This week the Missoula County Public School board of trustees voted to approve a 10-year lease that allows St. Joseph's Elementary School, a private K-8 Catholic school, to occupy the recently closed Roosevelt School on Missoula's Northside. Elementary school board trustees voted 4-1 (with two trustees absent) to approve the lease, despite objections from area residents that a 10-year lease is too long a commitment on a public school building, and the district never solicited or considered other uses for the building.
The lease, granted to the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Helena (St. Joseph's legal "parent") allows the 240-student St. Joseph's to occupy Roosevelt School beginning Aug. 1, thus enabling the school to begin its 1999-2000 school year in new quarters Aug. 26.
In return, St. Joseph's will pay the district $60,000 annually for the first five years of the lease, and $70,000 for the second five years. The board had previously authorized a five-year lease at $60,000, but reconsidered at the request of St. Joseph's.
"It is our belief that once we vacate the current building, we won't be able to return," said Don St. Peter, chairman of the Missoula Catholic School Board, who indicated that negotiations are underway to allow St. Francis Parish and St. Patrick Hospital to use the school building while the hospital is under construction. Expressing fears that the school might be surrendered before a second five-year lease can be secured, St. Peter said, "We may wind up on the street in five years."
The 75-year-old St. Joseph's School building is in need of repair and improvements, and is no longer big enough to meet the growing needs of the Diocese, said St. Peter. Construction of a new school will take at least 10 years, including a five- to seven-year fund-raising campaign.
Board trustee Barbara Seekins, the lone vote in opposition to the 10-year time frame, raised concerns about the amount of the lease, saying that she is not convinced the board is receiving fair market value for Roosevelt. She calculated that the annual cost of the $60,000 lease comes to about $1.40 per square foot.
"Maybe we can't get blood from a turnip," said Seekins, "but we haven't gotten outside confirmation of what the fair market value would be for this length of time."
Board chairman Mike Kupilik said that merely calculating the cost per square foot doesn't factor in the value of keeping a school in the Roosevelt building. St. Joseph's principal, Tomas Anderson, said his school has every intention of keeping Roosevelt available to the community, for such activities as neighborhood association meetings and elections.
"We haven't been offered any money for our school," Kupilik added, "and this is clearly fair market value." He went on to cite a letter from Ed Coffman of Gillespie Realty Co., which states, "To net $60,000 a year is a fair price for this property."
Still, area resident Janet Scott questioned whether the board was fulfilling its fiduciary duty. She cited a letter dated Dec. 2, 1997 from Missoula Aging Services and Missoula Senior Citizens Center, expressing an interest in leasing approximately 6,000 square feet from MCPS for $6-$7 per square foot.
Scott also cited the district's own administrative budget proposal from 1997-'98, which recommended that if Roosevelt were closed, the district could expect to lease the building for between $80,000 and $140,000 annually.
"What you're giving them is exactly what they asked for," said Scott.
"I think we're lucky to have an offer," countered trustee Jan Guffin. This [10-year lease] is a better option than turning it down," adding, "There aren't many uses for a school."
Seekins disagreed. "We didn't hear from anyone else. We didn't even ask to hear from anyone else."
Resident Ellen McCullough took issue with the assertion that since the board hadn't received an offer on Jefferson School—which has been advertised on the market—the same holds true for the desirability of Roosevelt.
"You can't say that because one building is out there, that's the same thing as advertising [Roosevelt]," McCullough said. "I know our [student] numbers aren't up now, but if you lease our school for 10 years, I'll move, and a lot of other people will move as well. I don't think it's right to give our school away."
In fact, Jefferson was considered by St. Joseph's, said Don St. Peter, but was rejected as not big enough to accommodate the projected growth of the student population.
Area resident Nancy Labuff asked the board to reconsider a five-year lease, saying, "Ten years is a death sentence to a community."
Resident Bill Comstock inquired what other costs would be borne by the District, such as bringing the Roosevelt building into compliance with life safety codes. Kupilik said those are issues would be negotiated later.
Comstock also questioned the board's decision to schedule a Monday afternoon meeting. Arguing that most people are at work or otherwise unable to attend, "It gives the appearance of an ulterior motive of getting this done quickly."
"You can read sinister things into it if you like," said Kupilik. "But this is when we could get everyone together to meet."
The meeting was attended by fewer than 10 people.