Archive for Thursday, August 17, 2000

Misunderstanding not good for public relations


August 17, 2000

Here's a good rule of thumb for the DeSoto school district the next time it faces a tricky predicament involving land takeover:

Ask all the questions.

The school district stands redfaced today because of a misunderstanding with its lawyer, who was instructed by the school board to take action to help the school district acquire a school site it occupied for years.

Action, in this case, meant a lawsuit against residents of a subdivision.

The district had no idea.

Neither did the school board.

"It just never occurred to us that the action taken would be a lawsuit," said Superintendent Marilyn Layman.

Chalk it up as a misunderstanding, but make no bones about it, pleading ignorance might soothe some hurt feelings, but this still has all the makings of a public relations nightmare.

The school district filed suit against the residents to clear the deed for the Monticello kindergarten building, located at 71st Street, near Crest Street in Shawnee. The building was built in 1923 and was acquired by the DeSoto district when it expanded to parts of Shawnee several years ago.

The building has not been used by the school district since 1998 and, according to school officials, would need major renovations before it could be used again.

Consequently, the district wants to sell the property and invest the money elsewhere. Before it can sell, however, the deed must be cleared.

The district owns most of the approximately six acres outright, but the tract of land on which the building sits was deeded to the district's predecessor in 1923 by two women, with a stipulation that it could be used only for "school purposes."

If the land were used for anything other than a school in the future, the deed specifies, it would "revert back to the tract of land of which it was originally a part."

According to John Vratil, attorney for the school district, the original tract of land has since been subdivided into approximately 50 separate tracts of land owned by 70 different people. According to the law, each of the 70 residents could claim ownership to an equal portion of the two acres if the land were sold.

Vratil suggested that the board pursue a quit title to the land and the board agreed.

Vratil sent letters to the 70 property owners, informing them that they had been named a defendant in a lawsuit. Vratil said, because the each resident owned only a small part of the land, he anticipated that most would not bother to answer the lawsuit and the district would get the land by default.

The board was stunned when a couple of residents served with papers appeared at a recent school board meeting to voice their disapproval.

Thankfully, the school board had the common sense to pull back on pursuing the lawsuit and will try to acquire the land in a more diplomatic way.

"The board is regretful," Layman said. "A lawsuit was never an understanding that occured to us and the board members are in the process of writing a letter of apology to everyone involved."

It's our hope there is a lesson learned by our elected leaders: Measure twice, cut once.

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