Negotiations around the sale of the old Southern Pines Elementary School campus may be approaching a successful resolution.
School board members authorized Moore County Schools officials to continue working toward a final agreement with Moore Montessori Community School, the charter school that hopes to purchase and move into the old Southern Pines Elementary, and roundly endorsed the latest set of provisions hammered out between the district’s and Moore Montessori’s attorneys.
Moore Montessori has been the leading potential buyer for the May Street property since June, when the school’s leaders offered to pay $1.08 million consistent with an appraisal of the old campus that the school district commissioned in late 2019.
When the school board revisited the sale later in the year, as the school’s closing date approached, the Thales Academy network of private schools lodged a $1.6 million offer. Although Moore County Schools can’t pursue a direct sale with a private entity without first accepting upset bids, Moore Montessori moved to match that offer.
Board members David Hensley and Bob Levy suggested a new pair of conditions on that sale during the board’s work session last week designed to more tightly bind the old campus to public education long-term.
John Birath, Moore County Schools’ director for operations, told the board on Monday that Moore Montessori is willing to agree to one of those conditions: that any income the charter school realizes from renting out the school property be reinvested in the campus buildings and grounds themselves.
But last week board members also agreed to try negotiating for restrictive legal covenants that would tie the property to use as a public school. But due to complications that would pose in the charter school’s efforts to finance renovations and repairs on the campus, that’s not a condition it is willing to meet.
Moore County Schools has estimated that the old Southern Pines Elementary School is due for about $5 million in repairs and upgrades. Moore Montessori’s plans involve moving into the campus’ rear building as it grows to a K-6 school of about 600 students.
That would leave the dominant structure, facing May Street, to be leased to generate revenue for capital improvements and repay debt for repairs.
In a memo to board attorney Neal Ramee, Thomas M. Van Camp, the attorney representing Moore Montessori, called the restrictive covenant “a poison pill” that “would make the purchase and future improvements impossible.”
Instead, Moore Montessori has agreed to amend the “right of first refusal” clause preventing Moore Montessori from selling the school without first offering it back to Moore County Schools. As proposed, that agreement would set the purchase price at 1.6 million plus the value of campus improvements were the district to buy back the school.
“During the last work session this board set a high bar on our expectations to protect the interest of Moore County taxpayers and the students of Moore County Schools,” Hensley said. “I was pleasantly surprised that both our attorney, and Moore Montessori and their attorneys, rolled up their sleeves and came up with an amicable solution which meets the board’s intent while allowing Moore Montessori to have an agreement acceptable to them that meets their needs.”
“This agreement is a win for taxpayers of Moore County and Moore County public schools. It gives parental choice. This will offer increased educational opportunities.”
If the district turned that down and the school was re-sold to a third party within 15 years, Moore County Schools would be entitled to a percentage of the purchase price that would start at 100 percent, then diminish over time.
As proposed, the agreement would also entitle Moore County Schools to similar protections if Moore Montessori sold a portion of the campus, and to any profits realized if the property were foreclosed upon and then sold.
The board voted to authorize staff to proceed in fine-tuning the proposed agreement, and no member suggested substantive changes.
“My basic preference was always for us to retain the property and have it available for a future school,” said Levy. “This, through some hard bargaining and the like, seems to be a great compromise and I’d like to thank both counsel and Mr. Hensley for coming up with this great compromise so that we can provide great education for as many of our Moore County students as possible.”
Proceeds from the sale of the old Southern Pines Elementary, as well as the two Aberdeen schools and Southern Pines Primary, will be directed toward maintenance and improvements at aging campuses around Moore County.
“As we've just opened the portal for public comment on other very pressing needs for capital improvements within some of our other buildings, I look at that $1.6 million and I think: ‘we can get started,’ so let’s proceed with this,” Board Chair Libby Carter said of the potential sale.
The board in other business Monday voted to take public input on a list of 37 such projects that totals $8.4 million.
That’s how much Moore County Schools could conceivably fund with cash on hand in 2021 and 2022, without asking for extra funding from the commissioners, as the old schools are sold. The district has also set aside funds to make up for overruns in the cost of the three bond-funded elementary schools, but savings on the new Aberdeen Elementary School are going a long way toward freeing up those funds as well.
“With the flow of lottery and local capital that you're going to have available over the next 18 to 24 months, combined with the potential of additional supplemental revenues from the sale of your properties and any funds left over in the set-aside that we’ve held back in lottery, you're going to come pretty close to having the money to address, if the board chooses, all those projects,” Superintendent Bob Grimesey said.
That list will be available on Moore County Schools’ website, along with a form to submit feedback to the district, through Jan. 26. It includes priorities ranging from replacing the running tracks at Pinecrest, for $1.3 million, and North Moore High, at $943,000, to installing video surveillance and communication systems in 16 of the district’s older schools.
Other major projects proposed include roof replacements on buildings at Cameron Elementary, Highfalls, Elise, and North Moore, new sewer stations at Highfalls, New Century, and West End, and a new heating system at Robbins Elementary.
Levy raised a question about the discrepancy between the Pinecrest track, which is in the top 10 priorities, and the North Moore track, which falls at the bottom of the list, but posed the input process as a chance for the Robbins-area residents served by North Moore to voice their concerns.
“This is the opportunity for people, especially in the upper part of the county, to say ‘no.’ We want to prioritize things on the upper part of the county as well as the central part of the county with respect to Carthage and I think they’re deserving of that,” said Levy. “We need to make sure that we’re prioritizing the way the public wants us to prioritize.”