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Morton School District selling farmland it purchased for $4.4 million in 2013

Craig Smock, left, speaks at a Morton School Board meeting.
Steve Stein
Craig Smock, left, speaks at a Morton School Board meeting.

Ten years after purchasing nearly 124 acres of farmland off South Fourth Avenue for $4.4 million to address future facilities needs, the Morton School District is selling the land.

The asking price is a minimum $22,000 per acre, or $2.7 million. Sealed bids were opened Monday. The sale of the land to the highest bidder is on the School Board meeting agenda Tuesday.

Building a new Morton High School on the South Fourth site was the most discussed use for the land at board meetings. But that discussion hasn't taken place for years.

In the resolution approved by the School Board in August for the sale, the land is described as "unnecessary, unsuitable, and inconvenient for a public high school and unnecessary for the use of the district ..."

Morton Superintendent Craig Smock, who was the district's assistant superintendent in 2013, said the land isn't suitable for a school because of its topography, which includes a creek.

Plus, "expectations that the village would do the necessary infrastructure improvements on and around the site didn't come to fruition," he said.

"There's also been a change in vision in our district. This board and previous boards have decided to invest in our current buildings, not build new ones."

Among the K-12 district's facilities investments in recent years were a construction and renovation project at land-locked Morton Junior High School, adding gyms at three elementary schools, and improvements to the outdoor and indoor athletic facilities at Morton High School.

Proceeds from the sale of the land are expected to be used for additional facilities projects.

The land for sale is off the west side of South Fourth in the southern end of Morton, just a few blocks from the Morton School District offices at 1050 S. Fourth.

The property begins a half-mile south of Queenwood Road, continues south, and is bounded on the east by Fourth and the west by Prairie Creek.

The school district paid $35,192 per acre for the land in 2013. The sellers were three Yordy family members. Why the drop in price in 2023 to a minimum $22,000 per acre?

"The land wasn't sold as farmland in 2013. It was a site for a future school facility," Smock said. "We're selling it as farmland."

Smock said farmland near the district's land sold recently for $22,000 and $22,900 per acre. That's how the district came up with its minimum bid of $22,000 per acre.

The district's land has been used for farming on a cash rent basis since the district purchased it.
Current and former School Board members contacted about the purchase and sale of the land declined to talk about it. The board voted unanimously to purchase the land in 2013.

"I prefer not to comment at this time," said longtime board member Tom Neeley, one of the seven board members who voted for the land purchase.

The other six board members who approved the land purchase are no longer on the board.

Several board members did share their thoughts about the purchase in 2013. They spoke mainly about the price of the land, which they felt was fair, and the fact that there were no immediate plans for the land.

"I'll admit I had sticker shock when I first saw the price, but the value of the land has doubled since 2008," said Shaun Bill. "With that in mind, it's not a horrible price. We're not going to find anything cheaper."

John Applen said, "there's a perception that we're going to build something on the land soon. Nothing can be further from the truth. The land simply gives us options."

Tim Taylor said is could be two or 50 years before the land is used.

"The bottom line is -- we have it," he said.

Kelly Scarfe said the land purchase is the kind of forward-thinking decision she hoped she would be involved in when she ran for the board.

Craig Loudermilk, the village of Morton's public works director, said millions of dollars of infrastructure work needed to be done on the land and nearby roads before a school was built.

Among the necessary projects were widening South Fourth, a two-lane rural road, between Queenwood and Broadway Road; improving the South Fourth and Queenwood and South Fourth and Broadway intersections; and adding utilities to the site.

Then there was the question of who would pay for all the infrastructure work, estimated by Loudermilk to have at least a $10 million price tag.

"I made it clear to the former superintendent (Lindsey Hall) back then that the village didn't have the funds pay for it," he said. "It just wasn't feasible.

"We had only a few very minimal discussions then with the school district about the infrastructure work. We certainly didn't do the due diligence that would be needed before tackling those projects."

Steve Stein is an award-winning news and sports writer and editor. Most recently, he covered Tazewell County communities for the Peoria Journal Star for 18 years.