I have been following The Pilot’s reporting on the potential sale of the two Southern Pines school campuses to two different nonprofits.
In West Southern Pines, a group has formed that is seeking to preserve the existing school buildings and repurpose them for the use of a variety of nonprofit organizations.
For the May Street campus, the existing Montessori charter school has expressed an interest in acquiring those school buildings to provide a permanent home for the charter school.
As I have thought about both of these acquisition efforts, I have had mixed emotions. I have long been a proponent of historic preservation. My wife and I purchased and renovated a historic home in McKinney, Texas. Following renovation, we were so proud to have our home selected for the annual McKinney Christmas tour of historic homes.
Professionally, as part of the city management team in McKinney, I worked on the development of a historic district that encompassed both commercial and residential areas of the city. This district has continued to thrive and prosper as the city has grown from 16,000 to 208,000 residents.
Likewise, I have a very real connection to Montessori education. Our son attended a Montessori school for several years as he was growing up. We found that he thrived in that setting. His years in a Montessori setting established a basis for his later academic and professional success.
Thus, I am not unsympathetic to the goals of the two groups seeking to acquire the West Southern Pines and May Street campuses. However, I have had other life experiences that really make me question the wisdom of both groups’ pursuit.
There is a reason the school system has gotten out of these schools. They comprise old buildings with outdated systems that are expensive to maintain and will be even more expensive to thoroughly renovate.
During my years in city management, I was responsible for the maintenance of dozens of facilities, many of which were old and outdated. They got that way because, even for an entity that had the power to tax, it was a constant struggle to come up with funds year after year to do the kinds of preventive maintenance necessary.
But my experience with old buildings was not limited to my vocation. I have also served on a number of nonprofit boards over the years. Building maintenance was even more of a struggle for these nonprofits than it was for a municipality.
And there was nothing unusual about this state of affairs. Right now, my spouse runs a large nonprofit housed in a 30-year-old office building. She is grappling with how to pay $1.2 million to replace leaking windows and other deferred maintenance. And as she is discovering, no one wants to give a grant for building maintenance, nor is she being inundated by wealthy donors who want to write big checks to replace windows.
All of which leads me to my biggest concern for the nonprofit groups seeking to acquire the Southern Pines school sites: Can anyone expect that they will be able to have the funds not just to acquire the sites and do an initial renovation, but will they be able to sustain the heavy maintenance burden for decades to come? In their own marketing campaign, the group seeking the West Southern Pines campus identifies $4.8 million in deferred maintenance costs on that site alone.
My fear is that if either nonprofit acquires one of the school sites, the surrounding community will witness a slow decline in the physical state of the buildings, which will not be good for anyone, particularly adjacent property owners.
A better alternative may be for the school sites to be purchased by a for-profit developer who would have the financial wherewithal to comprehensively redevelop the sites. There are many historic schools around the country that have been creatively renovated and repurposed while maintaining their physical fabric.
Another advantage of such a sale is that the sites would be sold to the highest bidder instead of using the non-competitive process sought by both nonprofits. This approach would likely increase the amount of money the school system would receive and decrease its need for funding from other sources, like county taxpayers.
And for the nonprofits, not being saddled with old buildings could allow them more resources to focus on the services that they seek to provide rather than devoting a disproportionate amount of their resources to ongoing maintenance costs.
Kyle Sonnenberg, who served as Southern Pines town manager from 1988 to 2004, has returned in retirement after a three-decade career in city management in three states.