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A school, indeed, forever?

Property's 148-year-old deed could make it difficult for officials to close Gales Creek Elementary

In an effort to close a gaping hole in the Forest Grove School District budget, Dave Willard is turning over every rock looking for savings.

One contentious idea is the closure of the district's smallest campus: Gales Creek Elementary School. While considering the closure has drawn sharp criticism from parents, doing so would save the district up to $310,000 a year, the equivalent of about four teaching positions each year.

But the will of two women, who Willard, the district assistant superintendent, has never met, may complicate the school's closure.

The 148-year-old deed to the land beneath the school, nearly as old as the state of Oregon, stipulates that the property must be used for educational purposes or else returned to the heirs of Caroline Lee and Savil Wilson Iler.

In 1862, the Ilers requested the following: 'If the … successors in office suffer the premises to be used for any other purpose than a site for a School house then this deed [is] to become void,' returning the property to the Iler family.

With a copy of the property deed in hand, school district attorney Brian Hungerford is scouring the agreement's particulars. 'It is quite an interesting and unusual situation,' he said Tuesday morning, adding that he might need to refer the district to someone who specializes in property law.

Willard said he's 'waiting for legal expertise.' He also, however, asked rhetorically, 'If the school were to close and not be used for anything, what would that mean? Since it was deeded so long ago and the district has invested so much money in it, what would that mean?'

One option around the deed could be escheatment, a common law doctrine that would give the land to the state if interested heirs do not emerge. But the Iler family still has roots in the Northwest, and in interviews with the News-Times, family members expressed concern for the property their forebears bequeathed to the district, even if no one asked them until now.

Not contacted

Two great-great granddaughters of Caroline and Savil Iler, Jeri Iler of Amity, Ore., and Mary LaRae Avery of Chesterfield, Ida., said last week they had not been contacted by the school district, adding that there are dozens of surviving Iler and Lee descendants. The great-great-great niece of Caroline Iler, a 68-year-old Gales Creek resident who asked not to be named, also said last week that she had not been contacted.

Both Jeri Iler and Mary LaRae Avery said they would hate to see Gales Creek close.

'We would have interest in the land only to give it to Gales Creek with the stipulation that it be turned into a park, picnic area, library, place to hold family reunions, or anything like that … we don't want to see it sold for housing projects or condos,' said Avery.

The two women echoed the alarm of Gales Creek parents, saying they could understand the economics of needing to close the school, but worried it would be to the detriment of the students and the community.

'Kids will be spending time on the bus when they could be spending time with their family,' said Avery.

Not the first

The Iler descendants would not be the first to inherit former school land from the Forest Grove School District. When the Lyda schoolhouse burned down in the 1940s not far from the site of Gales Creek Elementary, the school's property was returned to the heirs of William Madison Lyda, who had donated an acre of land in 1899 to be used for education, said Gales Creek residents Nancy Van Loo and Joyce Sauber.

'This situation is not unheard of for old deeds,' said John Russell, asset manager at the Oregon Department of State Lands. In fact, repurposing school properties has been a common dilemma since Oregon joined the Union in 1859, when a generous 6 percent of the state's land was set aside for educational purposes.

Nationally, other states have juggled similar dilemmas in transforming or returning land stipulated for education. When a Virginia school district closed Williston Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., in 1974, the district was forced to get creative with keeping the school building engaged in an educational use. Williston became an administrative center for the school district, as well as housing adult education classes and courses for adults learning English as a second language.

Depending on how they define "schoolhouse," Forest Grove School District attorneys may decide to take a course similar to Williston by reinventing the educational purpose of the school.

Creativity will be key no matter what, as the district faces huge budget reductions of $7 million to $10 million in 2011-2012 due to loss of federal stimulus money and the continued effects of the Great Recession on state income tax revenue.

Sauber, an unofficial town historian, said Gales Creek Elementary faced a similar threat of closure in 2003. 'This is not new for us,' she noted.

Still, Sauber wonders, 'Why would you want to close such an excellent school that's steeped in so much history?'