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Trustees vote to demolish school

| September 23, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Rejecting a last-minute plea from a local group hoping to buy the property, Libby School District trustees voted Tuesday to demolish the old high school.

The decision came on a 4-1 vote. School board members Lisa Bardole, Jim England, John Herrmann and Teri Kelly supported the motion by Bardole with Jerry Frament voting against. Kate Huntsberger recused herself from voting at the request of Duane Williams, who said there was a conflict of interest between her role as a board member and her husband, Gary, having been "a long-time proponent for demolition."

Earlier in the meeting the board voted 5-0 not to accept a $100,000 offer from Friends of Historic Libby High School to purchase the property. Huntsberger again did not vote.

It apparently ends a controversy that has stretched more than three years. But the ruling didn't come without some strong words.

Friends member Ron Carter alleged that board members lacked the power to raze the structure, particularly after citizens voted in May to approve selling it.

"You do not have authority to demolish that building," Carter said. "That was a landslide vote."

"We do have the right to dispose of surplus district property," board chairwoman Teri Kelly replied.

Superintendent Kirby Maki backed up Kelly's statement. He said the district has gone through all the legal steps to dispose of surplus property, a decision board members have the ability to make.

Maki noted that the citizen vote on Proposition 4 was advisory, not binding.

"The vote was for permission to sell the property," he said. "There was no mandate."

As emotions heated up, Friends member Donna Martin told board members, "You guys are playing dirty pool."

Kelly said during an interview that she was "highly offended" by the remark.

"I feel like we have gone out of our way to get all the information we could get," Kelly said. "For three and a half years we have said the same thing, 'Bring us a solid plan.'"

Lack of specifics in Friends' offer led to the board's rejection, Kelly said, despite Friends member Vicki Munson's contention that the group answered every question raised in the district's request for proposals.

"They were very vague about who their investors are, what the use was going to be, and very vague about their group," Kelly said.

In a renovation timeline, Friends said the building would be fully restored within 36 to 60 months. They said it would be suitable for "adaptive reuse, whether it be government offices, retail and professional offices, residences, or a combination."

"When you look at their timeline, it is so up in the air," Kelly said.

In making her motion to decline the offer, Bardole said the aging building is a liability to the school district.

Board member Frament said he voted against the offer because it simply wasn't enough money. However, he voted against demolition, saying, "I would like to see that property on the tax rolls."

Gary Huntsberger, speaking as a Libby citizen, told board members that renovating the building would be too expensive. He estimated that cost at about $6 million.

"It's just not feasible," Huntsberger said. "There's never been a proposal with any meat to it."

However, Lee Disney spoke in favor of accepting Friends' offer.

"Nobody's coming forward with anything except one group," he said. "The voters said to sell it. It's time to sell it and move on."

Todd Berget also supported Friends in their quest to purchase the building.

"I believe strongly in beautifying this community," he said. "I'd hate to see that building torn down. My heart is 100 percent in letting somebody run with it, and add it to the tax base."

Munson said Wednesday that members of Friends don't believe the issue is over. "We are exploring our options," she said.