Muncie’s newest school sitting empty, future uncertain

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MUNCIE, Ind. (December 8, 2014) – Muncie’s newest school building is now sitting empty, and district administrators are faced with the difficult financial decision of what to do with it.

This year was historic for students in Muncie. Faced with a $9 million funding cut attributed to property tax caps and declining enrollment, rival high schools Muncie Southside and Muncie Central were consolidated into one high school.

Muncie Community Schools Superintendent Tim Heller says Central had more space, so the high school students were sent there. Southside, after several million dollars in recent renovations, was converted into a middle school. That left Wilson Middle School on the city’s southwest side vacant.

“When you’re in cost containment, you look at everything,” says Heller. “You look at personnel. You look at facilities. You look at every facet of education.”

He says the district has been struggling financially for several years. A study into the district’s facility usage is expected to be completed next month, and Heller hopes it will guide the school board in deciding what to do with Wilson Middle School.

“We’re not sure of the plans for that building,” he says. “We could even use that as a school down the road.”

Heller says the biggest setback has been getting appraisals for the empty building. It sits on 58 acres of land and cost about $21 million to build. Tax assessments value the property at $14.7 million, says Heller, but two recent appraisals put the value between $684,000 and $713,000.

“We’re very disappointed in the appraisal of the building. We’re not into this to give buildings away, and that’s what we’d be doing for the appraised cost,” says Heller.

So even if the district does decide to sell the property, they stand to lose a big chunk of change. In the meantime, he says the district is paying to maintain the facility.

“The appraisal was so disappointing that it slowed the process (of selling) down. So the board is going to have to come to grips with whether we are going to try to sell it or utilize it ourselves in another way,” says Heller.

Under state law, public schools must make surplus properties available to charter schools for $1, but MCS received a state waiver, meaning they won’t have to put the property on a list of surplus public school facilities.

“There was no interest from a charter school, and I’ll tell you why I think that is,” explains Heller. “That’s a huge building. That building has a pool, an auditorium. The cost to maintain those utilities is $300,000 a year.”

The appraisals offer up some suggestions on alternative uses for the property; a community center, a church, an addition to Ivy Tech’s campus or a government building.

County Commissioner James King says there’s interest from Delaware County officials to purchase the building for a new jail facility. King says overcrowding is a big issue that costs Delaware County about $750,000 annually in out of county inmate costs.

“It’s an ideal location for that, because it’s out in the country a little bit, and it’s a wonderful building,” agrees Heller, but he says the appraisals could create complications.

He says the school board will have some difficult decisions to make about the property. Should it be used for the district in some way, or should it be sold for pennies on the dollar?

“If they’ll only pay what the appraisal value is, or what the appraisal says its worth, maybe we close another school or two and use it as a school.”

With the results of the facility usage study just weeks away, Heller says it’s possible a decision could be reached in the next few months. He says he’ll meet with county commissioners later this week to discuss their ideas as well.