Orr OKs vacant school purchase
City had first right of refusal after ISD 2142 decided to sell to private firm
Tom Klein

ORR – At a special meeting on Tuesday, Orr councilors heeded the community’s wishes and approved buying the Orr School.

“There’s a lot of potential for the building,” said Grover Gillespie, who joined a packed meeting room in applauding the council’s decision.

“This gives us a chance to really plan as a community” for other uses for the site, said Leah Rogne, a resident of Greaney.

The council’s actions came on the heels of ISD 2142’s decision to accept WEP Inc.’s offer of $7,000 for the building, which has sat empty since the end of the 2010-11 school year. Several expressed concerns about WEP’s plans for the building. They feared the structure might be stripped of any assets and the city would be forced to demolish a useless and unsafe structure.

Because the city of Orr had the first right of refusal on the building’s sale, it was allowed to submit a counteroffer. The city agreed to offer $1 more than WEP for a total price of $7,001. An anonymous donor chipped in the additional dollar following Tuesday’s meeting.

The district gave the city four days to present its counteroffer — a source of contention for some councilors who said they were not told about the potential sale until late in the process.

Mayor Joel Astleford acknowledged the tight deadline, but said it forced the city to act. The city had been reluctant to buy the school because of the added costs it will incur for maintaining it. But Astleford said $7,001 for the building and 12 acres was still a deal for the city.

School sales

The Orr School is the third abandoned school to be sold by the district, which closed schools in Cook, Orr, Cotton and AlBrook and replaced them with two new schools as part of a restructuring plan.

AlBrook was sold to a private party while Cotton was sold to a community group for $7,500.

The Cotton community group presented its offer to the district after WEP Inc. had approached the district with an offer to buy the school and turn it into a paintball and roller-rink recreation center. Reportedly, the company may have had similar plans for the Orr School. When contacted by phone, WEP Inc. representative Jason “Jay” Rodriguez said he would contact his partner, Lisa Harkin, and have her return a call, but no one from WEP called back by the Timberjay’s deadline.

Board members seemed also to be in the dark about WEP’s plans for the building. Board Chairman Robert Larson said he had no knowledge of how WEP would use the school building and other board members confirmed they had not been told what WEP would do with the school.

Board member Nancy Wall Glowaski said she wanted to stall acceptance of the offer, but was in the minority on the board. Other board members were concerned they might not get other offers for the building and would eventually have to demolish the structure. Facilities director Tom Cundy had estimated demoltion would cost the district at least $250,000.

Glowaski said she wanted to give Orr more time to determine how it might use the school and she had questions about WEP.

Other area residents were suspicious of WEP’s motives, as well. The city of Orr’s research had uncovered the company’s link to several Internet-based ventures such as Tusk and Hide Safaris that had been derided as scams. Rodriguez was linked to the site because he used the same email address for Tusk and Hides as he did for his Wild Eyes Exotic Pet Store in Virginia.

Although the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department was contacted by some victims of the scam, the county attorney determines whether to prosecute. According to one source, the amounts stolen were too small to deal with when the victims were scattered across the country.

Overwhelming support

Support for buying the Orr School seemed universal at Tuesday’s meeting. “Let’s buy the school and then the school district can’t ride roughshod over us,” said John Poczekaj.

Others echoed his concerns that the school and property were too valuable to put at risk.

Irene Semen suggested a number of uses for the school, noting that the shop and art rooms could be used for classes and the gym and fitness center as an exercise area.

Mayor Astleford said there are no immediate plans for the building, but the city will not incur more expense than is necessary until something concrete develops.

A feasilbilty study to look at converting the school into a multi-government office is in the beginning stages, according to Pete Glowaski, and that may develop into a use for the building. In the meantime, the city could use some of the space for cold storage of tools and equipment, Astleford suggested.

The city will have expenses beyond the purchase price. Although water and heat would not be on, Astleford said the city would have to keep access available to the building in the winter and maintain the grounds. “Our maintenance crew is already busy, so we’d have to pay someone else to cut the grass,” he said.

There would also be a monthly charge to remain hooked up to water and sewer.

Astleford said some of the costs might be offset by renting use of the ball fields. As an example, he said teams could use the ball fields in exchange for keeping the grass mowed there.

Poczekaj suggested a community fundraiser to help support keeping the school.

School Board Chairman Larson said the district would do what it can to help.

“We want to make sure there is a smooth transition and anything the district can do to help Orr, we should,” he said.

“Get the checkbook out; I guess we’re buying a school,” quipped Councilor Lloyd Scott before making the motion to do so. His motion was approved unanimously.

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