October 26, 2021

Road cleared for city to buy school

Joe McIntyre/file photo

Parker Elementary School in Cortland. File photo.

The future of the former Parker School could become more clear Tuesday, if the Cortland Common Council decides to move toward buying the building from the Cortland Enlarged School District for a nominal fee.

The council’s upcoming discussion follows written assurance from the New York State Dormitory Authority, which issued bonds connected to the Parker school, on possible legal uses of the building.

The council, with the guidance of a 11-member task force, has been trying for more than a year to find a productive use for the building, which the school district closed in June when it consolidated five elementary schools into three buildings, a move that also shuttered the former elementary school in Virgil.

But despite proposals for the city of Cortland and the town of Virgil to buy the buildings, the future of both schools has been beclouded by legal uncertainty regarding bonds that restrict how the buildings might be used if they are not sold in arms-length transactions.

Two separate bond attorney opinions — one produced for the school district, the other for the city — failed to clarify matters, but the Dormitory Authority responded with a certificate which, if signed by the city, would:

  • Allow the city to buy the Parker school from the school district for a nominal price, $91, or a dollar for every year the Parker school was in operation.
  • Allow the city to rent the building to private tenants, provided the city does not profit from the arrangement, and only charges tenants operational costs for the building.
  • Require the city to occupy the building through Oct. 1, 2032.
  • Prohibit the building from being used for religious purposes.
  • Require the city “to take actions deemed necessary or advisable” by the Dormitory Authority regarding tenants, fees and the number of days tenants can use the building.
  • Compel the city to pay “legal fees and settlement costs” if the authority determines the city violates any provision of the agreement.

The city plan for the Parker school calls for the 50,500-square-foot building to be used by two nonprofits — the YWCA and Cortland County Community Action Program — as a child-care facility.

“That letter affirms what we thought and what we asked,” Mayor Brian Tobin said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the community.”

Tobin has expressed concern about the effect the vacant building would have on the neighborhood. Using it as child-care facility would turn it into “a positive addition to the community as opposed to a drain,” he said. “This is a piece of the vision we have to revitalize the core of our city.”

Kristina Gambitta, chairwoman of the Parker school task force, said she was also happy. “We’ve been advocating strongly for the past few months to make that happen,” she said.

Cortland schools Superintendent Michael Hoose said the reply from the Dormitory Authority did not apply specifically to the Virgil school, but he said the school would appear to be subject to similar constraints. Hoose said he is awaiting a specific response from the state.

Similar restrictions would “tie the hands” of future town boards, Virgil town board member Jereme Stiles said.

“We’ve definitely got some questions that we want answered before we decide to go in any direction,” he said.

Another problem is that “you can’t generate revenue from it,” Stiles said. “We’re trying to look after the taxpayers right now.”

Virgil officials have considered a plan to buy the school for a new town hall and town court, while renting out the rest of the 34,600-square-foot building. The building is now used by the Cortland Child Development Center to host a before- and after-school child care program.

Sylvia Cook, a Virgil resident closely involved with the effort to find a new use for the former Virgil school, said she and other residents will host a Christmas caroling event from 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 22 on the steps of the Virgil school to remind residents of the central place the building occupies in the community.

“I wanted to get people in the mind- set of that’s what we want that building for — for the community,” she said.