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Schools

School land deal criticized

Joe Newsome, who retired from the School Board, will reap $3.8-million from the sale.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published March 31, 2007


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TAMPA - Four years after Joe Newsome retired from the Hillsborough School Board, a land deal with the school district is ensuring a generous inheritance for his children.

His family stands to make $3.8-million by selling 34 acres of strawberry fields for a campus at Interstate 4 and McIntosh Road. The Newsome property commanded the highest price - $110,000 per acre - of the three major parcels under contract for the campus.

The property may not be easy to develop. The county says much of the land may sit in a high-risk flood zone. School officials are appealing that designation, but they also must figure out how to get water and sewer to the rural campus - a significant cost that will fall on taxpayers.

Newsome and school administrators defend the deal, which critics say smacks of cronyism.

"I didn't give up my rights because I've been a School Board member," said Newsome, who served 24 years on the board. "If they want to buy it, it's for sale."

As required by Florida law, the school district got two appraisals of each property to determine a fair sales price, said Cathy Valdes, the chief facilities officer for Hillsborough schools.

"He's a private citizen, just like anybody else, and probably in many ways would have the school district's interests at heart," she said of Newsome. "I don't see why that should work against it."

But Sandy Denham, a 28-year teacher in Hillsborough schools, wonders why the district wasn't interested in a 50-acre parcel just up the road selling for half the price of the Newsome land.

"It's a good-old-boys system. It always has been and it always will be," said Denham, who teaches at Plant City High. "As a teacher and a citizen, I just want our School Board to be accountable. They want us to be."

- - -

Newsome, 66, inherited the land with his sister. They grew up in the fields where the sugary perfume of ripe strawberries signals the end of the season. Their father worked the land as a sharecropper, before the interstate brought traffic right to the property line.

"In my wildest dreams, I never thought a school was going here," said Newsome, standing beside a pink azalea he planted for his mother in 1956.

Newsome worked as a pharmacist and owned the Brown and Newsome Prescription Center until 1995.

He left the School Board in 2002. Since then, four new members have been elected. Newsome said he stays away from school business except for the occasional retirement party and graduation at Newsome High, christened in his honor south of Brandon.

Newsome said he doesn't know how his family's land came to the district's attention. He said it had been on the market for about 20 years, but the family wasn't "chomping at the bit" to sell.

School officials say the conversation started with Newsome's neighbors, the Griffins, who own adjoining land through a family partnership. Faye Blount, a member of the family, told officials in an e-mail that Newsome had mentioned the district was looking for land.

The location wasn't the district's first choice. But officials say they were attracted by the amount of land for sale around the Griffin property, including the Newsome acreage. Road access was another selling point.

So was location. It's where the boundaries for three crowded high schools intersect.

In October, the board agreed to buy 34 acres from the Newsome family at $110,000 per acre. Members also agreed to buy 10 acres from Stephen Glaros of Jacksonville for $105,000 per acre.

In March, the board completed the 100-acre campus by agreeing to pay $102,000 per acre for the Griffins' 57 acres, and $195,000 for a one-acre homestead under separate ownership on the Newsome land. Land costs totaled nearly $11-million.

The district received other offers, including some that were less expensive. School officials did not document why one property was preferred over another.

Lance deHaven-Smith, a government professor at Florida State University, said the district should have ensured greater "transparency" by rating properties and releasing the results.

"That should be a safeguard against the unconscious influence of personal relationships," he said.

School officials say they are keeping better records now.

"It didn't dawn on us that we were going to have to justify every thought that we have," Valdes said.

- - -

If the school district closes on the properties as scheduled in May, the high school could open in August 2009. Plans call for an elementary and middle school next door, but there's no money yet to build them.

The plans don't show what might be required to deal with the possibility of flooding.

School officials initially were unaware that much of the campus became a high-risk flood zone when Hillsborough modernized its flood maps. Early versions of the maps have been available since October 2005.

As it stands now, about half of the Newsome land and one-fourth of the Griffins' falls into the potential flood zone.

Valdes said the district would not have wanted to build the campus where much of the land could flood, in part because of the extensive mitigation that would have been required. And construction codes discourage the placement of "critical" facilities like schools in flood zones.

But school officials say they aren't worried.

The district is challenging the data used to update the flood zones and thinks the high-risk area will shrink significantly in the final version. The county acknowledges flaws in the information, but can't say what will change until the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues a ruling.

Meanwhile, school planners are trying to figure out the best way to connect water and sewer.

Officials say the district couldn't acquire sufficient property for a high school where the county already offers utilities. So the district may tap on-site wells for water and extend sewer lines about 3 miles.

Valdes said the district still is pricing the cost. She dismissed fears about unexpected expenses troubling the $49-million construction budget.

"We're not anticipating anything that we can't work with," Valdes said, noting that the district will save money by spreading costs across three schools.

- - -

Land values are tricky to assess. As the joke goes, dirt is worth whatever someone's willing to pay for it.

Open land in east Hillsborough averages about $60,000 per acre, but can climb to $150,000 or higher, said Tim Wilmath, the Hillsborough Property Appraiser's director of valuation. Zoning and location are key.

He said sales near the Newsome land ranged from about $50,000 to $200,000 per acre. The higher amount was for a parcel primed for intense development around Brandon.

Ten acres directly across the interstate from the planned campus sold for $1-million in October 2005. That suggests acreage prices in the low $100,000s for properties such as the Newsome family's, which is in line with what the district agreed to pay.

But not everyone thinks that's a reasonable price for farmland.

"It's incompetent to pay that kind of money if you know your business at all," said developer David Campo, who offered the district a lower-priced property that was rejected. "It smacks of cronyism, at the very least."

Officials used four appraisers to assess the properties. One appraiser came in with the highest estimate in every instance. Those were the prices the district agreed to pay.

Still, some sellers remain unsatisfied.

Herb Hurlburt, general manager of the Griffin family partnership, questioned why their property was appraised at $8,000 per acre less than the Newsome family land. He is seeking tax benefits for what he sees as the Griffins' "charitable" contribution.

Newsome thinks his land was worth more than what he got. But he and his sister feel it's the right time to sell. They like the idea of a school on family land.

The profits aren't going to change his lifestyle. He plans to drive the same GMC truck and live in the same house. Money from the land sale will benefit his children and grandchildren.

He has little use for critics:

"This land's for sale. If the School Board doesn't buy it, and you want to buy it, I'll sell it to you."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400.

[Last modified March 31, 2007, 06:50:24]


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