October 28, 2021

Voters to decide Parker School’s future

Cortland Standard file photo

Parker Elementary School in Cortland. File photo.

Should the Cortland school board sell the former Parker Elementary School to the city of Cortland?

That question now goes to voters during a special referendum from noon to 9 p.m. March 31 at the Kaufmann Center at 1 Valley View Drive.

All registered voters who live within the Cortland Enlarged City School District — an area that extends beyond the city itself — can participate.

The school board voted to put the question up to referendum at its Feb. 11 meeting; the item regarding the Parker School was added to the meeting’s agenda that afternoon and voted on that night.

The Cortland Common Council voted Jan. 7 to buy the building, contingent on approval from the school board and from voters, as well as completion of an environmental review and a certified building inspection — expenses that, according to the Common Council, would not be picked up by the city.

However, Mayor Brian Tobin said this week the city can use previously secured state grants to conduct the environmental review. Neither school nor city officials have explained who will pay for the certified building inspection or said when it would be completed.

The city plans to use the former school to house child-care programs run by two nonprofits, the YWCA and CAPCO, as well as administrative office space for the city.

The city has already been allocated $500,000 from the Empire State Development fund for the project. Grants of this type, however, are paid after a project is completed, which the city, on its application, estimated would cost about $4 million. City officials previously said the project would require $2 million in capital expenses over 10 years, as well as $460,000 in start-up expenses and $166,000 in annual operating costs.

A memo prepared for the Common Council by Mack Cook, the city’s director of administration and finance, estimated the building would require as much as $290,621 in annual debt service cost to “the building owner” — that is, the city. The memo also outlines other potential expenses, such as a diesel tank that may still be buried on the property, as well as abatement of vinyl asbestos tile.

The $4 million estimate included every possible cost associated with the project, Tobin said.

Tobin is working with state officials tobreak up the $500,000 grant into stages, such that the city would receive a portion of the total grant — $200,000 — after completing $1 million of the project. Tobin said the project would require $1 million to make the building ready for the YWCA and CAPCO. He said he hopes the building will be open for use this summer.

State Assembly Member Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) said she is trying to obtain $600,000 for the project; she has applied for the money through the State and Municipal Facilities Program of the New York State Dormitory Authority.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) also said in September he would find money for the project.

In addition, YWCA and CAPCO recently received $629,889 in state funds to train employees and “stabilize and expand the early learning (birth-5 years) care system” — programs that would be housed in the Parker School if that project comes together as planned, said Kelly Tobin, executive director of YWCA Cortland.

The use of the school building is restricted because of New York State Dormitory Authority bonds, which:

• Allow the city to buy the Parker school for a nominal price, $91, or $1 for every year the school was in operation.

• Allow the city to rent the building to private tenants, provided the city does not profit from the arrangement, and charges tenants only operational costs for the building.

• 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 bond restrictions would also require that the city occupy the building through Oct. 1, 2032, but district Superintendent Michael J. Hoose has said the bonds would be paid off in five years, which would release the city from these conditions.