Good Land Stewards

By Charles K. Trainor

For many Americans, purchasing land to build a home is one of their most important investments. Similarly, your board’s decision to buy land for a new school or sports field is a major undertaking.

Because it’s one of your district’s most valuable assets, decisions surrounding land purchases and sales can impact your finances for decades. You need to be careful when acquiring, leasing, or disposing of district land.

Land transactions involving public entities such as school districts have a long history of being tainted by questionable ethics and financial abuse. In 1870, the federal government granted 3 million acres of heavily wooded land to Oregon officials to build a railroad from Portland to California. The grant was sold for $2.50 an acre to encourage the development of settlements and schools. However, an enterprising railroad official hired an itinerant lumberman to recruit vagrants and other disinterested individuals in Portland to seek the grants.

The grants were registered, then quickly transferred and packaged into larger tracts that were auctioned off to timber companies for harvesting. The government intended to provide land and funding for educational purposes, but the sale of logging rights diverted funding from area schools.

Fraud on such a grand scale is not a common occurrence today, but many pitfalls await districts preparing to engage in land transactions. The potential for conflicts of interest, environmental problems, and soil contamination require that your board be alert and well informed.

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