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Cash-strapped district trying its luck at auction

By James Briggs

A central Wisconsin school district will take whatever it can get in auction for a former elementary school.

Getting the school off the books would be victory enough.

No one has made an offer to buy the 40-year-old Castle Rock Elementary School in Adams, which was shut down for budget reasons following the 2007-08 school year. Though the building was appraised at $249,000, the Adams-Friendship School District is willing to accept much less to get the 17,000-square-foot building — and costs to maintain it annually — off the books, Superintendent Steve LaVallee said.

“If it got to $100,000, that would be a good day for us in my opinion,” he said.

It’s anyone’s guess how much money the property will attract, or what it could be used for, but those questions no longer matter to the district, which is facing a $350,000-plus budget deficit.

“We’re immediately ahead $20,000 (in annual maintenance costs) when it’s sold, plus whatever it’s sold for,” LaVallee said.

The building goes to auction Sunday and will be sold, no matter how low the top bid is, he said.

Hamele Auction Service, which is handling the sale, has never brokered a school building before, owner Travis Hamele said. Hamele said he could not disclose the names of interested bidders because of confidentiality agreements, but added people have called him with a multitude of potential uses.

“I’ve had people call for a motorcycle repair shop to boat storage,” Hamele said. “Some people just want it for the land, and don’t know what they’re going to do with the building.”

Because demolishing the school would lead to substantial environmental cleanup costs, no one has been interested in that approach, Hamele said. And although people have inquired from as far away as Virginia, Hamele said he thinks the eventual buyer will be local.

“It’s hard to inspect it for somebody that far away,” Hamele said. “We’ve had very interested parties in Madison, Baraboo and the Sauk area.”

As cash-strapped districts consolidate and close buildings, many are turning to auctions — and even online auctions like eBay — to unload abandoned schools. Last week, an Elyria, Conn., elementary school building sold at an auction for $150,000.

Such buildings lend themselves most readily to community centers or apartment developments, said Matthew Wolfert, a principal for Madison-based Bray Associates Architects Inc.

“You can turn three classrooms into two apartments,” Wolfert said.

School buildings also can be attractive to developers looking to score a great deal on an existing structure, Wolfert said.

“They may make some relatively low offers,” he said.

The building’s gymnasium could make it a particularly attractive structure, said Michael Kadow, a principal for Green Bay-based Somerville Inc.

“An elementary school is one of the more basic buildings you can convert. It’s very uncomplicated in terms of infrastructure,” Kadow said. “You’ve got a lot of open spaces and larger rooms. And if it does have a gymnasium, that opens up a whole new group of uses.”

Gyms can be used for anything from training emergency workers to administering health care, he said.

Due to the budget situation in the Adams-Friendship district, the School Board unanimously supported the decision to auction off the school building for whatever it can get, LaVallee said.

The district already knows what happens when schools sit abandoned for too long, he said, and wants to avoid that.

Adams-Friendship closed another school building in 1997 and eventually stopped maintaining it. It has become a dilapidated structure the district can’t unload, LaVallee said.

“We may, depending on how this auction goes, talk about something similar with that building,” he said. “It’s in very bad condition, and that’s what happens.”

With the district’s finances also in shambles, however, LaVallee and the School Board hope dumping its building assets might put a dent in the deficit.

“We’ve closed two schools and we’ve cut millions of dollars in the last five years,” LaVallee said. “It helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

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