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Ambler v. Board of School Directors of Hatboro-Horsham School District

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

December 12, 2019

Peggy Ambler, an adult individual, and John Ambler, an adult individual
Board of School Directors of the Hatboro-Horsham School District, and Hatboro-Horsham School District, a Political Subdivision, Appellants

          ARGUED: November 14, 2019




         The Board of School Directors (Board) of the Hatboro-Horsham School District and the Hatboro-Horsham School District (District) appeal from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County (trial court), Orphans' Court Division, granting equitable relief to Peggy and John Ambler (Amblers) to the effect of directing that any sale of the property on which the Limekiln Simmons Elementary School (Property or Limekiln Simmons School) stands be in accordance with what is commonly known as the Donated or Dedicated Property Act (DDPA).[1]The Board and the District assert that any sale of the property is governed instead by Section 707 of the Public School Code of 1949[2] (Code). We agree and therefore reverse.

         The facts of the case were stipulated by the parties and are not in dispute. (Stipulated Facts "S.F." 1-34, Reproduced Record "R.R." at 142-147a.) The Amblers maintain a residence, farm, and natural area located in Horsham Township, Montgomery County. The Amblers' residence, farm, and natural area, from which the Property originated, is adjacent to the Property on multiple sides and comprises multiple parcels which have been in the Ambler family for several generations. The District is a successor to the District of the Township of Horsham (Horsham Township School District). The Board has final decision-making authority for the District and operates on its behalf. The Property is owned by the District. In 1931, Dorothea Simmons (Simmons) donated ten acres-a portion of her farm property- to the Horsham Township School District for use as a public school. The Horsham Township School District accepted the Property donated by Simmons. In 1933, a school, which is now known as the Limekiln Simmons School, was built on the Property, with construction largely supported by general tax revenues. A plaque memorializing Simmons' donation was erected at the school. In 1957, additional real estate was transferred from Howard Ambler, Jr., to Horsham Township School District for $100.[3] Between 1953 and 1957, additions were made to the school building with the cost of construction largely supported by general tax revenues. From 1933 to 1992, the building known as Limekiln Simmons School was used as a school for kindergarten through the fifth grade, at which time students in those grades were moved to the current Simmons Elementary School at a different location.

         Subsequently, a Montessori school leased the Property in 1992 and occupied the Limekiln Simmons School building for intervention classes until 1999. In 2000, special education services were moved into the Limekiln Simmons School, as were kindergarten students. In 2009, preschool classes were relocated to the Limekiln Simmons School; also, Montgomery County Intermediate Unit Speech class and Special Services/Education Officers were relocated to other buildings. In 2010, the District added another preschool class at Limekiln Simmons School. In August 2011, the Limekiln Simmons School closed but remained officially open with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. From its opening to its closure, all expenses of upkeep, maintenance, heating, lighting, and plumbing were supported by the District with general tax revenue. The Property has not been used by the School District since August of 2011.[4]

         In anticipation of selling the Property, the Board and the District obtained appraisals and assessments. In November 2016, the District entered into an agreement of sale with Danny Jake Corporation, a private developer, to sell the Property for $593, 140, which agreement included numerous contingencies. The Agreement contained a no-cost, no-obligation termination clause and required that the buyer demolish the school building and pay all associated costs.

         In April 2017, the Board filed a petition in the trial court requesting approval of the sale citing the Code as authority for the sale. (S.F. 28, R.R. at 146a.) The trial court held hearings in May 2017, November 2017, and January 2018, open to interested parties on the issue of valuation for the proposed sale of the Property. (S.F. 30.) During the course of the hearings, the Amblers objected to the sale citing the provisions of the DDPA. (S.F. 29, 31.) In support of the sale of the Property, the Board and the District presented the testimony of two expert appraisers and the director of business affairs for the District. (S.F. 32.)

         In January 2018, the trial court issued a memorandum and order staying its decision on the valuation of the Property and granted the Amblers leave to file a complaint in equity in the Orphans' Court Division. (S.F. 34.) In March 2018, the Amblers filed their complaint, to which the Board and District filed an answer and new matter. Following a directive of the trial court, the parties filed stipulations of fact (set forth above). In December 2018, after briefing, the trial court issued an order granting Count I of the Amblers' complaint, requiring that any sale of the Property proceed in accordance with the DDPA. The order of the trial court precluded the proposed sale. This appeal followed. The trial court issued an opinion pursuant to Rule 1925(a) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure, Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a).

         On appeal, [5] the central issue-an issue of first impression-is whether the Code or the DDPA or both apply to the disposal by sale of the Property donated by Simmons. The Board and District contend that the sale of the Property should be governed exclusively by Section 707 of the Code, 24 P.S. § 7-707, and that the trial court erred in requiring any sale of the school to comply with the DDPA. We agree.

         Section 707 of the Code vests in a school board "the power and authority" to sell unused and unnecessary land and buildings through a variety of means. Id. At private sale, the method the District and Board intended to use to sell the property, the following process applies:

At private sale, subject to the approval of the court of common pleas of the county in which the school district is located. Approval of the court shall be on petition of the board of school directors, which petition shall be executed by the proper officers of the board, and shall contain a full and complete description of the land proposed to be sold, a brief description and character of the building or buildings erected thereon, if any, the name of the prospective purchaser, the amount offered for the property, and shall have attached thereto an affidavit of at least two persons who are familiar with the values of real estate in the locality in which the land and buildings proposed to be sold are located, to the effect that they have examined the property, that the price offered therefor is a fair and reasonable one and in their opinion a better price than could be obtained at public sale, and that they are not interested, either directly or indirectly, in the purchase or sale thereof. Before the court may act upon any such petition it shall fix a time for a hearing thereon and shall direct that public notice thereof be given as provided in clause (1) of this section. A return of sale shall be made to the court after the sale has been consummated and the deed executed and delivered.

24 P.S. § 7-707(3). A district may use the funds derived from such sales for debt service or capital expenditures. 24 P.S. § 7-707(7). There is no distinction in Section 707 between buildings and lands acquired through donation and those acquired ...

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