In rejecting a $550,000 offer for the decaying Millikin School building by Orthodox-Jewish school Mosdos Ohr Hatorah, I think the CH-UH School Board might be making a mistake.
Millikin hasn’t been used as a public school since the ’70s; it was left vacant in 2006 when the Heights Parent Center moved out. The facility sits on the wooded boundary between a predominantly Orthodox neighborhood and Severance Center.
As the Cleveland Jewish News and other media reports indicate, the building was appraised at $2.4 million in 2006. With the value of hindsight, we now know that was at the height of the real estate bubble. In efforts to sell the building, the school district has never received an offer anywhere close to that amount. In fact, the recent offer by Mosdos Ohr Hatorah – which has wanted to buy the school from the first moment it came available – is the most anyone has offered.
But with the offer coming in at less than a quarter of the building’s appraised value, there is some logic behind the board’s rejection.
The school board and administration are showing a lot of concern lately about delivering high value to the community. Results of that effort are reflected in rising morale at the schools, improvements in standardized test scores, success in athletics and – very notably – support in the most recent school levy.
So when Superintendent Douglas Heuer says the district simply needs to get more money for the building, I accept the statement at face value. The next time the district needs to come to the community for money, nobody in the district wants to be accused of letting go of an asset at below-market value.
Instead, district officials have said they want to lease space in the building – turning it into a shared office facility, same as it has done with the former Coventry Elementary building, which closed in 2007. Keep in mind that the Millikin building is decaying badly; someone will have to spend good money for it to be useable. Mosdos Ohr Hatorah is prepared to spend $1.5 million after the purchase. The school district could probably get away with less to make it ready for office workers.
I’m sure they’ve done the math; it’s not that complicated. If the school district is rejecting a purchase offer, it’s because they believe they can generate a better return over a longer period of time by retaining the property for commercial use.
It raises the philosophical question whether a public school district should dedicate resources to being a landlord. The nationwide climate, which doesn’t favor public schools, may make such digressions a fiscal necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s wholly appropriate.
Anyway, value to the community doesn’t always have to be measured solely by money. There may be value in helping a residential neighborhood regain a community school (with a playground and ball field) – even if it’s not part of the public school system.
There may be value in helping a neighborhood fight commercial encroachment by giving it control over a facility that could serve as a non-commercial buffer.
There may be value in doing a good deed for a religious segment of our community that has not always found reason to be supportive of public school tax levies.
Right now, the school district is undergoing a facility review process that will result in a major overhaul of how each school building is used. A likely outcome will be a need for the district to borrow money to reconfigure some buildings while closing others – leaving the district with more dormant property to sell or lease.
Based on this, the district needs two things: 1) a recent record of fiscal prudence, and 2) lots of community goodwill.
This is the heart of the matter with respect to Millikin School. Fiscal prudence dictates holding out for a better price; community goodwill may mean selling it now.
In 2006, when the CH-UH School Board voted to close Coventry Elementary School, there was no such conflict. Nobody argued the need to close a school; the only issue was which one. A year-long process had patiently teased out the community’s decision on that question. And then the board ignored the community’s voice, making a decision that many still view as illogical and capricious.
As a direct result, Nancy Peppler and Eric Coble – both residents of the Coventry neighborhood – were elected to the school board on a platform of transparency and accountability to the community.
There has never been a thoughtful process to engage the community about disposal of the Millikin building. It’s not necessary; dealing with an empty building is not the same as closing a school.
But the school board has the same job: It must hear the voice of the community.
It seems to me that the community is speaking – saying that it’s OK to leave a few dollars on the table if it means Millikin will again become a school owned, maintained and cherished by the people who use it.