The Hays USD 489 school board accepted in a split vote a nearly $1.5 million federal grant to renovate the Oak Park Medical Complex, 2501 E. 13th, into a new facility for Head Start programs.

In a special meeting last week, the board approved a proposal to move forward with purchasing the complex of four buildings for no more than $2 million after learning the federal government had awarded a $1,473,103 grant to renovate the property to house Early Childhood Connections.

That vote was split 4-2-1, with board members Lance Bickle and Greg Schwartz voting against, and Luke Oborny abstaining, saying he could not endorse either decision.

ECC serves children eligible for Head Start, state pre-kindergartens and early childhood block grant in five classrooms at the former Washington Elementary, 305 Main. Center-based Head Start programs are housed in the former Munjor Elementary School, with about 22 students.

The Oak Park project would bring the programs to one location, vacating the former Washington Elementary and the Munjor school reverting to the Catholic parish, St. Francis of Assisi.

Monday’s formality to accept to grant was 5-2, with Bickle and Schwartz voting against.

Schwartz voiced several concerns about moving ahead with the project, several of which reiterated his concerns with last week’s vote — the lack of an appraisal on the property, making a rushed decision, a building being left empty, and the true cost of the renovation.

“It’d be nice to have that other information. That’s part of the frustration,” Bickle said.

Members of the public have also raised the issue of taking a privately owned property off the tax rolls, Schwartz said.

“I know we’ve already voted to go forward, but it just seems like one of the problems with rushing things is, there’s things that are often overlooked and not thought through,” Schwartz said.

Superintendent John Thissen emphasized Monday’s vote basically was a formality he had asked for.

Board member Paul Adams echoed that idea in making the motion to vote on the resolution.

“This is only to say we’ll accept the money,” he said, saying the public had the final decision. “We have to move this forward. It’s not a commitment to a building.”

If the sale of the building falls through, the grant money will be returned. But there is a timeline to spend the grant, and delays — including a public vote — could also mean the money would have to be returned.

Thissen expects two pieces for last week’s resolution — the interest rate for the $2 million and which bank the lease will be from — as well as the contract on the property, will be available Wednesday afternoon.

Once those pieces are in place, the resolution can be published in The Hays Daily News legal notices, as required, in the next two weeks. The public will then have a 30-day period to protest the resolution. If 5 percent or more of voters in the district protest through petition, the sale would be put up to a public vote.

The special election would come late enough the district could not spend the grant money by the end of June as required, Thissen said, and it would have to be returned.

Thissen said he believed an appraisal of the property could be completed within that 30-day period, but Schwartz was concerned real estate broker Robert Readle was selecting the appraiser, especially when Thissen was not clear on whether Readle is representing the district or the sellers, Oak Park Condominium Association. Five property owners comprise the association, with Hays Medical Center owning the majority.

Readle, in an email Tuesday morning to The Hays Daily News, explained he is operating as a managing broker of two other designated seller agents. He is also dealing with one of the sellers through his attorney, he said.

Because he's working with both sides, under state law, he is not an agent for either party and does not advocate for either party. 

“Wouldn’t we want to pick our own appraiser?” Schwartz asked.

“I can sure check on that. I’ll become more involved in that and find out what our options are,” Thissen said, repeating his concern it be completed within the protest timeline.

Schwartz was also concerned with Washington being left vacant, especially with another bond proposal a possibility. The board voted in June to table talks of a future bond until after the end of the year, but Schwartz pointed out last year’s proposal included repurposing part of O’Laughlin Elementary for much the same purpose as the Oak Park proposal.

“It just seems that if we end up going the same route with the bond … you’re just going to have vacant buildings that you have nothing to do with,” he said.

He was also concerned with the actual cost of the property and renovation.

“One of the questions that nobody’s really answered is where is the extra money going to come from if it’s more than $3.5 million? We have no cost estimates other than the Realtor on what it’s going to cost to renovate this. Are we going to do another lease for more money? We should have plans for that,” he said.

Board President Mandy Fox and Thissen said the renovations will stay within the grant amount.