Public Information and Tonight’s Land Purchase Vote

Tonight the Board of Education will vote on approving the purchase of land in the proposed plat of Linden Park located along Redan Road on the west side of Madison. The Board will vote on approving the purchase of 8.234 acres for the price of $535,258.83. One provision of the agreement requires the District to offer to sell the property back to the developer at the District’s original purchase price plus the cost of improvements plus 5% interest compounded daily, if the District determines not to build a school on the site and instead to sell the property.
The Offer to Purchase this property was signed by the developer on September 23, 2005, and was signed by Roger Price for the School District on September 26, 2005. The Offer is contingent upon Board approval.
Despite the fact that negotiations over this contract were completed at the end of September, this signed contract was not available for public review until last Friday, November 4, 2005. In fact, the signed contract was deliberately kept from public review before then. A Board meeting to discuss the signed contract was held in closed session on October 10, 2005 (Ruth Robarts and I voted against going into closed session on this matter), and an open records request by Jim Zellmer for a copy of the signed document was denied.

The reason given for keeping this signed purchase document from the public was that the open meetings law permits a closed session for the purpose of “[d]eliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.” However, a 1994 Attorney General’s Opinion issued by then Attorney General Jim Doyle
indicates that while a closed session is appropriate to formulate strategy while engaged in negotiations, once a governmental body has reached a tentative agreement, bargaining ceases as does the rationale for keeping matters from the public. At that point, the opinion states “[t]he question before the governmental body is no longer what strategy the body should adopt in order to obtain an agreement with favorable terms. The question is whether it is in the public’s interest to ratify the terms as tentatively agreed to by the parties. Given that the governmental body is not actually engaged in negotiations at that point, it does not appear that “competitive or bargaining reasons” as that phrase is used in section 19.85(1)(e) exist to warrant discussing the agreement in closed session.”
I am disappointed that the majority of the Board felt it was appropriate to keep this signed contract for the purchase of land for a new school site from the public until the Friday before we are asked to vote on the contract. I would have appreciated receiving public comment on the location of the proposed school site, the cost of the site, and the conditions included in the signed agreement. In particular, I would have appreciated receiving information from the Board’s two long range planning task forces on their thoughts about the proposed site. I believe this information would help me make an informed vote on the purchase.
I also believe the public would have more confidence in the Board’s decision-making if the public could see that information was made public in a timely way, if input was sought and considered, and if important matters such as the purchase of property were discussed openly.
The purchase of a new school site is a decision with important fiscal and long-range planning impacts. It could have a significant impact on the District for decades into the future. It is a decision that should be made in the light of day, not behind closed doors.

7 thoughts on “Public Information and Tonight’s Land Purchase Vote”

  1. In light of the information presented in Lawrie’s email, I am stunned and alarmed that public discussions of the purchase of land decision did not take place sooner and in public committee meetings for all the reasons raised in Lawrie’s post.
    It would seem that an orderly, timely public process following the signing of the contract could have been developed given the lapse of time from the signing of the contract to tonight’s Board meeting.
    Unless absolutely necessary, discussions and meetings of public bodies need to be done in the public and follow an orderly process. When this is done consistently, public confidence in our decisionmakers grows.

  2. Lawrie,
    Could you move to postpone board action on the purchase until the West/Memorial task force figures it into their deliberations?

  3. I’m sorry, one more question. Given the rapid increase in the value of real estate, could the provision on reselling the property to the developer mean that the district might have to sell it back at a price below market value at the time of the sale?

  4. I am very curious about the language about the terms of re-sale should the district not build a school on the site. Anybody have ideas as to why that provision would be included? Is this standard to our other land purchases, for example?
    Lawrie, thanks for flagging this as a public issue.

  5. In response to Lucy’s question, that provision gives the developer the right of first refusal to buy back the property if the district decides to sell it. Such provisions are not that unusual but what is unusual, imo, is that the price is set in advance. In my experience (which is a bit dated), the way right-of-first-refusal clauses typically work is that the rightholder (in this case, the seller) has the option to purchase the property at the prevailing market price. The provision was included because the developer demanded it. It’s a sellers’ market and sellers have considerable bargaining power. This seller is apparently sophisticated and negotiated the option to repurchase the property at a potentially below-market price. On the other hand, perhaps the seller made concessions (e.g., lower price) in exchange for this option. Unless you know all the terms of the deal and are familiar with land values in that area, it’s hard to pass judgement.

  6. At several meetings last spring the Administration and the BOE spoke of looking for land, the difficulty in buying land, and that the district was looking at some properties.
    Those persons that have purchased land in the area Lawrie describes have been told by the developer and the real estate agents that a plot of land was set aside for future school development.
    While I do not find the purchase a surprise, for the above mentioned reasons, and I agree the area the land has been purchased in will serve the district well based on the 10 year projected growth …….I am surprised a Task Force was developed to discuss what should occur in the West/Memorial Area. Seems much to do about something already decided by the district!

  7. Right of first refusal at the original purchase price is not uncommon in school district land purchases.
    Future school sites may appear on municipal land use plans or “set-asides” may be described by developers. In the latter case, there is no guarantee that any discussions have occurred with the school district, but the idea that a school would be nearby tends to increase property values. Some set-asides as designated by developers are later found to be unsuitable for schools when formally evaluated, although are fine.

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