Astoria School District to research appraisers; church eyes propertyDeciding what to do with the Olney School has been a "gorilla in the closet" for the Astoria School Board.

But in an emotional discussion during Thursday's meeting, board members took a tentative step forward in determining what should happen.

On the advice of the district's attorney, the board requested Superintendent Mike Sowder investigate appraisers, and check their experience levels, so that the board could possibly hire someone to assess the value of the school and property.

"We need to not only know what it's worth, but what people can do with the property," Attorney Dan VanThiel advised in a conference call with the board.

In the 4-0 vote, David Kaspar, Ken Chapman, Bob Ellsberg and Bob Johnson voted in favor; Laurie Choate abstained.

"We have not as a board, or with the Olney community, discussed getting rid of that property," Choate said after the vote. "At the Nov. 20 meeting we talked about using the facility as a land lab ... six weeks later we're making plans to eliminate it."

Choate said she would like to have a discussion about the long-term use of Olney before the board moves ahead.

"In order to carry on any discussion about an asset, you have to know the value of it," Kaspar, the chairman, responded.

Ellsberg said that the worst thing the board can do is let the place rest to death.

"Central school degenerated into a bunch of bees, honey and rot," he said.

Central closed in 1977-1978 school year, although it wasn't sold until the mid 1990s. The Central sale was also the last time the Astoria board had to dispose of a closed school.

Sowder emphasized that researching an appraiser doesn't mean the board is necessarily going to hire one, and it doesn't mean the board is necessarily going to sell the property.

"I've been involved with this three separate times in three different communities," Sowder said. "In each case, we gave it to the community."

During the discussion, Chapman - saying he didn't want to be a part of making Olney into a shrine - asked to withdraw the earlier motion which allowed Sowder to research appraisers.

The motion to withdraw failed. Johnson and Ellsberg voted against withdrawing the motion; Choate and Chapman voted for withdrawing the motion; Kaspar abstained. Because it was a tie, Kaspar, as chairman, was required to vote. He voted against withdrawing the motion, effectively allowing Sowder to research appraisers.

Board members were not the only ones concerned about the fate of Olney Thursday.

Judy Fisher, a second-grade teacher at Lewis and Clark and co-president of Astoria Education Association, said the Olney community is one of the only areas in Astoria that still has large tracts of land to accommodate growth.

"I know the school is in a tight budget time, but I hate to see us do something drastic in the next year or two," Fisher said.

Ellsberg said that school enrollment didn't drop to nothing in 10 years, and isn't going to go back up again in 10 years either. So it is unlikely the school would need to be reopened in the near future.

Geoff Schmidt, assistant pastor at Coastline Christian Fellowship, attended because he said his church might be interested in the real estate.

"We're growing out of the building we're in now," he said. "We heard it was sitting vacant for some time, and we're looking into different options."

Schmidt said the church is looking at other properties.

The Olney school is a 24,000 square-foot building resting on 26 acres. A three-bus garage is also on the property.

In other news:

• Sowder said he is putting together a committee to examine whether the interscholastic athletic programs at Astoria Middle School should be discontinued and an intramural program started.

• Sowder announced that because of the current school funding outlook, he put together a list of cost-saving measure to go into effect at the beginning of second semester, which starts in February. These measures include discontinuing the extended-day kindergarten at John Jacob Astor Elementary school, reducing the custodial staff by one, freezing classified and licensed substitute hiring - unless it is for a special education class and considering additional school day reductions, among other staff and materials reductions.

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