WM city, school officials far apart on purchase price for new school property
New consolidated Wonder- Jackson facility needs a home
The West Memphis School District has big plans to combine two of its elementary schools under one roof with a brand new facility.
The question that the district and city officials attempted to answer last Thursday was where, exactly, would the new school be built.
While attempting to address the issue last Thursday afternoon, a bit of brinkmanship played out in West Memphis City Council chambers. City schools district-wide have undergone renovation and rehab in recent years and the schools on the southeast end of the city are next in line. Wonder Elementary and L.R. Jackson Elementary schools are being merged by the West Memphis School District.
School officials have narrowed their choices for the school’s location down to a final list. The site being discussed last week sits along the south side of East Broadway between 13th and 14th streets. Placing the school there would necessitate the district acquiring the city-owned Hightower Park and the currently-closed Roberta Jackson Neighborhood Center. In a bid to purchase the properties from the city, the school district offered the city $125,000 for the park and the boarded-up neighborhood center, along with a small 10-year-old building and three acres at Jackson Elementary.
Mayor Bill Johnson had been instructed by City Council to negotiate a better deal with the school district and at the meeting came back with a counter offer. He said time was of the essence for the school board. The school board’s own realtor’s synopsis eliminated consideration for moving the school south a block because negotiations and legal work “could potentially take us past the start deadline the state has established.” The mayor told city council that the school district had issued a 4 p.m. deadline that afternoon, just a few hours after the council convened for the meeting that day.
“We’ve been talking about this quite a while,” said Johnson. “They are running against their time limit on getting their money from the state.”
Councilman James Pulliaum countered the offer, upping it to $200,000 plus a small building on the southwest corner of the existing Jackson Elementary campus, at the same time voicing a complaint about the process.
“We’ve had plenty of time to do what we needed to do, but none of us did anything,” said Pulliaum. “The schools have, too. I’ve been following this for over a year. This is not even a fair market price for it.” Pulliaum pointed to the cost for a block fronting the 500 block of Broadway the city just purchased for its new library for comparable pricing.
“It added up to $500,000, so why are we going to sit here and take this kind of money, a $125,000 for all of it?” asked Pulliaum.
Councilman Willis Mondy said the location wasn’t what the community had hoped for. The Broadway frontage was considered too hazardous with traffic volume.
“We told (West Memphis School Superintendent) Jon Collins , we did not want it in the first block anyway,” said Mondy. “If they move it somewhere, else so be it.
If they take our park and if they take our community center and give us nothing for it, then I am not for it.”
The school board’s architectural assessment did, in fact, place the location, designated site B in a portfolio handed out to the council last month, at the top of its list as Mondy had pointed out.
“Site B offers the best utilities access, the path of least resistance regarding owner/resident displacement, and gives the community an anchor point on the Broadway frontage that could serve as an economic development driver for this neighborhood and location,” Mondy recalled from the report.
Pulliaum said he felt the community was being marginalized as it stood to lose a neighborhood park and community center and growled about the lastminute sense of urgency.
“We still need something in our community,” said Pulliaum. “We don’t need to be pushed into a corner.
When the school asked alumni to go out and find a location, they did that. But it was a waste of time because
they wanted the first
block all the time.
$200,000… they should have appraised the land and the building and they did not .”
The city council split 6-4 on inserting $200,000 into a counter-offer to the school board. The vote reflected racial complexion of on city council. Voting for the increased counter offer were council members McClendon, Mondy, Hutchinson, Robinson, and Harris. Voting against were Councilors Holt, Croom, Catt, Taylor.
The school board received the counter offer but had no subsequent meetings planned to take the matter under consideration. School Board President Gary Masner said the board had not met.
“I’m just one person and it is a board decision, but (the city council) appears to have made it just too costly,” said Masner. “We picked the site as a central location and to be an asset to the community out on Broadway. It hasn’t been decided because we have not met, but we will probably just build on property the school district already has.”
The school district had a contingent plan in its pocket for a complete demolition and rebuild at the current L.R. Jackson location and to consolidate Wonder elementary into it.
But officially, the contingency has not been acted upon.
The no-sale leaves the city with the remaining issue of what now to do about revitalizing the vacant neighborhood center.
Councilman James Pulliaum discussed the options for the city during a stroll around the neighborhood center and through Hightower Park Thursday afternoon
“We had plans and money set aside to renovate the building along with interests from a group focused on our senior citizens,” said Pulliaum. “That’s all still there.”
As he looked around the park and the families on the playground next to the neighborhood center he remarked
on the property’s importance to the community
“This,” he said, “has been our most used neighborhood
By John Rech