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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Schoolhouse left in limbo

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hold that truck. The fate of the historic Scott Center school is just as up-in-the-air as is the one-room schoolhouse itself.

The school sits jacked up off the ground at its site northwest of Truesdale in rural Buena Vista County, but plans to haul it away to a new out-of-area owner have skidded to a stop after a review of county documentation.

"It seems like all parties now agree that Scott Township owns the building and one acre of land that it sat on," County Attorney Dave Patton said Thursday.

The Kolb Trust, which owns surrounding property and has been paying property taxes on the building for decades, has assumed that it owned the schoolhouse, most recently used as an election polling place until around 1990. The trust sold the schoolhouse to Randy Weise, Kingsley, and arrangements were made to raise and move the building this season.

Weise said he and his wife, a retired teacher, had planned to restore the building and open it as a living museum where children in his area could come to experience what school was like a century ago.

Scott Township Clerk Anna Mae Rotert-Flink was driving past the schoolhouse northwest of Truesdale late last week and was shocked to find it jacked up to pull away. She told the Pilot-Tribune that township officials initially felt the schoolhouse the township had maintained and insured as its property for many years was being stolen.

After learning of the sale, they protested that the Trust had no right to sell the school, and that the township wanted to preserve the historic value of the structure by keeping it on its original site.

Officials in the county auditor's office, searching through all the records they could find Friday, couldn't say for sure who owned it.

After researching further, it is clear there was no malicious intent on anyone's part, Rotert-Flink said.

"The Kolb Trust acted based on a misunderstanding. Someone was misled - it seems that it was an honest mistake," Patton agreed.

Just one problem - it is impossible to place the school back where it was. The foundation was badly damaged when it was lifted. Old desks stored in the basement were crushed with falling concrete, its coal burner destroyed, the front staircase ripped out and door broken. "It's a mess," Rotert-Flink says.

"We also have to be realistic. Financially, the township doesn't have the money to make it useable to the public."

The building itself is solid, and while Rotert-Flink said the township leaders would love to see it restored and maintained as a historical site, they have no funds and no way to meet handicap-accessibility requirements.

"But if we keep getting rid of our history, what's going to be left?"

Here's where the ownership confusion may have begun:

In August of 1946, several years after the building had stopped being used as a school, a quit claim deed was filed by the township transferring ownership to a member of the Kolb family. Just a few months later, the Kolbs apparently transferred ownership back to the township, apparently with some expectations that it could be used as something of a community center.

The county filed its paperwork promptly, but Kolb apparently lagged. Papers on the second deal, the county's purchase, would up being filed before the first deal, Kolb's purchase.

According to Patton then, if someone didn't look very carefully at the dates the deals took effect, it would appear that Kolb had most recently bought the school from the township, when it was actually the other way around.

Even with ownership cleared up, the situation is complicated.

The man who purchased the school from the Trust did so in good faith and planned an extensive project. "He's going to want to see what the trustees do about this. You can't buy something that is stolen or that the seller has no legal right to sell," Patton explains.

There is probably no grounds for the buyer to sue the county of the township, since neither entity ever agreed to a sale or even knew the sale had taken place.

A trucking company that has been left on hold with a jacked up school, wanting to get paid and get their equipment out to other jobs. It would be difficult even to lower the building onto temporary piers, out of fear of doing permanent damage to the walls, Patton said.

And the Kolb Trust, being represented by Storm Lake attorney James Gailey, may consider legal action of its own. "I know if I had been assessed taxes for 30-40 years on something I didn't own, I'd be very interested in finding out if I have a claim," Patton said.

Since the building is owned by the township, a governmental entity, there should have been no property tax assessed for all those years.

Trustees have a school that can't be left where it is, or returned to its foundation. It needs to somehow seal up the building and the gaping basement hole to ensure the site does not become a nuisance.

"It's a real mess," Patton said of the complicated situation. "There are a lot of innocent bystanders here."

Also, the township cannot simply decide to sell the school to the buyer to resolve the matter. As a governmental agency, they would have to give notice, schedule a public hearing and open the property up for bidding or public auction. "They cannot just cut a deal here," Patton said.

The township trustees have a couple of thousand dollars saved in a budget to maintain and improve the old schoolhouse, but that won't be nearly enough to get the building resituated. Patton suggests the damages would most likely be the responsibility of the trust. "They were the ones who sold what wasn't theirs to sell."

The Scott trustees have set a public meeting for September 16, 6 p.m., at the schoolhouse site, to try to determine what to do. If they were to decide to sell, a public hearing date could be set at that time, Rotert-Flink said. In case of bad weather, the meeting will move to the Rembrandt fire department.

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