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March 1, 2013

Editorial: Charter asset selloff should be through a public auction

Since hosting a Feb. 16 preview of the many items expected to be up for grabs, the beleaguered trustees of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School have clearly slowed their rush to have the school’s finances cleared by today, the start of a new month — or have been forced to slow the pace, pending a still-awaited approval from the state’s Board of Education.

Yet that may well be a good thing, for it should give school and state officials time to recognize that a full open public auction should be the most fair and lucrative means of recouping the most money to pay off the school’s creditors —and perhaps even return money to the state and its taxpayers, who, lest we forget, largely paid for these computers, desks, chairs and musical instruments, including two pianos, in the first place.

As of Monday night, that wasn’t the game plan. Posting on the school’s website, GCACS officials listed a wide variety of items as part of a “special sale,” complete with fixed prices of $4,800 for a grand piano assessed at $8,000 and a series of desktop computers with monitors pegged at $48 apiece.

Those, of course, sound like pretty good deals, and they could have generated interest in the sale overall. But remember, the trustees — playing with property owned by a public school and purchased with taxpayer dollars – aren’t in any position to offer fixed-price deals. They’re supposed to be reeling in all they can to be able to pay off their creditors, starting hopefully with property owner Mick Lafata, who is presently out more than $1 million in cash he had every reason to expect from five years of rent before the school folded midway through Year 3.

Thankfully, the list of sale items and their fixed prices have been taken down from the school’s online site — hopefully, so both state and local charter officials can rethink the entire sale format. For no matter how you slice it, selling items for fixed prices leaves the very real likelihood that the school would not realize all that an auction buyer might bid. And that could wrongly shortchange creditors, and taxpayers alike.

Let’s hope school and state officials recognize once again that the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School is — or was — a public school, and this sell-off is offering public property with an eye only toward bringing in the highest possible bottom line.

That’s not likely to be achieved by offering computers for $48 a pop. An auction with minimum bids would be a far better route.

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