Talks to Unload Middleburg Charter Cause Concern in Town

The Loudoun County School Board is considering handing over the Middleburg Community Charter School property to the county or the Town of Middleburg, but both localities have said they probably don’t want it.

The school system has been leasing the property to Middleburg Community Charter School’s board of directors for $1 a year since 2014, when public elementary school closed and the charter school moved in. It also gets free water and sewer service from the town, and contracts with the school system for maintenance. It is thought to be the oldest operating school building in Loudoun.

Last year, the School Board began formally discussing whether it should declare the building and property as surplus, with the intention of handing it over to the town. The board voted unanimously in March 2017 to begin the process of surplussing the property. Legally speaking, once surplussed, the property would convey to the county, which could then hand it over to the town if the town accepts it. But the town might not want it at any price.

“We love the school, we want to do whatever we can to help it and keep it here, but there are a lot of moving parts to the puzzle,” said Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis.

If the building were to convey to the town, it would likely be responsible for maintaining the property and making any major improvements to it. Town Manager Martha Semmes said that may be more than the town can take on.

“If we had a gazillion dollars or something and double the size staff we have, it might be OK,” Semmes said. But she said for a town of 800 people, being landlord to the property might not be fiscally possible.

“We’re trying to improve our own facilities and make long needed improvements to our water and sewer system,” Semmes said. “We don’t have the capacity to make major investments in another building.”

On top of the costs of maintaining the building and taking on any major projects on the property, such as plan to repave the parking lot in the next four years, Middleburg could face legal hardship if it owns the property. Attorney J. Randall Minchew, managing shareholder of law firm Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh PC’s Leesburg office, has warned taking on the property could expose the town to lawsuits.

Government entities are protected from many liability lawsuits by sovereign immunity. But Minchew said that may not be the case for Middleburg if it owns the school building.

“I couldn’t find any law that would say that a town as an entity that could own real estate for a local county school system to operate a school, if they own the real estate, that they would be covered by a grant of sovereign immunity,” Minchew said.

Middleburg Community Charter School board of directors Chairman Robert Liscouski said the school’s board of directors is happy either way.

“We do worry that if anything happens downstream, it may impact our operation,” Liscouski said. “But candidly, we do believe the county has the best interests of the school at heart, and they don’t want to degradate that educational opportunity for the kids.”

As long as the school can keep educating its students, he said, “who owns the property is almost irrelevant.”

The charter school was formed in part as a reaction to fears the county School Board would close Middleburg Elementary School because of its small size. Today, families apply from across the county to send their children to the school, and there is a waiting list to attend.

County supervisors sent a letter to the School Board expressing “genuine concern” about the idea of surplussing the property. With no formal expression of interest from the town in taking on the property, the county could end up maintaining or disposing of the property itself, which still has a school inside.

The school system has shown no sign of revoking the school’s charter. County staff members have estimated the cost of running the building would nearly quadruple if the county government were to take over.

School Board member Jill Turgeon, whose Blue Ridge district includes Middleburg, said after a year of discussing the possibility, “in my opinion, there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t keep it.”

“Now looking at how the town feels, I think the best thing at the very least is to pause this process, because quite frankly, if this building gets surplussed, I don’t see the school being able to survive, and I think that would be horrible,” Turgeon said. “So I just think that it makes sense, it’s been a very successful school.”

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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