The land near the former Monroe Elementary, now open green space, is slated to be developed into more than 30 homes. Concerned neighbors say they weren’t consulted prior to the land’s sale in 2016, and they have questions about the handling of the sale.

The land near the former Monroe Elementary, now open green space, is slated to be developed into more than 30 homes. Concerned neighbors say they weren’t consulted prior to the land’s sale in 2016, and they have questions about the handling of the sale.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Questions arise over school district’s sale of Monroe property

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published February 14, 2018

 The land near the former Monroe Elementary, now open green space, is slated to be developed into more than 30 homes. Concerned neighbors say they weren’t consulted prior to the land’s sale in 2016, and they have questions about the handling of the sale.

The land near the former Monroe Elementary, now open green space, is slated to be developed into more than 30 homes. Concerned neighbors say they weren’t consulted prior to the land’s sale in 2016, and they have questions about the handling of the sale.

Photo by Deb Jacques

MADISON HEIGHTS — Faced with home construction at the site of the former Monroe Elementary in Madison Schools, neighbors are voicing concerns, asking whether the process of selling off the property was fair or the best use of the land. 

These concerns are shared by Mark Kimble, a current trustee who joined the Board of Education after the sale had been completed. 

“The school board that approved this sale breached their fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers,” Kimble said. “The proper approach would’ve been to put this up for bid to determine its value — not to just give it to the board president’s friend, hiding behind an LLC, where no disclosure was made until months later.”

Kimble is referring to the board’s March 7, 2016, decision to sell 3.54 acres of the property for $60,000 to NMJ LLC, a company formed a month prior to the sale by John David, of Emergency Restoration in Troy. David is a friend of Albert Morrison, the school board president, a connection that Morrison later disclosed at a meeting on Aug. 1, 2016, after it was brought up on Facebook.  

As a point of comparison, in 2009, the district sold 1 acre of the same property to the city of Madison Heights for $121,000, as paid for by Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant monies. Kimble feels that for the district to sell more than three times that much land for less than half the price is giving away “so much for so little.”

“Residents will have to endure several years of construction, dirt, garbage and noise as they build those houses,” Kimble said. “I have 30 years of sales experience in real estate. … Based on comparable sales and the availability of water and sewer (infrastructure) at that site, I believe it would have sold for $250,000-$300,000 if offered for sale.”

In defense of the deal, Madison Superintendent Randy Speck said that he assumed the city wouldn’t be interested since the city hadn’t supported other district initiatives, such as a 2015 request for the city to donate land at Halfman Elementary for housing developments. He said that’s why the district didn’t tell the city it could buy more land, even though the city had already bought an acre.

“We had just gone through a very contentious situation with the Halfman property (where) the city had made clear that they were not willing or desiring to be a partner with us in any way,” Speck said in an email. “Why in the world would I even think that they were interested?”

 

The city’s interest

City officials say there was interest in possibly turning the Monroe property into a city park. In its current form, the property is a sizable chunk of green space bordered by homes on West Dallas Avenue and West Barrett Avenue, east of Interstate 75 and west of John R Road. The city’s acre is on the west side of the property, now named Monroe Park. 

Richard Clark, who served on City Council at the time that the school district made the deal, said that he and other council members were interested in the land. 

“I didn’t like the way the land sale was handled,” Clark said. “The city could have put something at (the Monroe site) that the community is lacking, and that’s recreational facilities. As far as I know, we never got a chance to bid on it. We never got a chance to even offer to put a bid in. There should have been a competitive bidding process, but we were blindsided. One day, all of a sudden, we heard it was sold.”

City Councilman Robert Corbett confirmed the city’s interest.  

“The city absolutely would have had an interest in acquiring the property to expand green space for the community. I made it very clear in unofficial conversations with (City Manager) Ben (Myers) that I would even be prepared to call the council into a special meeting if we needed to allocate money or approve anything to acquire the property. A majority of the council would have agreed with the opinion,” Corbett said. 

“So yes, absolutely, we were willing. We never got a price, but within reason, we would’ve negotiated over it,” he said. “Our first contact to the school district was not responded to, and when Ben followed up, a spokesman for the district finally responded and indicated a contract had been entered into, and the property was not available for sale.” 

According to Myers, a formal application for land division has been filed, and the city is waiting for revised utilities. Once that’s completed and the utilities plan is approved, then it’s up to the developer to apply for individual building permits. The applicant of the land division permit is Monument Engineering Group Associates, working on behalf of the land’s owner, NMJ LLC.

“Individual council members may have had an interest, but as Councilman Corbett indicated, by the time that the city had heard about the property and the district had responded back to me when I had inquired about the status, the board had approved the sale, so it was a moot point,” Myers said in an email. “No offer to purchase or lease has been made by the city.” 

Speck said he does not recall receiving any inquiries from the city expressing interest in the status of the land.  

“To my knowledge, no offer to buy that property ever came up. I used to have regular meetings with Ben Myers, and the Monroe property was never a topic that I can recall,” Speck said in an email. “No one ever said anything to me about that land.”

Now the plan is for the property owner to build more than 30 new homes on the land. 

 

Handling of the sale 

Kimble said he finds it suspicious that the land was awarded to the board president’s friend at a low price, and without going through any sort of formal bidding process. He feels the district should have put the property up for bid, asking companies to give their best offers, so the district could get the most value on the sale. And he feels Morrison’s friendship with David should have been disclosed upfront as a potential conflict of interest.  

“The board’s own bylaws say that any board member that has any kind of financial or personal connection to those making bids should disclose this,” Kimble said.

Speck said in an email that it doesn’t matter whether Morrison disclosed his personal connection to David, or that David was behind NMJ LLC.

“John (David) has worked with the district for years, so the fact that he had a relationship with Al (Morrison) or anyone would not be new news,” Speck said.

David himself spoke favorably of the board.

“I’m friends with a lot of people on the school board. I’ve known these guys for years,” David said. “I’ve never seen a man (Morrison) who’s so considerate about the children in the community. He would take a bullet for this community. The man has got passion; he’s got love. And Randy Speck is a genius.”

David said the board was excited about his offer because he will allow kids to work on a house from start to finish, getting them outside and interested in the trades. He also plans to hire companies from Madison Heights to give back to the community. He said the land sold for a lower price point because of the extra infrastructure work he’d need to do.

The board members at the time of the sale were Morrison, Bill Pittman, Christina Cole, Don Brecht, Mick Hohner, Alexander Marr and Rick Krstich. All voted for the sale on March 7, 2016.

Pittman, vice president of the board, said he doesn’t regret how the sale was handled.

“Maybe it could’ve been done differently, but I’ve no problems with the way it was done. The board president can’t just sell the property on his own. We talked about it for months,” Pittman said. “We wanted to do something to spark interest in the south end of the city.

“I knew months before it was closed — long before the deal was done — that John David was interested in partnering or purchasing it. And I don’t want to speak for the rest of the board, but I believe we all knew that,” Pittman said. “I knew that John David was a friend of Al (Morrison). When my mom’s house flooded, (David) did work there through a recommendation of Al.”

Krstich, another trustee at the time, declined to comment.

During the meeting on Aug. 1, 2016, Morrison said that he met with 10 interested developers, and he gave his reasons for not selecting eight of them. He said the first three developers wanted the district to finance the work; the fourth and fifth had no interest developing in the south end of town; the sixth was interested until they learned of environmental remediation that needed to be done there — another claim that critics contest; the seventh developer didn’t get back to the board; and the eighth was interested in communal living or low-income housing developments.

“The last and final builder I met with was willing to invest in not only the property, the school district, the building trades program and everything that came along with it, (but they would also allow) us still a voice in the development of that property,” Morrison said. “The appraisal was an independent appraisal, (which) came back at $90,000. Taking everything into consideration, a fair price for the property we considered was $60,000. It was sold for $60,000.”

When reached for additional comment Feb. 8, Morrison said he was unable to respond.

Back during the Aug. 1, 2016, meeting, Morrison also confirmed his relationship with David.

“There has been some insinuation that I am a personal friend of the purchaser of that property, and I would tell you directly face to face I’ve known the purchaser of that property for 30-some years,” Morrison said at that meeting, referring to David. “And I definitely know how to separate business from personal. I can give you a list of people I’ve dealt with ahead of time who can tell you that, including people who’ve worked for me for 30 years. I know how to separate both, and I do a very good job of it. 

“There are some assumptions that this board, or family members of this board, benefited from the sale of that property, which is not only rude, it is ruthless and disgusting,” Morrison said. “It’s also been said I personally dictated the sale of that property. That property has been discussed with this board several times. We followed every policy and every bylaw.”

Kimble said that the only other time the Monroe property was discussed publicly at a board meeting was during an informational study session in 2012 when another builder was interested in it. Kimble also said there are problems with Morrison’s account of the events. 

“Morrison claims at the August 2016 meeting that he met with different builders that all passed on the property. That’s not his job, and I don’t believe he did so,” Kimble said. “Open bidding is the only fair process. Then a decision could be made based on the merits of each bid. This is just another example of the ongoing relationship of no-bid work between Emergency Restoration — Morrison’s buddy — and Madison Schools. Taxpayers and students are the victims.”

Speck further explained his position on the sale in an email to C & G Newspapers.

“We cast a vision for what we believed would be good community and economic development for the south side of the city, one that would benefit the school district but one that would also place a higher value on the south side community. And through different conversations with different people, we found the best person to do that…and to do it within the vision that we hoped for was John David,” Speck stated.

“Could there have been an open bid?… Of course…. Could there have been a town hall?…Yes. But once again, and I have to emphasize this, my experience with our local residents has been a lack of interest in anything the school district does, no matter how much reaching out we do…No matter the improvements in facilities and programs and test scores. And that’s fine…they don’t have to be interested,” he stated.

 

Resident concerns

The superintendent said in another email that residents had an opportunity to weigh in during a series of meetings over the summer of 2016 featuring Morrison, several trustees and Monroe neighbors. He said these were advertised on Facebook and in flyers posted on trees near the Monroe property. 

“The purpose was to get feedback and listen, but to also educate,” Speck said. “The school board has the authority to make the best decisions they feel will benefit not only the students of (Madison Schools), but the overall school community. As I remember it, no one cared about that property until we decided we could have an impact with it. That impact would be for both economic and community development.” 

Kimble said that the summer meetings would have been after the sale was approved by the board on March 7, 2016, and several of them were after the closing documents were signed on June 24, 2016. And so the neighbors’ input would have been irrelevant to the deal at that point, since the deal was already done. 

“Technically, the taxpayers are the owners of that property. Not Speck, and not Morrison,” Kimble said. “I remind (the board) they’re trustees of the public. They’re there to do the public’s work, not their own. And the taxpayers weren’t consulted on the sale and development of the land.”

People living near the Monroe property expressed frustration that the green space is going to be developed into housing and that they weren’t notified beforehand.

“You look out the windows of the side of our house, and there’s the park. I don’t want to look at another house. I want to keep that park,” said Patty Bettridge, who has lived at the corner of Alger Boulevard and West Dallas Avenue for around 20 years. “I hear from residents around our neighborhood, and they bring their dogs there and run. We’ve walked around this park for years. Everyone does. That’ll be curtailed if they put houses there. It’s a valued recreation area, and we weren’t given a say in how this land is being used. We want to keep the park.”

Gloria Thompson lives on West Barrett Avenue. 

“I, as a taxpayer, find it really suspicious, the amount of money they got for that property. Why not turn it into a park?” she said. “The kids nearby don’t have a park to go play. This is their own park. The one the city put in (on the west end of Monroe) is fine for little kids, but it doesn’t accommodate older kids who want to go somewhere and hit a ball around or play catch. It isn’t fair to this end of the city at all.”

Debbie Ott lives a short distance away. She grew up on West Dallas Avenue.

“All of us kids went through the Monroe school. When they tore it down, it became a beautiful green space for the south end of Madison Heights. And that property just flourished with families and dogs and kids playing games. It’s wonderful,” Ott said. “But we were not notified of this sale. They did this in the dark.”

Jo-Ann Sztaba lives at the corner of West Dallas Avenue and Alger Boulevard. She said school officials told her at her fence line that they’d let her know if any uses were considered for the Monroe property.

“But I never heard from them. And then one day, I heard they had sold the land,” Sztaba said. “I’m not happy about this at all. And my neighbors aren’t happy about it either. Living on the corner, I see people going to the (property) all the time. They love that place. I tell people (about the development) when they’re walking their dogs, and they’re like, ‘Aww man.’ And if they cut down the trees, where will all the birds and squirrels live? Those trees have been there for over 50 years.”

Marc Andrews, who lives right in front of the Monroe property on West Dallas Avenue, said he has concerns as well.

“I talked to neighbors around here that I’ve known since I was a child. Everyone on my street is against this development,” Andrews said. “I think the school board is just giving away property. If this is how they handle business, they shouldn’t be in there. They’re supposed to be for the kids and the community, but this feels like some sort of backdoor deal. It just feels kinda fishy.”