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December 09, 2016
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The tortured recent history of the Narrowsburg School

NARROWSBURG, NY — While most people agree that the Narrowsburg School was a positive force in the community for decades, the recent history of the school, or more precisely the history of the people trying to determine its future, is a tale of dreams and broken promises.

After the merger of the Jeffersonville-Youngsville, Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley school districts in 2000, officials of the newly formed Sullivan West School District were so optimistic about the future of the district that they proposed building a brand new high school and renovating two existing schools. Voters approved the plan, which called for spending about $5 million to update the Narrowsburg School.

Just two years after the renovation was complete, in 2005, the Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley Schools were mothballed because of declining student enrollment. The following year, the New York State Comptroller’s Office said taxpayers’ money was wasted on the renovation of the two schools, and officials should have been aware that enrollment in the district was declining, and that therefore the new high school was not needed.

The late Noel van Swol, then a member of the Sullivan West School Board, said at the time that the report vindicated his position that the new high school should never have been built. He also said the New York State Education Department held some of the blame, because it never should have approved the funds that allowed the school to be built. “The incompetence goes to the highest levels of state government,” he said.

Former superintendent Michael John-drow, however, said at the time projections were for enrollment to remain stable or decline only slightly, and that no one could have known the district would lose 250 students.

Fast forward to 2009 when, with the district paying $345,000 a year to maintain the two closed schools and keep the heat at minimal levels, the board opted to have the buildings appraised. The appraisal for the Narrowsburg School came in at about $700,000, while the debt for the renovation stood at about $3.6 million. In other words, the school was worth nearly $3 million less than was owed.

The board ultimately decided to try to sell both schools.

In 2010, Ilwon Kang stepped into the picture. A self-described developer from Manhattan, who said he wanted to buy both buildings for about $3 million, he proposed to use the Narrowsburg School as a boutique hotel or as some sort of “annex” to a larger hospitality project located elsewhere in Sullivan County. His plan for the Delaware Valley Campus was to open an international school, but he never had any meetings with officials in the Town of Fremont.

Kang’s bid sparked a competing bid from farmer and sustainable energy activist Dick Riseling, who offered to pay $725,000 for the Narrowsburg School to be used as a community center with uses related to agriculture, the arts and other uses such as perhaps a creamery.

The board voted to reject Riseling’s bid and accept Kang’s bid. That led to an attempt at a permissive referendum, in which more than 1,255 signatures were collected calling for a vote on the Narrowsburg School. Not enough votes were collected to force a referendum on the Delaware Valley campus, but it seemed for a few days that the Narrowsburg question would be put to the voters.

However, a technicality about the wording on the petition led the board to reject it because it did not comply with state law. Then-superintendent Ken Hilton said at the time, “I tried the best I could to allow the referendum to occur, but it can’t; the laws of New York State won’t allow it.”

Kang ultimately offered a $150,000 deposit on the two properties, but with the provision that he could get the money back if the sale did not go through. Negotiations with Kang dragged on for more than a year, but ultimately Kang walked away from the deal and took his $150,000 deposit with him.

Once again, van Swol was there to say, “I told you so.” He wrote in a letter to the editor of The River Reporter at the end of 2011, “There are some people in the community who ran after Ilwon Kang for a year or more and are now trying to save face by claiming this debacle cost us nothing. Actually, it did. Rather than totally shut the buildings down, Sullivan West spent approximately $180,000 in utility bills, etc. during the year-long period Kang had optioned the buildings. Because we could not retain Kang’s deposit, Sullivan West taxpayers had to absorb that entire cost.

“As I have repeatedly said, Mr. Kang appears to have been just one more in a long line of promoters who have come to Sullivan County over the last 40 years promising the moon and delivering nothing. No wonder people are cynical.”

The board later voted to drain the pipes, turn off the heat and close the schools completely, which led to the cancellation of EagleFest, which had previously been held in the school, in the winter of 2012.