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School board faces increasingly complex decision to sell Asa Wood

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | February 12, 2021 7:00 AM

After continued negotiations, Libby Public School officials are still not content with a plan to raze Asa Wood Elementary School and erect an assisted living facility in its place.

During a Feb. 1 school board meeting, Superintendent Ron Goodman said American Covenant Senior Housing Foundation has proposed buying the property outright for $627,000. Under the terms of the current buy-sell agreement, the foundation would have a year to put up the money. During a subsequent Feb. 8 school board meeting, Goodman said American Covenant had agreed to shorten the contract to six months.

In a show of good faith, American Covenant would give the school an earnest payment of $100.

“Are you serious?” asked Begee Zimmerman, school board member. “I had to put more down on a house 47 years ago.”

Goodman considers the long-term buy-sell agreement disadvantageous as Asa Wood’s maintenance costs have put financial strain on the district. The diesel fuel needed to heat the school alone costs up to $20,000 annually.

School board members also suspect American Covenant’s price tag undervalues Asa Wood’s potential worth next year. Currently, the district is in the running for a Brownfields grant, which would provide much-needed funding to clean up the building. Were the district to refurbish the building using the grant, Goodman said the property could be worth $400,000 more than the foundation’s offer.

A downside of the Brownfields grant program is that it would require Libby Schools to hold onto the property until October 2022. The district also would be required to contribute $100,000 towards cleaning up the building and an underground storage tank on the property.

But Goodman has said walking away with a clean building would be worth the wait for the district. The Brownfields grant allows the school district three years to pay off their share of the cleanup, meaning a portion of the profits from the sale of the building could go toward covering the expense.

Last year, an inspection of the Asa Wood property found 13 building materials that tested positive for asbestos and an additional six that were assumed to contain asbestos. Inspectors found four mercury thermostats and identified lead-based paint on both the inside and outside of the building.

The EPA will award roughly 26 grants for cleanup projects nationwide this spring. Goodman has said the outlook for the school district is “very positive.”

Last year, American Covenant had offered to purchase the lot for $547,000 on a short-term, buy-sell agreement. The agreement was contingent on the school district covering cleanup costs associated with the demolition of the building up to $530,000. During a Jan. 4 school board meeting, Goodman said it was likely that the project would cost close to that amount, leaving the district with next to no return on the sale. Goodman has also raised concerns about what would happen to the school district’s kitchen on the Asa Wood property were American Covenant to purchase the lot.

Last summer, American Covenant proposed to build their assisted living facility inside the existing Asa Wood building. Gerald Fritts, chief executive officer for the foundation, said the center would house 45 units and create around 22 jobs. The plan would allow the school district and other community groups to continue using the property.

Libby Food Pantry, Libby Area Community Garden and the Girl Scouts are among the organizations that rely on Asa Wood. American Covenant’s plan would have accommodated a 5,000-square-foot pantry and a kitchen for the school district.

Goodman said school officials will continue negotiations with American Covenant.