CLIFTON PARK — At the first Shenendehowa Board of Education meeting since a controversial land referendum, the school board expressed a desire to exit campaign mode.
The final referendum vote -- 5,442 to 2,323 -- stopped the sale of 32 undeveloped acres of land -- property of the Shenendehowa Central School District -- to BBL Construction, but it does not prohibit the school board from putting the parcel up for sale again.
At Tuesday's meeting, board president Bob Pressly dedicated some time to letting board members and residents “clear the air” around the issue. He thanked the community for participating in the referendum and said the turnout was like nothing the district had seen before.
“Clearly, this was a message,” he said. “This became a campaign around a topic and, generally, we tend to focus on specific things involving education.”
He noted the land sale issue snowballed into something that included other topics, including the issue of whether a town park would be built on the 32-acre parcel and the issue of the district wanting to buy land in Halfmoon for a new elementary school. Now, instead of launching back into negotiation mode, the board will focus on trying to understand, with the help of the community, how they arrived at this point, Pressly said.
But board member Bill Casey, an outspoken critic of the board’s decision to sell the land, cautioned against too much deliberation, adding that the time for action is now.
“This district can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I think the community is looking for more from us.”
Instead of waiting to decide how to move forward, Casey suggested the board form a small subcommittee of people dedicated to working on the issue. He recommended getting back in touch with Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett, who has, on multiple occasions, said the town is ready to again engage with the school in a discussion about the possibility of acquiring the land. The town initially offered to buy the land at price of $1 million, but the board chose to go with BBL’s offer of just over $2 million.
“They’re looking for more from us and, delaying too long ... we fall short,” Casey said.
Susan Burton, of the Friends of Clifton Park Open Space group, also advocated for quick action at Tuesday’s meeting. She urged the board to act before the budget vote on May 16 and negotiate a deal to sell the land to the town, an entity which, she argued, is better equipped to deal with it.
“To our mind, the school board could sell the property to the town and let them deal with the land use issue and public expectations at this point," she said. "Then, the school board could continue to concentrate on education issues – because that is what they are very good at. Let the better-equipped entity deal with this issue.”
Despite the calls for quick action, district Superintendent Oliver Robinson urged caution.
“It’s important for the public to know, while we talk about time frames and timelines, there are a lot of legal stipulations we have to follow,” he said at the meeting. “I don’t want to disillusion folks.”
That said, Robinson, who addressed Burton at the meeting personally, said he would be in touch with her group in the near future to make sure the open space advocates understand the legal constraints under which the school board must function.
“Conversations will transpire in a very deliberate way: in a way that’s fair and consistent with the perspectives shared,” he said.
Pressly said on Thursday that the referendum results clearly showed most residents of Clifton Park value the property and don’t want to see it developed. In order for a deal with the town to be successful, he said, the town needs to be as motivated to buy the land as the district is to sell it.
Pressly also said it’s too early to say whether the district will issue another request for proposals to offload the parcel, but if it did, the board would be obligated to treat every bidder fairly, including BBL, if the company decided to put in another bid. While the board would obviously be aware of BBL’s past effort to buy the land, Pressly said that history wouldn’t color any decision made by the school board.
“You should never go into an RFP with a bias,” Pressly said. “I would judge the merits of the proposal based on what was best for the district.”
Marc Goldstein, director of real estate for BBL, has said the company has, “no idea” at this point what it would do if the district held another request-for-proposals process, and there was no need to speculate on such things until the district makes a decision. He did say, however, that BBL has nothing further planned for Clifton Park.