NEW CUMBERLAND-The Hancock County school board rejected by a vote of 3-2 Superintendent Suzan Smith's recommendation on Monday that Newell Memorial Stadium be sold at public auction.
Board members who voted against Smith's recommendation cited certain auction rules, and not the auction itself, as the reason for their vote.
"There may be some issues as to the mechanics of how it will be sold," board President Jerry Durante said, "but it will be sold, and it will be sold at auction."
The Newell stadium, which the board declared as surplus property in June, is going up for sale now that Oak Glen High School has a new, adjacent sports complex. Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton has been removed from the Oct. 5 sale because the school district still needs part of that property for its maintenance department and school bus parking.
The board has come under fire by the Newell Community Improvement Coalition and other residents who fear the property, if sold to the highest bidder, will be developed for purposes at odds with the public good. Among those interested in keeping the property in community hands is Chester Fire Chief John Hissam, who offered $300,000, to be paid in installments over three years, for the stadium.
Smith said at Monday's board meeting that the district can't entertain such offers and that West Virginia law requires surplus property to be sold at public auction. Smith said she has consulted with attorney Richard Boothby of the Bowles Rice law firm on the matter.
"This has been one of the most difficult tasks I've encountered in this job so far," Smith said. "A lot of people have talked to me. A lot of people have interpreted the law for me. I understand their feelings. But to do the public auction is what Bowles Rice has told me what the law is."
Among the auction rules up for consideration by the board Monday was the requirement that the highest bidder pay 10 percent of the purchase price up front, by cash or check, and the balance by Oct. 12.
Durante and board member John Manypenny said that requirement for a lump-sum payment was too limiting. Board member Toni Hinerman also voted against the recommendation. Board members Laura Greathouse and Patsy Brancazio voted for it.
"To encourage more people to bid on it, and possibly increase the amount of the bid, I'd like to see it paid in three installments," Manypenny said. The first third of the bid price, he said, could be paid within 30 days of the sale, and the remaining two thirds could be paid over the next two years.
"This will encourage more people to bid because they don't have to come up with a lump sum and it will be spread out," Manypenny said.
Asked about Hissam's offer, which is similar to Manypenny's recommendation, Manypenny said he hasn't spoken to the fire chief about that.
Durante echoed Manypenny's suggestion. "If we had the opportunity to consider other methods of payment, it might be more beneficial to open it to more bidders," he said.
The board's 3-2 vote brought an audible "thank you" from members of the Newell Community Improvement Coalition who attended Monday's meeting, including treasurer Sue Thompson and president Beverly Enochs.
Smith said she respected the board's vote and that she will come back with another recommendation soon so the auction can proceed as scheduled.
"They have their reasons. They certainly look out for the best interests of the community," Smith said.
The next board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 24, but, in order for the auction to go forward on Oct. 5, Smith said she needs board approval by Sept. 17. Smith said the legal notice for the auction has to run in newspapers two weeks before the sale.
Durante said selling the stadium at public auction is a matter of law and protects the taxpayer. He said the board would be willing, however, to entertain offers from a "bona fide" government agency. The West Virginia Code does permit the sale of surplus property to a political subdivision of the state or a non-profit organization, Thompson said.
"Your decision (to sell the stadium at auction) appears to be based only on selling this land for an inflated amount at our expense," Thompson said.