The Davenport School Board’s decision in July to sell the old Lincoln School to a non-profit for $30,000 brought an outpouring of criticism.
Driving much of the complaint was the knowledge that a developer who wanted to open a veterans facility had offered a lot more money for the old school at 318 E. 7th St. And with the district facing financial struggles, the decision didn’t make sense to some people, including two board members, who opposed the transaction. Four board members voted to approve the sale.
At the time, supporters argued that money isn’t everything – and they noted the non-profit, which is affiliated with Third Missionary Baptist Church, a long-standing force for good in Davenport, had plans for a community center in the old school. The center, they said, would include teen outreach and parental support.
This editorial board – while being critical of the ultimate decision – still saw merit in the argument that money should not be the sole motivator in this equation. A community center in this part of our city would surely provide much good.
These are not easy questions, made less so by the involvement in the negotiations of board member Linda Hayes, who also is an employee of the church. (Hayes took part in closed meetings regarding the sale but abstained from voting.)
Given the questions involved, we believe it’s important for the constituents of the district to know as much as possible about this sale. So, it was dismaying to see the district continue to refuse release of key records on this matter when sent a records request by Quad-City Times reporter Megan Valley.
Valley sought all the other sale offers for the property. She also asked for internal emails going back to 2017 that included the word “Lincoln.”
Records related to the other offers are being withheld pending close of the sale. A district official told Valley that Board President Ralph Johanson said withholding such information is necessary to avoid hurting the district’s “future negotiating position should the current sale fall through.”
As for the internal emails, she was told it would be the new superintendent, Robert Kobylski, who would be going through the emails himself in order to meet the request and the Times would be charged for his time accordingly. The new superintendent makes $239,000 per year, so the Times withdrew the request.
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Members of this editorial board have not had the opportunity to meet Kobylski yet. We don’t know him. But we find it hard to believe the district’s top executive, with all the challenges facing him, is the only person on staff who could handle this basic request. We have, however, been in the business of covering government long enough to know that one of the best ways to fight a records request is to threaten a two-ton bill to process it.
As for waiting until the closing date to release records related to other offers, the school district appears within its legal rights. But given that a contract has been signed, and the board has already voted to approve it, the insistence on waiting raises even more questions with us about this transaction.
Is there some reason it wouldn't go through?
We would note, too, that the Bettendorf School District did not insist on waiting until closing to release information on the sale of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
It is not lost on us – or probably anybody – that there is an election coming up in less than a month. And the closing of the Lincoln School sale is due at about the same time.
Johanson is not on the ballot, but Hayes is. So is Dan Gosa, another board member, who voted to approve the sale.
As we stated earlier, we did not see the decision on whom to sell the school as a slam dunk. Offering excess property to the highest bidder isn’t always the best way to serve a community. However, when such decisions come along, particularly in a district that has had financial troubles, it's vital that the public get a clear explanation.
So far, we’ve received little of that. And when this newspaper has sought documentation to try to provide answers to the public, we have been stymied.
No matter what happens with Lincoln School itself, this episode is troubling.