Ellensburg School Board discusses options to resolve Mount Stuart land issues
The Ellensburg School Board discussed options for dealing with restrictions on land use at Mount Stuart Elementary School on Monday.
In 1964, Ellensburg School District taxpayers passed a $994,214 bond to purchase property to build a new elementary school. After getting the property and building the school, a Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant was acquired to provide funds for the property, as long as the board reserved 19 acres of the 27-acre property as public land as a condition of the grant.
“This historical Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant has resulted in a critical land use issue at Mount Stuart Elementary school that is not compatible with the educational needs or safety of our elementary students at Mount Stuart,” former business manager Farley Walker said in a document providing background information.
The issue has come to the forefront lately because of a need for more classroom space at the elementary level. A citizens committee recommended the district address the issues involving use of the land.
HISTORY OF DISPUTE
When the parties involved initially surveyed the land, there was an error regarding how many acres of land was actually available for public recreational purpose. Although the initial documents and subsequent documents after the grant referenced 19 acres of available land, Mount Stuart only has 16.4 acres of available land to the north of the school.
The federal and state government have taken the position over the years that the school board has unlawfully managed the property and not provided the required 19 acres for public use or made the public aware of the allowed use of the property, Walker said in the in the document.
Several years ago, the school district offered to reserve 14 acres of the property for public use in a settlement, but the state and federal government would not accept the offer, Walker said.
The school board has several options moving forward, which were discussed at the special meeting Monday morning and later at the executive session Monday night.
“What we’re trying to do here is to take the best course of action so we have more options for this property and as we look toward the future,” Interim Superintendent Mike Nollan said.
One option is for the school district to use a conversion process, which means acquiring additional land to reserve for public use, either a whole parcel in the amount of 19 acres, or a combination of new property and Mount Stuart property.
Attorney Colm Nelson, who is working with the board, said the school district has enough property at Mount Stuart to comply with the grant’s federal regulations.
“I think you have options,” Nelson said. “I mean, I don’t think this is a terrible situation.”
The city of Ellensburg owns two parcels of land to the west of the Mount Stuart property totaling 3.9 acres, as calculated by school board member Jennifer Hackett. Part of the land is used for a city BMX park. If the school district could acquire that land from the city, added to the 16.9 acres north of the school, it could reserve both pieces of land for public use and be in compliance with the stipulations of the grant.
The school is required to have 11 acres of property for its almost 500 students, School Board member Jonathan Leonard said.
Although the school district already allows public use of most of the Mount Stuart property during non-school hours, one reason the school district never posted signs alerting the public to the use is because it could be a safety issue, school board member Heather Hazlett said.
“There was some perception that if you put up signs that it’s available for public use, that you’re inviting anyone and everyone to just come and hang out during school hours,” Hazlett said.
Hackett said the issue with posting signs alerting the public to their ability to use the property, is that under terms of the grant, the public property must be available for public use during all hours of the day.
This means if they used the Mount Stuart property and the adjacent city property, the public could have access to school grounds where children take physical education classes and other outdoor excursions, during school hours, which could potentially be an issue, Hazlett said.
“I don’t feel good about that as a parent of elementary school age children,” Hazlett said.
Hackett said she would like to see the Mount Stuart property remain available for future development. Because the property is in a prime location for developing the existing school or possibly adding a new school later in the future, the school district is evaluating other options.
During the meeting, school board candidate Meg Ludlum said she had been thinking about buying parcels of land to donate for someone else for preserve. She said if it wasn’t a conflict of interest, she would be interested in donating the potential land to the school board to resolve the issue.
Hackett said she had an idea regarding a potential land acquisition to work along with something the city is doing, but did not go into details during the special meeting, saying she would discuss it further at the executive session later.
Another option, Nelson said, would be to move the existing school further south on the property to provide more public land, but it could again possibly be a safety issue. Hackett said the school board may also experience pushback from voters who want to keep the old school intact, similar to pushback over Morgan Middle School.
The school board also could propose an amendment to the grant based on mutual mistake. In that situation, the school board would reach out to the state and federal government to propose a compromise and amend the grant, based on the premise that both parties made a mistake when looking at the property in the beginning.
“There’s an argument in the law to reform a contract, but it’s an uphill battle,” Nelson said. “Suffice to say, I would prefer to work with the other players.”
Nelson said the school board could also request a change in sponsor and see if the city would be willing to take over some of the land.
No action was taken Monday, but the school board will continue to evaluate options.