Walled Lake – City officials are facing off against their local school board over a decision to shut down and demolish a school building and sell off the property for commercial purposes.

It’s something that has been percolating in the city of 7,000 for at least six years, the decision following lively school board meetings, forums and this summer, the closure of the Community Education Center on North Pontiac Trail in the center of the city’s business district.

The brick building, built in 1922, is a former school that in recent years has been used for a variety of daytime and evening education programs.

The school board plan, initially approved in May, has upset critics ranging from alumni and parents of special-needs students who attended classes there to residents who want to preserve the building for its historical significance.

“This is pretty rare; we normally get along well with our school board but this is an issue that has touched residents for various reasons,” said Walled Lake Mayor Linda S. Ackley. “There hasn’t been an issue like this in the city for at least 38 years since I have been an elected official, including the last four years as mayor.”

Ackley and other city officials allege the plan is both fiscally wasteful and illegal. The city filed a lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court recently, seeking to stop any school board plans to raze the building and sell off the land.

“It wasn’t at the top of our list of things to do but we felt it important to raise the legal issues,” Ackley said.

The school district maintains that litigation is making already difficult matters worse.

“The district is sad that this potential lawsuit will take even more dollars away from the classroom at a time when the district has nothing more to cut,” said Walled Lake School spokeswoman Judy Evola, who noted that as of last week the district had not been served with the complaint.

“The district is dismayed in light of the fact that the building is in disrepair, is expensive to maintain; and the district, like almost every other district in Michigan, is losing student enrollment,” she said.

Evola and school district officials insist declining enrollment and money are at the heart of its decision, reached publicly in March with a unanimous vote. The Walled Lake district, with 20 schools, has cut more than $70 million budget over the past 15 years and this year employees have agreed to $3.8 million in concessions.

In the past decade, enrollment has dropped from 15,654 to 14,211, according to state figures. Over the same period, the district has shaved expenses by privatizing custodial and transportation services and closing two elementary schools.

Besides the city of Walled Lake, the school district services all or parts of Farmington Hills, Novi, Orchard Lake and Wixom; the townships of Commerce, West Bloomfield and White Lake; and the village of Wolverine Lake. In 2010, it was the largest school district in Oakland County, since eclipsed by Rochester.

Evola said a comprehensive transition plan has moved all education services offered in the CEC into other school buildings in the district.

The city’s legal claims

City officals want to be involved in any decision involving the center’s future. In its five-count lawsuit seeking an injunction against the school board, the city said it is concerned the school board may proceed with demolition without obtaining the proper permits and approval.

“…once the CEC building is demolished, the unique and irreplaceable historical value and significance of the building will be lost forever thereby resulting in irreparable harm to the City and community at large,” alleges the city’s lawsuit, assigned to Judge Nanci Grant. “Therefore an issuance of an injunction enjoining demolition of the CEC represents the only adequate remedy at law and or equity.”

The lawsuit also alleges:

The school board wants to demolish the structure, fearing it might be used for a charter school if the building is sold off.

Demolition costs are a “wasteful and unreasonable expenditure of taxpayer dollars” which will affect any value from a sale.

Funding demolition with bond or sinking fund revenue violates state law.

The lawsuit relies on state case law, which has found “judicial review and injunction is an appropriate remedy where a state officer or agency has acted arbitrarily or unreasonably.”

Ackley said tearing down the building, in the heart of the city’s business district, is expected to cost $750,000 or more and the property is expected to fetch only about $700,000 for the school district, resulting in a net loss.

“They (district) claims it costs $225,000 a year to maintain as it is,” she said. “But they don’t want a charter school moving in there and taking away more students. Enrollment has declined. They already closed two elementary schools and demolished them.

“There has to be some viable development there, something we can all agree on.”

Historical significance

Janice Tuttle Leonhardt, a long-time resident and president of the Commerce Township Historical Society, said she find the demolition plan disturbing for many reasons.

“As a taxpayer, I find this plan troubling,” said Leonhardt. “And as someone concerned with historical preservation, it greatly upsets me.

“It represents our history and when I last went through it, found it in exceptional good shape with features like gymnasiums and Pewabic tiles throughout it,” she said. “It makes no sense to tear it down.”

Robert Donohue, a historical preservationist who grew up in Commerce Township and attended the Walled Lake schools, spoke out against the plan to demolish the CEC. He said he was proud of his city for a lawsuit that “may make school officials look at the facts.”

“I’ve been involved in historical preservation for 39 years and its buildings like this that give a community character and a feeling of place – without them you don’t have any special identity,” said Donohue, who is certified in architectural history.

Dohonue, who is director of the South Lyon Downtown Development Authority, had been involved in economic development for Oakland County and Rochester Hills.

“Walled Lake schools are an essential component of the face of the community,” he said. “And this is building – where people have learned skills and life lessons – can be preserved yet still repurposed.”

“I truly believe Walled Lake schools do not understand what they are doing yet they are in the education business,” he said. “The building is definitely eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and as such has tax credits and other benefits for developers. I provided the district with four pages of items on why it was important and got back a one-line ‘Thank you.’ I don’t think anyone ever read it. It’s fallen on deaf ears.

“Their sound bite has been this is fiscally the right thing to do,” said Donohue. “But that doesn’t make sense. Letting someone else take over the building can eliminate environmental remediation of the site and no demolition costs. I also believe they are worried about a charter school there.

“But you can set up a sale with conditions to prevent that and also rezone the property so that won’t happen, maintain historical integrity and character,” he said. “If you repurpose it for housing – and not just senior housing – both the city and school district can enjoy taxes. And that might just add some more children to the school district as well.”

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