Prince George's County officials say they may be on the brink of opening serious negotiations for the sale of eight schools closed in the past two years because of declining enrollment.
Irv Smith, an assistant to the county executive, said the response to an advertising campaign launched last fall to sell or lease empty schools has been "pretty good." He said the campaign has attracted wide-ranging proposals for use of the buildings, including housing for the elderly, professional and business office space, private schools, nursing homes and light industrial factories.
While Smith said that he could not reveal the size of the bids or the names of the firms or groups interested in the properties, he noted that the county had gotten between 30 and 40 proposals for the eight schools -- Ager Road, Somerset, Temple Hill, Edmonston, O.W. Phair, Silver Hill, Lakeland and Wildercroft elementary schools.
In the past, the county has had troubles getting rid of closed schools. Not one of the 28 schools shuts down in Prince George's during the past eight years because of the declining student population has been bought or leased by private businesses or developers.
Smith said that companies have opened negotiations but then tucked away from closing deals because of high removation costs, lack of air conditioning in the schools, difficulties with zoning laws and opposition from local residents.
As a result, most of the schools either have been left vacant or have been turned into municipal and county offices. Some have been heavily damaged by vandals.
The county would complete its first deal with a private buyer if the Merust Corp. of Silver Spring signs a contract for the Somerset Elementary School in Bowie. Merust would pay $500,000 for the building which has an assessed value of $710,000 and a bonded indebtedness of $337,000.
The developers plan to convert the building for use as housing for the elderly, but some residents of the surrounding community have opposed multifamily housing in the area.
In addition, county officials and the company still are negotiating over the number of units the firm should be allowed to place on the site. The company originally proposed 35 units, then decided it wanted more.
While the county has searched for alternative private sector uses for the schools many have become targets for vandalism.
"I toured 14 schools and couldn't find one that did not show signs of some degree of vandalism," said Smith. "The Langley Park Elementary School looks like a bombed out building from World War II."
Smith estimates that it will cost the county about $100,000 to repair the school, which eventually will serve as a recreation center for the surrounding communtiy.
The vandalism has worried residents of the neighborhood, which lies just outside of Hyattsville.
"With TRIM and inflation, we're very afraid that the county won't be able to come up with the money to make the repairs," said E. Ray Shelton, president of the Langley Hampshire Civic Association. "If they can't find the money, we'll never get a recreation center.
Historic precedent could bear out Shelton. Two years ago, the county was forced to raze the Cottage City Elementary School after the building was almost completely destroyed by vandals and arsonists.
However, not all of the closed schools have met such bitter fates. For example, in Bowie, the city government converted the Foxhill Elementary School to a municipal service center. In addition to the city government offices housed in the building, the YMCA, the Jaycees, the Women's Counseling Service and the Association of Retired Citizens been leased space at below-market rates.
"We were crowded into a 250-year-old manison before we moved here," said Bowie City Manager Charles Moore. "It was a very uncomfortable arrangement because we had to lease extra office space spread out all over the city."
Although the debt on the Foxhill school was $400,000, the county deeded the building to the city of Bowie for $10.
We had to make several improvements on the building, but I think we got a pretty good deal," said Moore. "Everyone is really pleased with the way it has all worked out."
In a few cases, the county has allowed school buildings to be used by private non-profit organizations.
For example, the United Cerebral Palsy Association has used the Whitehall Elementary School as its main education and therapy center in Prince George's for the past two years. The organization leases the building for $1 a year even though the debt on the school is at $140,000.
The bonded indebtedness on the closed schools is a key issue in determining the fate of buildings because the state holds the county responsible for outstanding debts. The state lose money if it is unable to sell or lease a building at a rate sufficient to pay off the indebtedness.
And there lies a major difficulty in selling closed schools. Because the county must make enough money from the buildings to cover the bonded indebtedness, buyers already facing rezoning battles and high costs for renovation often are discouraged by the price tags on schools.
The indebtedness may range from nothing on some of the older schools to nearly $400,000 on some of the closed schools built during the population boom of the 1960s.
Despite the obstacles, county officials believe that private businesses eventually will buy most of the schools.
"We're very optimistic," said Smith. "The county is willing to work with businesses on the rezoning problems and I think potential buyers can't help but see the financial advantages of buying a closed school, especially since the costs of new construction and private leased space are climbing."