October 22, 2021

Parker plan pondered

City mixed on moving forward with school project

Kevin Conlon/city editor

A runner passes the former Parker Elementary School on Madison Street in Cortland on Wednesday. The city is considering resuming a plan to buy the building to lease to child-care providers.

While the city of Cortland hasn’t taken any action on converting the former Parker Elementary School into an early childhood center since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cortland Common Council is mixed about how and when to move forward.

Mayor Brian Tobin said Tuesday that having spoken with executives from CAPCO and the YWCA of Cortland — the two organizations looking to use the facility — the parties remained interested in continuing with the plan for the city to buy the building from the Cortland Enlarged City School District and then lease it to the organizations.

“So with a large structure like that, an opportunity to do something with kids is a great opportunity to continue to build on the momentum we have,” improving the area with Suggett Park across the street, Tobin said.

He mentioned the recent upgrades and renovations to the Wickwire Pool pool house and splash pad as some of the work that has happened nearby this year.

He proposed that the council consider a resolution Sept. 21 to issue a request for proposals for architectural and engineering drawings of renovations and updates to the building.

That’s too quick, said Councilperson John Bennett (D-4th Ward)

“I personally do not even want to entertain the thought for the remainder of this year,” Bennett said.

The city should wait until next year when new council members and a new mayor are sworn in.

In particular, Bennett did not want any issues or concerns brought up now to be left with the new council members, including what debt the city may incur.

Tobin said Wednesday the city has received $1.3 million grants to help make the building compliant for early childhood education standards, although no costs were available for the work.

Bennett also wanted the city to delay action until Tobin was out of office because, Bennett said, the project presents a conflict of interest. Kelly Tobin, Brian Tobin’s wife, is the executive director of the YWCA in Cortland.

Brian Tobin has previously noted his wife’s connection in the project and said he believes their relationship wouldn’t create a conflict of interest.

“The mayor has always said this isn’t a conflict of interest, and I’ve always supported you, Mr. Mayor, but I do disagree,” Bennett said. “I do believe there’s a conflict of interest. And that’s another reason why I think this should not be brought up again until there’s a new mayor in place.”

Councilperson Bruce Tytler (D-3rd Ward) said he would like to see talks and the project move forward, even if at an incremental rate.

Tytler said he wanted to make sure the city wouldn’t be left paying millions of dollars in renovations.

Tobin said that the goal is for the city to acquire the structure, sell it rather than act as a landlord.

Councilperson Troy Beckwith (D-7th Ward) was in favor of moving forward with the project but that funding shouldn’t be left to Cortland residents.

“It all comes down to not putting a burden on the taxpayers,” he said.

No action was taken following the discussion and no commitments were made.

The 50,000-square-foot school closed after the 2019 academic year as the district consolidated five elementary schools into three buildings; Virgil Elementary School also closed.

In June 2020, voters in the school district approved the sale of the building for $91 — a dollar for every year of the school’s existence — to the city.

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.