Should the Longview School Board decide to consolidate high schools and sell Mark Morris to finance the merger, an Arizona developer says he ideas for the property, and he’ll share them April 9 at the annual meeting of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council.
Those plans don’t include buying it himself, say several people who know Don Cardon, Longview’s former director of community and economic development.
According to the Cowlitz Economic Development Council’s March newsletter, Cardon “has a vision for what could be for downtown Longview and a potential redevelopment of the Mark Morris property that we feel it is time to share with the larger community.”
Ted Sprague, president of the CEDC, declined to give a sneak peek at Cardon’s vision Thursday. “We want to keep our powder dry until the 9th,” he said.
Cardon did not return phone calls for comment this week.
Longview School Superintendent Suzanne Cusick said she’s not in the loop.
“I’ll be there (at the April 9th meeting),” she said Thursday. “It will be unveiled to me as well.”
She said she’s aware that Cardon’s development firm has shown some interest because in December he asked her about assessed property values, “but I am not aware of what his ideas or his vision might be.”
Board member Barb Westrick, though, said she’s disturbed by rumors that a deal has already been made to sell Cardon the property, partly because Cardon and School Board President Jerry Stinger are old friends.
“I’m hearing information from all kinds of people that there’s inside talk going on about it,” she said Wednesday.
Cardon is trying to buy property near the Columbia Theatre to create apartments for use by international students at Lower Columbia College. Westrick said she’s heard rumors that if the deal doesn’t go through “he’s going to look elsewhere, and I’ve heard that elsewhere maybe is us.”
Sprague denied the rumors.
“As far as I know, there’s no talk of buying (the MM property),” he said Thursday. “We’re saying if this happens someday, here are the potential opportunities for this site. (The CEDC is) not pushing for it and we’re not against it, but it’s our job to look at potential opportunities. It’s the CEDC’s job to say, ‘What if? ’ ”
Stinger also emphasized that Cardon has not made an offer for the MM property.
“If he comes forth with an offer — if that happened — I’m open to every option on the table,” Stinger said this week. “But I’m one vote of five, and we have very independent thinkers on the board.”
One of them is Westrick, who said she is losing sleep over the issue.
“I’m hearing all this stuff and I kind of want to know what’s true,” she said. “It sounds like there’s these secret things going on, and it’s starting to really bother me.”
The board will be spending the next several months studying a recommendation from the citizens Facilities Planning Committee to merge the high schools onto the R.A. Long-Monticello campus, send the Monticello kids to the other two middle schools and close Northlake Elementary School and Broadway Preschool. The committee recommended selling Mark Morris and either Northlake or Broadway to pay for the merger, which would require about $20 million in new facilities at the Monticello/RAL campus. The committee also noted that a bond sale will also probably be necessary.
Merger proponents point to steadily declining enrollment, reduced state funding, a 25 percent unused building space and a chance to add classes by restructuring the schools.
Opponents say enrollment could rebound, closing Monticello would be disastrous for its high-poverty student population and smaller schools are better for kids. They also question whether the merger will end up saving much money.
The board is not expected to vote on the recommendation before August, at the earliest.
“This is the biggest decision we have to make since they built Mark Morris High School” in 1957, Westrick said. “I don’t want, 10 years down the road, to say it was a horrible mistake.”
She said Stinger and Cardon’s friendship bothers her because it affects “the perception of the public.”
Stinger acknowledged that he and Cardon are very good friends. They both worked for the city of Longview, Stinger as recycling coordinator, Cardon as the director of community development and executive director of the Longview Housing Authority.
“Most of the community knows Don very well,” Stinger said. “He lived here 17 years.”
Despite the friendship, Stinger said he would not abstain from voting if Cardon makes an offer.
“There’s no financial benefit to me whatsoever in respect to Don,” he said.
Board rules require that members must recuse themselves from a vote if personal financial gain is involved.
However, Stinger sad he doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse. First the board has to thoroughly study the issue and gather public opinion before making a decision, he said.
“I think it’s the responsibility of the board of directors to create options to solve problems,” he said. “We’re trying to go through some of the issues — like the boundaries, busing, costs. We’ll have demographics and other issues we’ll be studying.”
The board is having a professional appraisal made of the Mark Morris property, he said. The facilities planning committee was using the county assessor’s value of $18 million when making estimates.
“It’s something we need to have,” Stinger said. “We need to see what the value of the property is, regardless of what happens here. But it doesn’t mean we’re going to sell the property.”
He said the decision on school closures and consolidation is separate from a bond issue and will not require a public vote, as a bond sale would.
“It’s the role of the elected official to be able to make this kind of decision,” he said. There’s a huge amount of data to study, and “it’s difficult for the public in general to be able to go through all the information that’s there.”
Westrick, however, would like a public advisory vote before she votes on the recommendation.
“Jerry promised us we’re not going to do any vote until everybody’s comfortable they have all the information they need,” she said.