No, the Ashland School District is not offering Briscoe Elementary to the highest bidder, nor is a deal in the works to develop condominiums on the property.
School Board chairman Jim Westrick is familiar with the rumors, which is only part of the reason why he believes it’s important the public participates in an upcoming community forum regarding the 34,000-square-foot conundrum that sits on Main Street just above the Plaza.
The district-sponsored forum is scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at the Ashland High School library, where stakeholders will be invited to share their opinions about what the district should do with the brick building, which closed its doors to regular school operation in 2003 and is due for an estimated $3 million worth of deferred maintenance.
“I know that back in 2003 once they closed it, they were looking at what are the ways that they can maximize the return for the property, but that’s really not our question right now,” Westrick said. “Our question right now is how do we best serve our mission and how are we also going to be a good community partner and a good neighbor without sacrificing that mission to kids? It’s a different balance, I think, than the question back 14 years ago.
“We want to be a good neighbor. We also have a fiduciary responsibility to spend our money and our resources in accordance to our mission, and we want to find a good balance for that.”
The fate of the Briscoe property is up in the air after the district’s facilities committee last year began analyzing its assets and properties ahead of the 2019 expiration of the $46.8 million bond passed in 2006. According to the committee’s most recent facilities report, issued during a meeting Feb. 8, Briscoe has two tenants — the Oregon Child Development Center and Lithia Arts Guild — and has netted for the district an average of $147,209 annually each of the last five years.
Those profits could turn into deficits soon, however, if the district decides to keep the building. An internal review conducted by the district’s maintenance staff in 2014 revealed that Briscoe had a host of deficiencies that cannot be shelved in a district-owned building, including asbestos, a roof that must be replaced, electrical work in need of an overhaul and leaking windows. The roof alone, according to the Feburary report, would cost “at least” $300,000.
“In any given year you might look at one year and say, ‘Oh, Briscoe turns a 'profit' for the district,” Westrick said. “But over the long term, there’s no way that this building is going to be profitable for us. And the other fact is, our mission as a district is not to buy investment properties and be a landlord. It’s to serve the students.”
Melissa Mitchell-Hooge, who helps run a community group called Save Our Schools and Playgrounds, was one of seven people to address the topic during the public comment portion of the last School Board meeting, April 12.
To Mitchell-Hooge, who spoke in support of keeping Briscoe and Lincoln when the issue was last raised in 2004, the buildings are important assets for the community. She floated one possible use of Briscoe suggested by a former School Board member — to move the district offices there in order to free up space for more classrooms at Ashland High School — and lobbied for a permanent solution.
“It is also important to keep in mind that whatever happens to the building has ramifications for the playground and playing field and the two are very much interrelated," she said. "For example, we would like to see the playing field, which is used for soccer and other sports, remain a playing field and not be turned into a parking lot.”
Another Ashlander, Beth Geismar, also asked the board to consider the ramifications of selling the property.
“We know that Briscoe playground is a vital resource in this community,” Geismar said. “It’s a meeting space for people, it’s a playing space for people of all ages, and it’s an important gathering spot. It’s very, very important to us not to see it turned into condos and parking lots.”