The lease for Clancy’s Old Red Schoolhouse might be ambiguous, but not so the special place the facility has in the hearts of the north county communities it serves in many ways.
Both points became clear the evening of Oct. 29, when about 70 people packed the Jefferson City Community Center for an otherwise routine meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners. Apparently most were drawn there for one agenda item: “Discuss Clancy Old Red Schoolhouse lease.”
The Commission mostly denied reports that it would cancel its lease — but indicated it hopes to restructure the agreement.
“We were pretty sure it was important to folks in Clancy,” said Commissioner Bob Mullen, scanning the filled room as he opened the item for discussion. “Is there anybody left in town?”
In the days leading up to the meeting, stakeholders including Clancy Library, the building’s primary tenant, shared more than once on Facebook that night’s agenda and a message imploring people to attend the meeting — even including a map to make sure people knew where the meeting was taking place.
The building’s other tenants include the Jefferson County Museum and the County Public Health Department.
Over the course of the meeting Mullen and Commissioner Cory Kirsch — Commissioner Leonard Wortman was absent due to illness — reiterated the county’s stance: it wanted to address concerns with the lease, but was not interested in or planning to do anything that would disrupt the tenants’ existing operations.
The 99-year lease for $1 is between Clancy School, which owns the building, and the county, Mullen said.
“The county attorney has some concerns about the lease,” Mullen told the crowd. “There’s a great deal of ambiguity in it” — including, he and Kirsch stated more than once, questions of who is responsible for significant repairs.
County Attorney Steve Haddon told The Monitor a few days after the meeting that he couldn’t yet address specific concerns. He did note that some provisions were ambiguous, while “others put responsibility for certain repairs and maintenance” upon the county’s shoulders “in essence for a building the county does not own.”
“The lease in my judgement not in the best interest of the county,” he said.
“We’re fools if we don’t take the advice of the county attorney,” Mullen told those attending the Oct. 29 meeting. “The advice we’re getting from the county attorney is that the lease needs attention.”
Mullen and Kirsch both explained that the county signed on as a lessee to make insurance more affordable for the library.
“Slowly [the county’s involvement has] just evolved, and it’s needed to be re-tweaked,” Mullen said, noting a few moments later that “we don’t see any changes happening for some time anyway, if they happen at all,” and that the county would work with the school and the library “to try to figure out how we can better write this lease.”
Jane Hamman, chair of the North Jefferson County Library District board, confronted Mullen. “Mr. Chairman,” she said, “I’m glad to hear that things are changing from what a week ago we were told that the commissioners were seriously considering canceling the lease as of June 30 next year.”
(In an email sent the following day, Hamman told The Monitor that Mullen, addressing the Oct. 17 meeting of the library district board, “said that the County Attorney is advising the county to ‘get out of the lease’ and that the commissioners were considering giving 60 days notice to end the lease by June 30 next year.”)
“I’m not sure we were ever talking about canceling the lease,” Mullen responded. “[But] I would love to see a different lessee than the county.”
He continued: “What we have going on in Clancy is unique. If we could figure out a way to do that, I would love to see the library probably be the principal lessee of the building, and not the county. That’s the only change I’m really interested in seeing.”
Hamman, in a second email to The Monitor, outlined the board’s wishes — which do not include taking on the lease.
“The board reached consensus at an Oct. 22 work session that they would like to see the county and the school revise and renew the 99-year lease,” she wrote. “And then the county and the library revise accordingly the Memorandum of Agreement and that it would be most appropriate for the county also to sign a MOA with the Museum and the Health Department so that responsibilities of each tenant of the building are clear and known to all.”
Hamman also stated that the “current, confusing lease and MOA” has often caused library staff or trustees to divert attention from serving patrons to repairing and maintaining the building and managing rent and utility payments from other tenants.
A handful of people at the meeting spoke about the value they find within the Old Red Schoolhouse, whether at the library, museum or health department or inside the community meeting room, which was renovated in 2018 and, in fiscal year 2019, according to figures Hamman provided, “was used 458 times by dozens of different community groups.”
The facility’s value extends beyond Clancy residents, Jefferson County resident Bud Siderits stood to say.
“[Don’t] forget that the Little Red Schoolhouse, with the museum, the library and the health services, are really a service to all of us here in the north of Jefferson County,” he said. “And a day doesn’t go by that we all share in this.”
Longtime Clancy resident Bob Marks agreed with the need to revisit the lease but encouraged the commissioners not to change anything in the meantime.
“I’m not an attorney, but it doesn’t take long to get lost in reading that lease,” he told the commissioners. “And it leaves a lot of speculation, and questions about where the responsibilities lie as far as the operation of that. I think the idea that a new lease, or a revised lease, be put together is a good one ... [but] I would suggest that you continue as you have been for the time being.”
Marks was referring to support the county has provided over the years, including helping to fund new boilers and numerous other repairs and improvements, including most recently a $10,000 commitment toward an in-process $25,000 restroom repair project. In many cases, a core group of library supporters has raised money and invested sweat equity to complement the county’s contribution or fill in for what the county didn’t cover.
Mullen said that if the county can shift the risk of liability to the library it “doesn’t mean we won’t participate in repairs of the building. I don’t think anything would be different other than [the library] would be the lessee rather than the county.”
That isn’t necessarily what will transpire. As Kirsch told the crowd moments earlier, “There’s so many options right now, it’s just like we’re trying to explain something that we can’t explain because we don’t know any of the answers right now.”
In response to a question about whether Clancy School, as the building’s owner, ought to be responsible for repairs and lease revisisions, Mullen said, “I think that’s maybe a shared responsibility between the two of us. It’s the way we’ve been operating, anyway.”
As the meeting neared its end Mullen thanked everyone for attending and offered assurances. “There’s no interest in closing that building, there never has been. Too important, can’t replicate it anywhere else.”
The next step would be for Haddon, the county attorney, to work with the tenants, the county and the school on rewriting the lease and to “figure out what we're going to do next, what’s possible,” Mullen said.
A timeline was not discussed.