans include using the auditorium and gym for public recreation and selling portions of the remaining campus, likely under new zoning.
So the sale contract, for $900,000, will not entitle the school board or the district to a right of first refusal for any of the four smaller parcels that the town resells.
“The situation that’s unique is that the town’s plan for the site does require further development and is not specific to any public school use. This possibility that the school board would essentially block a resale of a part of the site to a developer was identified as problematic by the town,” said John Birath, Moore County Schools’ operations director.
“We do continue to believe that the odds of us needing or wanting the property back, or a portion of the surplus sale of the site, are very low and pretty much consider deletion of this provision a reasonable compromise for the additional $45,000.”
But Moore County Schools does stand to benefit through a profit-sharing mechanism devised by the district’s and Aberdeen’s legal representatives.
As approved, that provision in the contract stipulates that a portion of the town’s profits from selling any part of the property in the 15 years after closing will go to Moore County Schools.
Both the town and the school board have agreed to use the tax value of the four smaller parcels, as the basis for defining that level of profit.
“We did receive those today, they are quite generous, and if those tax values are anywhere near what the town might get our portion of that would be extraordinary, so I hope they’re right,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey.
The ratio of smaller parcel’s tax value to the $4 million tax value of the entire campus gives that individual parcel’s “sale price” as a function of the $900,000 sale price. The proportion of any resulting profits that would revert to MCS starts at 100 percent at the time of the initial sale to the town. That percentage will shift more heavily toward the town over the next 15 years
“In the case of the Aberdeen Elementary School, I think that this is going to be the best example of fair market value that the board is going to get for that property, unless there’s some very different approach that’s employed,” Grimesey said.