Group petitions to bring OMS sale back to the table

Sunday, July 29, 2018
A petition has been drafted in opposition to the school board's decision on the sale of the Okoboji Middle School property in Arnolds Park.
Photo by Seth Boyes

ARNOLDS PARK The purchase of the Okoboji Middle School property in Arnolds Park seemed finalized early last week, but a petition has been drafted in opposition to the school board's decision. The petition requests the public be allowed to vote on whether the district should sell the property to the highest bidder in an open bid process.

The board voted July 19 to approve a purchase agreement of $1.1 million with the Imagine Iowa Great Lakes highway beautification group. A second bid of $1.15 million was submitted by local businessman Neil Slater during the public hearing for the Imagine Group's proposal. However, the district was not required to accept the high bid, and the board approved the $1.1 million sale on a vote of 3-2.

"Although offered for sale, minimal effort was put forth by the school board to advertise the property, which is necessary and critical to ensure that the old school is sold for the highest price," the petition reads.

Okoboji School Superintendent Todd Abrahamson released a written response on behalf of the district.

"Assertions that the value of the property far exceeded the agreed upon purchase price are not supported by the appraisal the district had performed by a qualified appraiser prior to accepting the offer," the statement read.

The statement went on to say Slater's offer was only made verbally.

"After careful consideration of the two offers and the public comments received at the public hearing, the board of directors determined it was in the district's best interest to sell the property to (Imagine) Iowa Great Lakes," the statement read.

The sale of the property was to be used to pay down the $25 million bond for a new middle school and other district improvements, approved by the public in April. Several attending the July 19 meeting urged the board to slow the process and open the purchase to public bid. Some of those same faces banded together to generate support for the petition this week.

Slater, along with Tom Clary, owner of Clary Lake Service and former member of the Arnolds Park School Board, and Dan Croft, an employee of Clary's, were among those who began drafting the petition earlier this week. The final draft was complete Wednesday.

"Basically, the code gives the board the right to do what they did, but it also gives the public the right to challenge it," Croft said.

Clary specifically questioned the district's claim that selling to the Imagine Group was in the community's best interest.

"You don't even know what the plan is, so how can you say it's best for the city and, if you aren't getting the maximum dollars for the bond, how can you say it's best for the district? That statement makes no sense to me," he said.

Abrahamson's statement makes specific note of the Imagine Group's written sales agreement, which he said was not only written but detailed and included assurances of the group's financial backing to complete the project.

The opposing petition must be submitted by July 29 within 10 days of the board's initial action. The required number of signatures depends on the previous election turnout. Croft estimated they will need between 163 and 326, but hopes for more.

Both Slater and Croft said the petition has been well received thus far.

"I think we might be at the number but, as long as people are signing, the more the merrier," Slater said.

If successful, the petition would add an item to the ballot during the next election be it a scheduled or special election. While the petition's language specifies the sale is to be used to pay for the bond as the district intended, it lacks language allowing the district to consider the buyer's intentions for the property. The board had such discretion during the July 19 approval. Abrahamson said the school's attorney will look into whether the district would maintain that ability, if and when the petition is approved. Croft indicated another ballot item could potentially be added to rectify the language if the item makes it onto the ballot. Assuming the petition is approved, Clary recommended an impartial committee of school and community representatives not only market the property but establish bidding guidelines and interview potential buyers.

Clary said the school bond was the largest tax asking in the history of the county. He said the school board has an ethical and fiscal responsibility to secure a high sale price, while considering the best use of the middle school property, and put the property on the local tax roll.

"Doing this could shorten the life of the bond and reduce the taxes, which would be the correct approach to take," Clary said. "It's that simple."

Croft stressed the group is not opposed to the bond issue but wants the sale to be more transparent.

Slater and Clary postulated the property could bring a higher price if it went to a public bid.

"It should go to the high bidder not just my bid," Slater said. "I just opened up the can of worms."

Croft and Slater said the district high school and elementary will need improvements and repairs in the future, and getting the best price now may reduce the need for high bonds in the future.

"It's not just about one school one project," Slater said.

Croft said, even if the petition doesn't gather enough signatures of support to be considered for the ballot, he hopes the number will be significant enough for the district to ultimately reconsider the issue. Abrahamson said the board has yet to meet since the petition was drafted, and he was unsure whether the board would be willing to discuss the issue in that event.

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