Evan Thompson / The Record — Island Dance instructor Aaron Cash leads a youth class in a two-story building at Langley Middle School. Island Dance is one several organizations that rents space from the South Whidbey School District. The students, from left to right, are Claire Phelp, Keira Sherman, Freya Heggenes and Briella Oh.

Selling South Whidbey School District assets isn’t worth it, administrators say

If the South Whidbey School District is successful in leasing out all of Langley Middle School as planned, it will mean a sizeable chunk of the district’s total developed holdings — two school campuses, parts of South Whidbey Elementary School South Campus and the old district office — are now under lease.

Being a landlord is nothing new for the district, with some arrangements going back to the 1990s, but it has never done it at this scale. Administration officials and the school board, however, remain confident in the direction, saying there’s nothing wrong with the practice as long as it doesn’t affect student education.

By renting out district-owned buildings, school leaders say the district not only generates revenue but also reserves the possibility of reopening closed campuses sometime in the future. Also, there is little to gain from selling buildings because the money can only be used for capital purposes, such as buying property or building facilities. According to Assistant Superintendent of Business Dan Poolman, money saved in operating costs for district-owned buildings have no limitations; it can be used for anything from enhancing programs to hiring new teachers.

The South Whidbey School Board is unified in its position that it will not sell off district assets for a one-time revenue gain.

“Everyone I’ve been contacted by absolutely did not want to sell any property, particularly the middle school,” Board Chairwoman Linda Racicot said. “The value of it is more than its assessed value. It has potential for reuse for the community and school if needed.”

The district rents out space to Island Dance, the Whidbey Children’s Theater, Skagit Valley College, Modern K9 Training Puppy Academy, the Island County Historical Society and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program at the middle school, South Whidbey Elementary School South Campus, the old district office on Camano Avenue in Langley and the old Bayview School.

The district received $111,952.50 in revenue from facility usage between September 2016 and June 2017. Tenants are required to pay for utilities.

Being a landlord does require some investment; district officials must spend time and resources managing the properties. While Superintendent Jo Moccia said it is difficult to quantify how much time she and other administrators spend doing so, she said it’s a typical responsibility among school leaders.

“We all have many jobs to perform in our small district,” Moccia wrote in an email. “The maintenance of facilities and properties is part of the job in any organization. The board has made it clear that we will retain and maintain our assets.”

Closed buildings can be used however the district sees fit, according to Nathan Olson, director of communications for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. They can be rented, sold, left empty or used for a variety of different purposes. Olson added that district staff are assumed to be competent in their decision making and that if they were overburdened with too much work as landlords, they would cutback or stop all together.

“We trust districts to do what’s right,” Olson said. “That’s the nature of what local control is all about.”

Cutting ties with the building could also cause headaches for the district later down the road, according Island County Economic Development Council Program Director Sami Postma.

“If it’s an organization or business that comes to need one of those (properties), they may not be willing to sell those back,” Postma said.

Olivia Batchelor, a parent and eighth grade volleyball coach, said selling the middle school would reduce gym space for sports after school because there is not enough for grades 7-12 at South Whidbey High School. While she was not in favor of closing the middle school, keeping the middle school “eases” her mind for the future.

Renting out facilities is a common practice among other nearby school districts. The Port Townsend School District was forced to close one of its campuses due to a shrinking enrollment, but it is now rented by the city and used as both a police station and recreational facility. The Oak Harbor, Coupeville school districts also rent out part of their campuses to local organizations.

Northwest Educational Service District 189 Superintendent Larry Francois said it is not unusual for districts to rent or lease surplus properties to generate revenue and utilize facilities “the community has invested in rather than letting them remain empty/unused.” He also said that it’s not uncommon for districts to do “trades” with local agencies that are mutually beneficial. In other words, tenants could rent a building at a reduced cost, or no cost at all, in exchange for providing programming that supports students and families in the district.

Such is the case for the Island County Historical Society’s Langley Archive Research Center, which will be housed in the middle school. In exchange for the historical society’s work in archiving district records and digitizing class photos, the district waived a rental fee. The center will be a one-stop-shop for historical documents and records. It is expected to open this fall.

Other usages for the middle school property are being considered by the district. The district asked parents and community members to participate in an online survey which gauged interest in several possible usages, from a fitness center and a children’s museum to artist-in-residence programs and a commercial kitchen.

The results from the survey are expected to be finalized this week.