Trustees hear more old school sparring
By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter
If voters reject a May 3 ballot measure authorizing Libby School Board members to sell the old Libby High School, the building most likely will be demolished.
Superintendent Kirby Maki said Tuesday the school district does not have enough money to renovate the structure.
"If they didn't sell it, I would think the building would be torn down," Maki said after the regular monthly school board meeting.
The board is not required to act according to election results. Balloting is meant only as a barometer of community attitude on the issue.
The upcoming ballot will include the "site disposal proposition."
The ballot language reads, "The purpose of this proposition is to authorize the Trustees of Libby School District No. 4 to sell the Lincoln Building/Old High School and Band Shell consisting of approximately 1.7 acres."
Voters may choose in favor of authorizing the sale or against authorizing it. Trustee Chris Heinlein said citizens should read the proposition closely to make sure their vote reflects their intent.
Those who want the building preserved should vote yes, or "for" on the ballot, she said. Those who want the building torn down should vote no, or "against" authorization.
Although the school board has not taken a formal position, Heinlein said she believes most board members agree with the superintendent that the district lacks money for renovation.
Several estimates for demolition costs have been presented during debate on the school. On Tuesday, Maki gave trustees figures he had researched.
Those showed a salvage demolition cost of $20,000 and possibly $3,000 more for trucking expenses. Building abatement would add another $23,000 for a total of $46,000.
Maki said that presumes hiring a licensed, bonded salvage company. Payment could come from the district's building fund, which currently stands at $129,142, he said.
Earlier in the meeting, a member of Friends of Historic Libby High School estimated demolition costs at $100,000. Vicki Munson said that figure is based on previous demolition costs for a building in Eureka.
The Friends group offered a year ago to buy the property for $100,000. Friends hopes to see the building restored for use as commercial shops, offices or housing.
In response to a question from trustees, Munson said she contacted several certified appraisers to learn the property's value. However, a local realtor told her he only does residential appraisals and out-of-town realtors were not familiar with the Libby market.
An appraiser in Kalispell wanted to do a full feasibility study, Munson said, but Friends decided the $12,000 to $15,000 price was too much because they had no guarantee the district would sell the property.
She and Superintendent Maki acknowledged it is difficult to come up with a value for the building because there are no comparable properties in town.
However, Maki said he sent letters to local realtors and one responded with a $165,000 valuation for the land and building.
"Others did not want to get involved in the politics of the issue," he said.
Munson again stated Friends' position that the old school is a valuable property that could boost the local economy once it is renovated. Renovation by private investors would not require local tax money, but would be a tax boost for the city, they say.
In a flyer circulated by the save-the-building group, they said it's not true that the building would be used for low income housing or that renovation would be too expensive. Tax credits and grants would make the project attractive to developers.
They add that seismic retrofit would not be prohibitively expensive.
Gary Huntsberger, former Libby School Board member and a current Libby City Councilman, appeared before the board to again voice his preference for demolishing the building. Costs of bringing the building up to code, as well as potentially high costs to meet seismic requirements, make renovation unfeasible, he said.
Although Friends members say they have contacted business owners who would like to relocate in the old school, Huntsberger said the building is more likely to remain an unused "eyesore."
"I went to 80 businesses in the area (and) almost got 100 percent approval for demolition," he said of an unofficial survey he conducted.
Huntsberger mentioned the area's declining tax base, low average household income - 60 percent of the district's students are on free or reduced lunch, he said - and the fact that Libby has "lost virtually every industry in town" as evidence that raising enough money to match Friends' vision is unrealistic.