In 1962, Miami-Dade Junior College officials obtained 230 acres of federal land in South Florida, part of a World War II training base that had fallen into disrepair.
The price for the choice parcel was a commitment: school officials had to build their campus there and use the property for educational purposes for 20 years. That obligation ended this month, having evolved into the main campus of the nation's largest community college, serving 14,000 of the school's 40,000 students.
"I doubt that it could happen again," says Marty Ryan, a school spokesman. "We were provided with ready and cheap access to a very large and valuable piece of property, and we made something of it."
Over the past 32 years, many types of educational facilities have been established or expanded through the largesse of the federal government. But now, under President Reagan's plans for beefing up federal revenues by selling off more unused properties, the government would no longer provide properties to educational institutions free of charge.
Under the program, Hofstra University got 88 acres of Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island, the University of Oklahoma received 620 acres of a naval training center for classrooms and athletic facilities, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama acquired 105 acres for a forestry research program, and the University of Pennsylvania took over facilities of the Philadelphia Mint.
Closer to home, the District's Ballou High School was created out of a housing annex at Bolling Air Force Base, and Stanton Elementary School in Southeast Washington and Greater Southeast Community Hospital were both built on property donated by the federal government. The Prince George's County school board established the Hillcrest Heights Special Education Center on the site of a former Weather Bureau facility and built a vocational high school on land that had been a Nike missile site. Fairfax and Prince William counties also built schools on federal property.
In testimony before a Senate committee last month, Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman justified the proposed change by saying, "in some cases donated properties are never put to the statutorily required use, primarily because grantees are unable to secure financing for development." Stockman also charged that oversight is minimal.
Gilbert E. Sailer, director of the Education Department's Federal Real Property Assistance Program, said oversight is required by the 1949 law authorizing the transactions and his department "properly" monitors the 30 to 60 transfers it makes each year.
Recipients generally have their plans reviewed within two months of the transfer and usually must implement the plans within three years. The institutions must submit annual reports on the property's use, and site visits, required every five years, often occur annually for the first few years.
If the recipient doesn't use the property for the approved purposes, the federal government, just like the local mortgage banker, may repossess the property. However, officials have generally asked property users instead to pay a fair-market-value "mortgage" for the duration of the contract. Of the 1,300 properties still being monitored, fewer than a dozen a year are repossessed or bought. Often, another educational institution is found that wants to take over the property.
"There's some uneasiness" now in the education community, Sailer said, over the president's plan. "But all we can do is wait for the the White House's Property Review board to take shape, get its staff in order, and tell us what it wants." The administration can make the policy change without congressional approval, but has not yet told the department to stop approving transfers.
Sailer said the administration has not consulted department officials about the impact of its decision to terminate the free educational transfers.
"One can hardly object to better management of federal resources," Sailer said. But he added that educational institutions often must contend with a state legislature, a state government bureaucracy or a bond issue to finance property acquisitions--factors that make open bidding difficult.
"I don't know anyone who is sitting with an overabundance of cash with nothing to do with it," Sailer said. "Those avenues take time, so it is not unusual that we have a delay between when we give up a piece of federal property and when they start building."
Currently, there is only one local property in the "pipeline"--another part of the Bolling base that the District schools would get. Sailer said he still expects about 60 properties nationwide that have already been discussed with recipients to be transferred eventually.
But, he said, "We may have to stop taking new applications soon."