Lyle school board enters negotiations with DNR for Dallesport building

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Almost a year after putting the old Dallesport elementary building on the market, Lyle School District received two offers within a few weeks to purchase it for the full asking price of $1.6 million.

Those offers came from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and from Andy von Flotow, who has interests in the drone industry. At the October 27, 2021, regular school board meeting—after a lengthy discussion between the board members, the parties making the offers, and public comment—the board voted unanimously to authorize Superintendent Ann Varkados and district counsel to proceed with negotiating the final terms of the sale with the DNR.

The Dallesport School was built in 1996 after voters approved a 20-year bond measure the year before. At that time, the enrollment in Lyle Kindergarten through 5th grades was 232 students. Currently, the district has 102 students in those grades.

The bond measure was paid off in 2015. In 2016, the previous administration and school board were seeking ways to reduce operating expenses. The district was experiencing financial pressures and the board was considering some hard decisions, including closing one school, to balance the budget.

Two major factors came into the board’s decision to close the Dallesport School: there had been a steady decline in enrollment in all grade levels since the school had been built and the more centrally-located Lyle campus had room for the elementary students.

For Washington state schools, funding is based on enrollment. All school funding—whether from the state, the federal government, or locally-approved levies—is calculated on a per-student basis.

Operating two partially full buildings generated duplicate staffing expenses, and there were academic opportunities in combining the campuses. For example, specialists like art, music, and PE teachers can also provide instruction in the elementary grades on a shared campus. Only one principal is needed rather than two.

However, an empty building is still not completely free of expense. At this time, the district pays approximately $3,500 a month for utilities and maintenance of the Dallesport building, as well as the property tax on it. Empty buildings are prone to deteriorate and are vulnerable to vandalism.

In 2016 and 2017, the board sought a long-term renter in order to generate income from the Dallesport building. It took about a year, but the district signed a 10-year lease-to-buy agreement with Sagetech, a company associated with the drone manufacturing industry active here in the Gorge.

The lease agreement provided the district a monthly income, which by law went into the district’s capital fund for building improvements. Sagetech also took over maintenance, improvements, and utility costs of the Dallesport building, as well as property taxes, which came into play when the property was no longer used for a school. The agreement with Sagetech preserved district and community access and use of the playground toy, track, and softball field.

Sagetech made improvements to the buildings but hadn’t yet completed construction when the company developed financial problems. The company went into bankruptcy and, ultimately, receivership.

Before declaring bankruptcy, Sagetech formally requested to purchase the property per the terms of their contract. Eventually, however, the receiver released all claim to the building.

Since that time, the district has worked with commercial realtor Deborah Ewing to market the property, resulting in the offers.

The DNR’s intention is to develop the building into a regional wildfire response center, with existing staff and resources from DNR’s work center in Husum being relocated to Dallesport. They anticipate approximately 65 employees stationed out of this response center.

In a letter to the Board of Directors, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz wrote,

“In order to better protect our communities and natural resources, the state legislature recently dedicated funds for DNR to strengthen our state’s wildfire response, including adding firefighters and equipment and expanding infrastructure. The community of Dallesport and its former elementary school are located in a geographically advantageous position, uniquely positioned to help achieve our goal of strategically placing firefighters across Washington.

“The decision you are about to make can have a lasting, positive impact, not only for the Lyle School District, but for the citizens of Dallesport and Washington for generations to come,” Ms. Franz added.

What does this mean for the community?

The building and approximately one-half of the original lot constitute the property to be sold.

The sale will not include the Dallesport Community Building. The original 7+ acre parcel has been subdivided. As part of the sub-plat, the district has deeded the property it sits on to the county; the building was constructed by the county. Nor will it include the track and softball field. The district and community will still have use of them, and it now appears that playground was already on county property.

The income from the sale will go into the district’s capital fund, the same place the rental income was deposited. By law, these funds can be used only for major repairs or improvements to district buildings.

Dallesport children who attend Lyle Schools, like all of the district’s students, will continue to benefit from much-needed work on the Lyle campus, including the replacement of an undependable, expensive and hard-to-repair HVAC system.

“From the start of this process, the district has looked for potential buyers who would benefit the local community,” Superintendent Varkados said, adding, “The board and I are pleased with the Department of Natural Resources’ plans for the property and proud that it will benefit not only the mid-Columbia Gorge but the entire region.”

When and if growth occurs in the district, the Lyle campus is large enough to accommodate additional students and staff. Its central location means that students coming from all parts of the district will have comparable distances to travel.

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