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School Board agrees to building purchase
January 25, 2013 Jerry Purvis   

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On a 4-2 vote, members of the Gering School Board agreed to enter final contract negotiations to purchase the former Western Heritage Credit Union building downtown.

The two parties have tentatively agreed on a price of $295,000 and the school board scheduled a public hearing to receive input into the potential purchase. The building would be used to house the school district’s central offices, currently housed in cramped quarters beneath the high school football stadium.

The building became available to the school district after the City of Gering opted not to exercise its first right of refusal and purchase the building during a meeting on Jan. 18.
During the council meeting, member Larry Gibbs said he saw an advantage to having the school’s offices downtown. Parents moving to town could get set up with utilities and get their children enrolled all within the same building.

“Of course I’d like to have the space filled with retail,” he said, “but we don’t have any knocking on the door.”
Gering School Superintendent Don Hague said the move will be great for the community, not just the school district.

“We want to become part of the downtown Gering business operation but haven’t felt that way because we’re out of the downtown area,” Hague said. “We can do as much to promote Gering as anyone. When people move here, the first place they go is the school central offices to enroll their children. There’s no reason we can’t help distribute information about Gering and all the events happening here. I think we can be a good ambassador for Gering.”

The Gering School Board then scheduled a Jan. 21 public hearing to get input from its patrons.
Speaking against the purchase was Broc Brown, business teacher and coach at Gering High School. “I believe we should focus on school safety,” Brown told the board. “Our older school buildings have a variety of security concerns. They won’t be remedied by this purchase.”

Brown also wondered what would be the financial impact on the financially pinched district. He said some of the more pressing issues to him would be newer computers in his classrooms and replacements for the 25-year-old jerseys still being used by his junior high basketball team.

He added the credit union building was one of the nicest office buildings in the downtown area
and it would be a bad idea by taking it off the tax rolls.”
Brown asked why the district is interested in spending more money when it’s running a financial deficit. Ideas being discussed to reduce the deficit include staffing cuts, mostly through retirements. Many field trips would also be curtailed because of lack of funding.

“I’m not opposed to your having a new building,” said Tom Cozad, local merchant and Gering Merchants Association member. “I’m opposed to having that particular building. You don’t need to take prime real estate from downtown.”
Cozad said he was also concerned that school staff would park in front of the building, taking away space that could be used by shoppers.

However, the district has developed a plan that would require their office staff to use the parking lots behind the building and on the east side of 10th St.
Downtown business owner Darlene Tagler also opposed the plan. “We work hard at getting retail businesses to come to downtown Gering,” she said. “We’d like to see more retail activity going on.”
Superintendent Hague said the purchase of the building would be financed over seven years from the school district’s capital buildings fund. Those monies are earmarked for major construction and improvements to school buildings. By state statute, they cannot be used for other purposes such as personnel or equipment.

In the past, the capital buildings fund has been used to install air conditioning in the elementary school buildings, build the vo-tech building at the high school and build modular buildings to alleviate overcrowding at the elementary schools.

“We weren’t out shopping for space,” said board member Alan Doll. “The opportunity arose and we felt we needed to look at it. Sure, we have a tight budget. But the cost per square foot at just under $50 isn’t something we could build somewhere else.”
Doll continued the current administration building doesn’t make a good impression for new families enrolling their children in school. And he said the new building could serve the district’s needs for decades to come.

“I think we can also be a good neighbor on main street,” Doll said. “We get a lot of traffic through here. That brings people downtown.”
Board member Mary Winn said the current building is “an ADA lawsuit waiting to happen,” as the restrooms aren’t compliant with federal laws concerning disabled patrons.

Board member BJ Peters said he would be the devil’s advocate in voting no on the measure. “I’ve been beat up more in the last month on this issue than any other in eight years,” he said. “It’s the perception that it’s tax dollars and the timing is horrible. We desperately need to get out of this facility, but I’m still voting no. My constituents said it’s not the right thing to do.”
Peters and outgoing board member Jody Miles voted against the purchase. Members Brian Copsey, Mary Winn, Mike Brunner and Alan Doll voted in favor.

The district must now finalize its negotiations with the credit union. A formal approval of the purchase contract will be voted on at the board’s Feb. 18 meeting.
Because the new building won’t need any remodeling, the district should be able to begin the moving process within the next two months. But the final timeline will be set by the district’s new superintendent, once the candidate is hired. School board meetings will then be held in the city council chamber.

With the move, the district’s information technology staff and offices will move from the junior high into the area currently used by administration. That will free up additional space for classrooms in the junior high.
Also during Monday’s school board meeting, Dr. Jerry Upp was sworn in as a new board member, replacing Jody Miles, who declined to seek an additional term.
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